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.
The history of lemongrass is hard to come by (at least in English!), but reliable sources agree that the plant is native to Southeast Asia (probably 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 apparently introduced to Jamaica in 1799 and to both Haiti and the US in 1917.
Fun Facts about Lemongrass:
- 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, lemongrass 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
Not surprisingly, culinary lemongrass stalks with their leaves attached resemble grass, with long, thick, green leaves and yellow-white stems. The outer layers of the stalks are quite hard and tough. Lemongrass has a citrus flavor that is a bit more perfume-y than lemons, and without the acidity. It can be overpowering in dishes, so use 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 isn’t as flavorful. Commercial lemongrass tea is also readily available.
When shopping, look for lemongrass stalks that are fairly supple, ideally with a bit of the green leaves still attached in order to gauge freshness (the greener the better). Super dry stalks tend to mean the lemongrass is not very fresh; however, in a pinch they can be revived in water for a few minutes.
Sustainability of Lemongrass
Lemongrass tends to be grown on small farms with limited agricultural inputs used. It is a natural insect repellent, so generally the only pesticides used are herbicides, and usually in limited amounts. If you’re concerned about pesticide use, talk to your local farmer about his/her growing practices.
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.
Store fresh lemongrass in your fridge, loosely wrapped in just-damp paper towels, for a week to ten days.
Cooking with Lemongrass
- This super cute and informative Thai video shows how to prepare lemongrass in multiple ways, depending on the recipe you’re making.
- In general, only the inner core of the lemongrass 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, lemongrass is more commonly used as a medicinal tea. Lemongrass has an assertive flavor that stands its own with 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 perfume-y 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 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, lemongrass is famously paired with chicken in ga xao sa ot (lemongrass chicken with chiles), grilled shrimp and beef with noodles.
Lemongrass freezes beautifully. You can freeze whole stalks, trimmed of their leaves and root ends, by sticking on a cookie sheet and placing in the freezer until frozen solid, then transferring to freezer-proof zip-top bags. 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 has some serious clout in natural medicine – and increasingly in the biomedical world as well. Its extract or oil is effective as both an 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. And many of you probably have citronella candles or spray lying around your backyard to fight mosquitoes – the active ingredient in these products is also made from lemongrass.