Getting to Know Lemongrass is part of a monthly series here on FBC called The Spice Box. Primarily written by Michelle Peters-Jones, these articles create a spice primer for new and experienced home cooks alike!
Scientific Name: Cymbopogon
Lemongrass — isn’t the name of this herb just so evocative? To me, it's the perfect name for this tall grass that's a staple in Asian culinary and medicinal cultures. Originally native to Indonesia, this herb is cultivated throughout Southeast Asia and the tropics.
Lemongrass is easily identifiable by its tall, tough stalks with their aromatic citrus scent. It's a perennial grass that can be easily cultivated from cuttings or stalks. It needs sunlight, and you'll have to overwinter it indoors. The best way to start lemongrass is by placing a few stalks in a bowl of water on a sunny windowsill (and yes, you can use grocery bought fresh young lemongrass stalks to start them). When little roots start to appear, you can either transplant to a large pot indoors, or move it directly into the garden. It needs moist soil and frequent fertilization to grow. As lemongrass is naturally insect repellant, you don’t have to worry too mush about pests. The stalks grow quite tall, so keep them trimmed, if you prefer. Slice off the plant close to its root to harvest.
How to Use Lemongrass
If you buy your lemongrass in the grocery stores, the stalks last a while in your fridge. Make sure that the stalks you buy are a pale green without bruising, look fresh and feel heavy. If the stalks are too light, it means that they've probably dried out. I like to wrap the stalks in damp paper towel and store them in the vegetable drawer.
To use lemongrass, strip away the tough outer leaves until you get to the tender centres. Reserve the leaves to make Asian-style stock. My trick is to cut into the lemongrass stalks until my knife stops ‘squeaking,’ which means I've reached the centres. These tender stalks are then used for cooking, while the outer leaves add flavour to your dish, but need to be removed before serving.
If you have a lot of lemongrass, you can finely chop the centres and freeze them in small plastic bags. You can also puree them before freezing, to make life easier. The outer leaves can be dried and powdered for use in your dishes.
Lemongrass is one of the staple herbs in Southeast Asian cuisine, as well as in East Indian traditional herbal medicine. It's best known for its use in curries, soups, stews and steeped into tea. Lemongrass is traditionally used in two ways: blended into curry pastes, marinades and salads, and to infuse flavour into tea, soups, broths and stocks.
For blending and to use it fresh in salads and stir-fries, you'll need to use the soft centres, and chop them finely before using. To infuse lemongrass flavour, you can use the trimmed outer leaves by crushing them with the flat of a chef’s knife or in a mortar and pestle, until you can smell the aromatic oils. Add to your braises, soups, stocks or tea. I like to remove the leaves before serving, but you can always leave them in, if you wish. Just warn your people not to eat or chew on them. The flavour of lemongrass intensifies the longer it's cooked, so use it later in the infusing process particularly as to not overwhelm other flavours.
Non-Culinary Uses of Lemongrass
Lemongrass is used widely as a medicinal ingredient, probably even more so than a culinary one. It's a staple in the traditional Indian medicine, Ayurveda, and it's used in a medicinal tea to help with everything from tummy upsets to anxiety. Lemongrass oil is naturally antifungal and an insect repellent, so it's used as a natural pesticide, and one of the most common uses of it is in citronella candles that are used as a mosquito and bug repellant. The oil is also featured heavily in the perfume industry and in the production of household cleaners and soaps
And finally, did you know that cats love lemongrass? They'll chew on the stalks if you grow them indoors; however, lemongrass oils can sometimes be toxic to cats, so keep them away from the grass. Lemongrass has also been called ‘fever grass’ as it's used as an anti-malarial treatment in parts of Africa.
- 2 stalks lemongrass
- 1 inch piece of ginger, grated
- 1 to 2 tablespoons of honey or more to taste
- 2 cups boiling water
- Trim the tops of the lemongrass stalks. Cut into 1 inch pieces and bash with a knife or in a mortar and pestle, until you can smell the oils.
- Place the lemongrass, grated ginger and honey in a teapot. Pour over the boiling water and let it infuse for about 10 minutes.
- Strain, reheat if required, and serve with extra honey to taste.
Looking for more spices and herbs to jazz up your kitchen creations? Check out these Spice Box profiles:
- Getting to Know Allspice
- Getting to Know Star Anise
- Getting to Know Bay Leaves
- Getting to Know Fenugreek
What have you made recently with lemongrass? Share your tips in the comments and leave a link to a recipe so everyone can check it out!
Have a spice you'd like to see profiled? Let us know in the comments!