How to use the dried limes that weave a strong, sour theme through Emirati, Omani, Iraqi and Iranian cuisines
These dried limes – aka loomi – might look past their prime but their tangy flavour, says our columnist Arva Ahmed, will perk up any dish.
On a recent food excursion with tourists in Dubai, I unveiled one of my prized ingredients from the souk. One of them instantly retorted ‘this is what limes abandoned in the back of my fridge look like!’ The ‘loomi’ in my pantry have seen prettier days as zesty green limes – well-toned and taut, firm and juicy. But once the limes are dried, by leaving them on the trees or boiling them in salt water and sun-drying them, they become hollow ghosts of their former selves. Wrinkled, parched and drained of their vivid hue, they muddy the souk palette of rose petals, turmeric and lavender.
But lacklustre looks aside, as a UAE resident, you should invest in a stack of these limes if you enjoy cooking. Even if you don’t cook, stash them in your medicine cabinet and retrieve them for a salt and dried lime gargle on a raspy day.
Loomi are no substitute for fresh limes, nor should they be confused with Moroccan salt-preserved lemons. On the scale of sourness, a fresh lime is the lively graduate of the orchard, naïve about the heat of life and best spritzed when a dish is off the flame. A Moroccan lemon is the mature mother of sourness. She has weathered days of harsh saltiness and can gracefully stand her ground through a slow braise. Loomi is the wise old lady, wrinkled and fermented with age; she now meets the heat hand-in-hand with meats and pulses in stews, braises, grills and layered rice dishes. Give her time and she will deepen your dishes with flavour. Treat her carelessly and she will make them bitter.
Made from the original species of Malaysian lime, Citrus aurantifolia, the dried fruits are used liberally by countries hemming the Arabian Gulf. The colour difference between the sandy brown ones and greasy black ones is simply a factor of drying time – the longer you dry them, the darker they turn. Loomi is often mislabelled as ‘Persian lime’, a seedless varietal that originated in the East and travelled westward through a number of regions, including Persia, until it reached its final home in California.
The ingredient is mostly absent across my Levantine and North African cookbooks, but it weaves a strong sour theme through my Emirati, Omani, Iraqi and Iranian collection. The recipes reference them by any of three names: loomi, ‘limoo
Loomi reins in the RICHNESS of Iranian gormeh sabzi, a savoury swamp of GREENS with lamb and kidney beans; Special Ustad Kabab using loomi to marinate their GOAT and chicken kababs
omani’ (Omani limes) or ‘noomi basra’ by the Iraqis who receive their sour imports through the port town of Basra.
It is most often used whole, punctured or cracked, and ideally with the bitter seeds removed. Bait Al Qadeem and Al Tawasol in Deira toss them into a pot of machboos along with basmati rice, the fragrant bezar spice mix and chicken, meat or seafood. Wise diners will know to squeeze the post-cooked, softened loomi over their rice so that every grain is drenched with a pickled musky tang.
The cooks at Abshar in Jumeirah use loomi to rein in the richness of their Iranian gormeh sabzi, a rib-sticking savoury swamp of greens like spinach and fenugreek with chunks of lamb and kidney beans. Samad Iraqi prepares the ancient dish of the Islamic world, tshreeb, with patches of tender bread drenched in a meat stew infused with loomi. They also boast an Iraqi fish metabak special on Fridays that describes a lip-puckering sauce of pomegranate syrup and dried lime.
Loomi powder or ground loomi is another way of using the ingredient in your kitchen, though it is best to grind de-seeded ones at home rather than buying store-bought versions that may include the bitter seeds. I suspect that Bur Dubai’s kabab sweetheart, Special Ustad Kabab restaurant, is using powdered loomi to marinate their preserved lime goat and chicken kababs.
There is no dearth of inspiration around us. It is worth feasting on a few loomi-infused dishes at our local restaurants before brainstorming – ideally with a digestive cup of loomi tea by your side – about how you can use them in your existing recipes. Use whole or punctured and de-seeded loomi as the tart addition to a dish that requires slow-cooking in liquid – braised goat, chicken pilaf, fish stew or creamy lentil soup. Use the powdered version for sautéed or grilled dishes; loomi lamb chops might debut at my next dinner party. And don’t stop at steeping loomi for tea; recipes for loomi cocktails have trickled into search results as far back as 2010. Arva Ahmed offers guided tours revealing Dubai’s culinary hideouts (fryingpanadventures.com).
The loomi’s dried-up, hollow looks belie a tangy, musky flavour that adds life to slow--simmered stews or marinades for smoky grills