I'm not shy about my love of souring agents: spices that give an acidic kick to brighten a recipe while also considerable complexity. They're playful alternatives to the old standbys of citrus and vinegar, often exotic and usually unexpected. A star of the crop? Limu omani, dried Middle Eastern limes.
They're smaller than your average lime—more like a key lime—with pebbly skins and a musk that's at once sweet, sour, and richly fermented. I love a spice that balances out its own flavors, something at which these little orbs excel. They taste like limes, but also like much more: a note of asafoetida and all the richness and complexity of a stellar vinegar. But while a really good vinegar could set you back $20 to $40, a season's supply of limu omani will cost you a few dollars.
How to Use Limu Omani
Hailing from the Middle East, they're put to work in many a stew, soup, and braise from the region, especially tagines. Simply pricked a few times and dropped into your cooking liquid of choice they drink up broths and release a subtle acidity that, unlike acids themselves, remains bright even after hours of stewing. As water passes through their glossy black internal chambers, they soften up and give up all the flavor of their sun-dried zest and flesh. When it's time to serve, they can be squeezed of their final juices and neatly discarded. Though their flavor is distinct, it doesn't overwhelm, so experiment with abandon.
Limu omani are the perfect balance to all kinds of proteins. Their acidity cuts the fat in red meats; their sweetness enlivens poultry; their sultry funk adds nuance to fish. As for legumes, well, they haven't had an ally like this since onions and garlic came on the scene. Adding intrigue to your next rustic pot of beans was never any easier.
The limes are also available powdered, worth seeking out as they're difficult to grind fine. Use the powder as part of a spice rub or in a purée. Anywhere lime zest and coriander would tread, try this stuff instead. It carries those flavors while adding its own subtle funk especially delightful on a dry-aged steak. The flavor of powdered limu omani dissipates quickly, so purchase small and use quickly.
Limu omani aren't the most attractive of ingredients. Okay, so they look like the egg pods from Aliens. But as the weather turns cool and citrus juice becomes a welcome note of freshness on the squash-, stew-, and gratin-heavy table, this spice is limited only by the broths you can soak it in.
Where to Find Limu Omani
Dried limes are often in Middle Eastern groceries, especially those with a strong Iranian presence. They're also used in some North Indian cooking, so Indian spice shops are worth a look. You can pick them up online at eFoodDepot at $2.70 for five ounces. The shipping is high, but five ounces of these ultra-light spheres will last you for years.