The lemon is thought to come from Assam in India, northern Burma, or possibly China. It was known to the ancient Romans, but was not widely used except as a moth repellent—although Roman doctors did recommend preserved lemon peel as a digestive. Lemons were introduced to Persia, Iraq, and Egypt around 700 CE, then brought to North Africa, Spain, and Sicily by the Arabs in the 10th century. In fact, Sicily became the world’s top producer of lemons for centuries. Lemon seeds were introduced to the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1493. At first they were used as an ornamental plant or for medicinal purposes. It was only in the mid 18th century that lemon juice was discovered to be a cure for scurvy. Soon after, lemons were widely grown in Florida and California.
Preserving or pickling lemons was historically the most practical way of keeping them, so they could be used out of season and far from where they were grown. One of the earliest recipes for preserved lemons was written in the 12th century by Ibn Jumay—a Jewish physician in the court of Saladin. In his book On Lemon, Its Drinking and Use, he recommends placing the lemons in a glass vessel with lemon juice and plenty of fine salt, sealing it with wax, leaving it to stand in the sun for two weeks, and then storing it away for at least 40 days.
Today, finding fresh lemons is easy—pretty much anywhere, anytime. So why would you ever use preserved lemons rather than fresh ones? Preserved lemons have a more intense taste, but without the sour tartness of fresh lemons. As Christine Sahadi writes in her book Flavors of the Sun, “preserved lemons have a depth of flavor that is salty and savory and complex; think of the difference between a cucumber and a pickle.” In addition to brightness, they add a funky earthiness that contributes a singular taste to a wide variety of recipes.
Preserved lemons are widely used today in Israel—and throughout North Africa and the Middle East. According to Paula Wolfert, in her book The Food of Morocco, “preserved lemons are the most important condiment in Moroccan cooking.” In fact, they’re the very cornerstone of Moroccan Jewish cooking. They are predominantly made in springtime with a variety of lemon called doqq—prized for their thin skins, golden yellow color, and fragrant aroma—or with boussera lemons, which are very juicy with a tart flavor. (If those are unavailable, you can use Meyer lemons, which have thin skins and very little bitterness; otherwise any other lemon can be used instead.) Moroccan Jews prepare a variety of Sabbath salads and vegetable tajines that are often flavored with preserved lemon, black or green olives, cumin, and paprika. Fish is often baked in chermoula—a tasty marinade made with chopped garlic, fresh coriander, parsley, sweet and hot peppers, onion, preserved lemon rind, olive oil, lemon juice, and a little water.
In Israel today, preserved lemons are newly trendy. Innovative chefs use them to flavor roast chicken, lentil or chickpea stews, potato salads, and salsas, or to give a new twist to traditional recipes like stewed okra, tabbouleh, or shakshuka. They also like to blitz preserved lemons in a blender or food processor with just enough olive oil to make a creamy paste that is delicious served alongside broiled fish or roast vegetables, added to dips like tahini or hummus, or simply spread over toast.
Preserved lemons appear in Cambodian cooking, too, notably the Cambodian ngam nguv (a chicken and preserved lemon soup). Cambodians also prescribe a preserved lemon drink for nausea or stomach upsets. Similarly, in ayurvedic medicine, lemon pickle, which has much in common with preserved lemons, is often recommended for stomach disorders and as a cure for coughs and sore throat.
Preserved lemons also give a wonderful lift to egg dishes and omelettes—especially those made with spinach or potatoes—and add a lovely pungency to salad dressings. They go very well with fava beans, chickpeas, or lentils. If you are feeling adventurous, you can add a little preserved lemon rind to spinach and feta triangles or Greek-style roast potato wedges; use them to add flavor to soft cheese like ricotta or labneh, or to give a tang to guacamole. The pickling liquid from preserved lemons can even be added to bloody marys to give them an extra zing.
If you want to buy ready-made preserved lemons, you can find them in most large supermarkets, or in Middle Eastern or South Asian stores. Try to select firm lemons that are not packed too tightly. Otherwise they are very easy to make at home—see the recipe below—but you need to allow three to four weeks for them to mature. Before using, wash off any excess salt, scoop out the pulp, then chop the rind finely. Many cooks suggest only using the rind, but the scooped-out pulp can be added to dips, soups, stews, sauces, and dressings. The juice of preserved lemons can also be used in cocktails, especially vodka martinis or margaritas. You can even make your own lemonade with preserved lemon juice, sugar, ice, and club soda.
Paola Gavin is a food writer and author of four vegetarian cookbooks including Hazana: Jewish Vegetarian Cooking.