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The zest of life: Why we use fresh limón in everything

The zest of life: Why we use fresh limón in everything

It adds a refreshing zing to our favorite dishes.

As a child, limónes were an ever-constant presence in the kitchen.

They were everywhere, from the fresh agua de limón my mom would make for me and my sister after a long day of playing in the park to the jímaca she would pack for our lunches.

And, of course, a bowl with freshly cut limones was always sitting on the table. 

But the use of fresh limónes extends far beyond my home.

Today, they are widely used in cooking across pretty much the whole of Latin America, whether enjoying having a zingy bowl of ceviche in Peru or chowing down on some serious street food, like esquites or elote preparados.

As well as food, they're also important for a number of drinks, too. For instance, while people might debate whether or not you include a raw egg in pisco sour, for example, what is certain is that it should always contain freshly squeezed límon.


Si la vida te da limones…

Limónes have numerous uses in Latino dishes.

You can add fresh juice to snacks, such as cucumber slices along with a dash of Tajín; drinks, from lemonade to micheladas; main dishes, like a plate of tacos de pastor or a bowl of sopa de lima; and desserts like a simple but delicious Carlota de limón that’s reminiscent of key lime pie.

But how did limón become so essential to our cuisine? The main reason could be how easy it is to grow the fruit in many of our countries.

For example, when I was younger, our neighbors had a big tree with long, thin branches that would peek into our yard. Whenever we ran out of limónes, we would run for a long stick and use it to move the branches until some fell to our feet.

Another reason may be the flavor it adds to a dish. So many Latinos use citrus in the same way that vinegar is used in many Asian cuisines. Acidic ingredients add bright, fresh notes to our food while also enhancing the other components of the dish.

After all, making any great dish is all about finding the perfect balance between the sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami notes.

Acid can also be used in many dishes to tenderize protein. Like ceviche – this traditional dish consists of a fish filet "cooked" only with límon juice and served with onions, tomato, and fresh cilantro.

In addition to this, no one can deny that lime juice goes perfectly with two other key components of our cuisine: chile and spice. A little spicy, a little acidic – is there anything better? 

So, if you ever find yourself with a home-cooked meal that is lacking something, just squeeze in some fresh limón juice. This simple trick works wonders in pretty much any dish.


Limes, lemons, limas, and limónes: what’s the difference?

 In most Spanish-speaking countries, lemons are "limónes" and limes are "limas". Sounds pretty straightforward, right? In reality, it's not that simple.

In Mexico, for example, limón (a word typically used as a direct translation for 'lemons') are the small, green fruits the English-speaking world calls limes. And limas are those big, yellow fruits known in the US as lemons.

Remezcla recounts a funny story about how their team – which consists of Mexican, Salvadorans, and Nicaraguans, among others – all had different opinions about not only how to say each one in Spanish, but what they actually were.

They found that the confusion stems from the fact that neither limes nor lemons are native to Latin America (despite the fact that countries in Latin America are now some of the world's biggest lime producers).

It's believed that because the different varieties weren't simultaneously available in the same countries, it wasn't necessary to develop different names to distinguish among them.

As for why we use fresh fruit instead of store-bought juice, there are two main reasons.

First: store-bought juice doesn't taste as good as the real thing. It lacks the fresh punch you get from a fruit that has just been lovingly sliced, often contains less vitamin C, and, in a plastic bottle, means unnecessary waste. Many manufacturers also add sulfur dioxide to prolong shelf life.

Second, you can find fresh limones everywhere in Latin America, from big-chain grocery stores to family-run tienditas. So why would you settle for something in a bottle?

My advice is just buy a bag of limones, and squeeze the juice every morning. Because, as they say, Si la vida te da limones… make limonada!

Astrid Longi

Astrid is a freelance writer based in Mexico. She has written for a number of high-profile publications, including El Heraldo de México, and began writing for Orgullo Latino in 2022. Her areas of expertise include Latino food and culture.

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