Real Food Encyclopedia | Lemongrass
If you’ve ever cooked with fresh lemongrass, you’ve probably realized flavor of the herb is incomparable; it has an assertive, lemony flavor that brings so much life to the Thai and Southeast Asian cuisines it is often used in.
Like many domesticated plants, the exact origins of lemongrass are hard to pin down, but the plant is most likely native to Malaysia and Southern India. According to the Sri Lankan Department of Export Agriculture, the first written text referring to lemongrass oil comes from the Philippines in the 17th Century. The plant was introduced to Jamaica in 1799 and to both Haiti and the US in 1917.
- Lemongrass oil is an effective mosquito, housefly and stable fly repellent.
- Citral, a chemical derived from lemongrass, is used in perfumery (it smells lemony, of course) and in the synthesis of Vitamin A.
- In Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean, it is called “fever grass.” It’s made into a tea that is said to combat fever and other cold/flu symptoms.
- A Malaysian adage says that one can find treasure beneath a lemongrass plant if one can find a lemongrass blossom. (Caveat: they rarely bloom!)
What to Look for When Buying Lemongrass
Culinary lemongrass stalks resemble grass, with long, thick, green leaves and yellow-white stems. The outer leaves can be quite hard and tough. As the name suggests, lemongrass has a citrus flavor that’s similar to lemons, but with a more floral perfume and without the acidity. It can be overpowering in dishes, so use it judiciously. Fresh lemongrass is available at most large supermarkets now; otherwise, try your local Asian market to get your hands on the herb. Dried lemongrass is common, although it isn’t as flavorful. Lemongrass tea is also readily available.
When shopping, look for stalks that are fairly supple, ideally with green leaves still attached in order to gauge freshness (the greener the better). Avoid stalks that feel withered or dry, since they are not as fresh; however, stalks that feel a little limp can be revived by soaking them in ice water for a few minutes before use.
Sustainability of Lemongrass
Lemongrass tends to be grown on small farms with limited chemical inputs. It is a natural insect repellent, so pesticide use is uncommon. Conventional growers do use some nitrogen fertilizer, though organic lemongrass is available from some online and local vendors. Most of the fresh lemongrass in the US is grown in California or imported from tropical countries like India and Guatemala, but it’s also grown in colder areas during the summer and early fall, so keep an eye out for it at your local farmer’s market.
Locally grown lemongrass is generally harvested in the fall, prior to the first frost. If you’re lucky enough to live in a tropical climate, you should be able to find local lemongrass year-round.
- This video shows how to prepare the herb in multiple ways, depending on the recipe you’re making.
- In general, only the inner core of the stalk is used in cooking. The root and leaf ends of the stalk are trimmed off, and the tough outer layers peeled away, revealing a tender core. This is then chopped, puréed or added whole to dishes.
Lemongrass is most closely associated with Southeast Asian cooking — especially Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese, Lao, Malaysian and Indonesian cuisines. In other countries, including parts of Africa, Central and South America and the Caribbean, it is more commonly used as a medicinal tea. It has an assertive flavor that holds its own against the other strong flavors common in Southeast Asian cuisine, like fish sauce, ginger and galangal, chiles and coconut milk. It is one of the key ingredients in several Thai curry pastes, including red and green curry. (Try making fresh Thai curry pastes from scratch at least once. The jarred/canned stuff is perfectly fine, but fresh-made Thai curry pastes have a depth of flavor that can’t be beat.) Southeast Asian cuisine frequently pairs lemongrass with shellfish (like crab, clams and mussels) and fish.
The herb’s perfumed lemon-lime flavor meshes well with rice dishes, fish and shellfish, poultry (especially chicken), pork, beef and tofu. Whole, trimmed stalks can be tossed in soups, curries and rice dishes before cooking to perfume the entire dish. Lemongrass is also commonly blended with chiles and other seasonings (like fish sauce and ginger) to create a paste for marinating meats or as a flavor base for stir-fries. Most famously it is used in satay, a dish of skewered meat with origins in Indonesia, but whose reach has spread all over Southeast Asia. The herb is also commonly used as a base for marinating meats for grilling – in Vietnamese cuisine, it is famously paired with chicken in ga xao sa ot (lemongrass chicken with chiles), grilled shrimp and beef with noodles.
Store fresh lemongrass in your fridge, loosely wrapped in just-damp paper towels, for a week to ten days.
For longer-term storage, the herb freezes beautifully. Freeze whole stalks, trimmed of their leaves and root ends, on a cookie sheet, being careful to leave space so they don’t freeze together, then transfer to a freezer-proof container. Freeze sliced lemongrass the same way.
You can also make and freeze lemongrass paste by puréeing trimmed, sliced lemongrass in a blender with just a bit of water, pouring into ice cube trays and freezing until solid. Transfer your lemongrass cubes to a freezer-proof zip-top bag for long-term storage. You can also dry lemongrass to use in teas or in soups.
As with most herbs, you’re not very likely to ingest more than a couple of tablespoons of lemongrass in one sitting, so in general its nutritional value is minimal. But to satisfy your intellectual curiosity: the herb is high in manganese, folate, potassium, iron and zinc, and even has some calcium.
Lemongrass is widely used in natural medicine – and is being studied for many potential medical and pharmaceutical applications. Its extract or oil is both antibacterial and anti-inflammatory and is used to fight diarrhea. It is also used to combat malaria and has been shown to help lower cholesterol levels. It can also be used as a larvicide against pests. You may also have citronella candles or spray lying around your backyard to fight mosquitoes – the active ingredient in these products is also made from lemongrass.