Southeast Asia’s Not-So-Secret Ingredient
Citronella’s Cousin

“Lemongrass is one of the defining flavors of Vietnamese cooking.” — Charles Phan

Lemongrass has been called the not-so-secret ingredient of Vietnamese cuisine. But not just Vietnamese Thai, Cambodian, and other Asian cooks also use it to good effect.

Cooking with lemongrass


What It Is: Lemongrass is the common name for a family of more than 50 species of a plant type native to India and tropical Asia.  The scientific name for the genus which includes Lemongrass is Cymbopogon. [1]

Lemongrass is a perennial grass, so once settled in, it will come up year after year.  Once Lemongrass takes root in your garden, some say the only way to get rid of it is to move.

Citronella’s Relative: Lemongrass is a close relative of the Citronella plant, which is used mainly as an insect repellent, but also has some culinary uses of its own.

And Lemongrass itself repels most insects, although it is also used to attract honey bees.

Smell and Taste: Lemongrass smells a bit like citrus tinged with ginger. Lemongrass enhances the flavors of foods it is cooked with. It goes well with foods like chicken, shellfish and firm-fleshed fish like tuna.

Lemongrass in the Kitchen: Lemongrass is used to improve soups, stews, stir-fried dishes or marinades. You often find lemongrass in soups and curries.  It’s also used to make tea in some countries.

Chef Su-Mei Yu has given a recipe for making Lemongrass tea; it’s available on YouTube. [2]

Recipes: There are a lot of recipes for dishes including Lemongrass, especially in Thai, Vietnamese and Cambodian cuisines.  Some classic recipes are:

Working with Lemongrass: The inner white base is where the flavor is.  Outer leaves and spiky green tops need to be trimmed off.

To prepare Lemongrass for use in curry pastes and stews, slice the white bottom stalk finely, then chop these slices finely.

To use whole Lemongrass in broths and drinks, crush it slightly to release the flavor.  This is known as bruising the Lemongrass.  Simply whack it a couple times with a rolling pin or the side of a heavy Chinese-style cleaver.

The bulb of Lemongrass has the most flavor, but even the upper stalk is aromatic enough to make a powerful oil or to lend a lemony perfume to a custard or sweet soufflé.

Since this part of the stalk is too tough to eat, you need to mince it finely, add it to the oil or milk, then boil it and finally let is soak in the liquid anywhere from three to six hours, depending on how fresh the Lemongrass is.

Caution in the Kitchen: Lemongrass is very fibrous and the texture of chopped Lemongrass is irritating in food to many people unless it’s very finely chopped and cooked a long time.  One way to deal with this is to chop it so finely that it looks “like granulated sugar,” as Charles Phan says.

Food Process or Not? Many cooks like a food processor to do this.  Phan insists that hand chopping produces a more pleasant texture and argues against using a food processor.  So it’s your choice and decision.

You Can Grow Your Own: Sometimes the stock available in Asian markets is not as fresh as you would like.  You can grown your own Lemongrass, as it grows easily, either from seed or by planting some stalks in water and waiting until they grow roots.

The new Lemongrass plants can be grown outdoors in garden pots or kept inside for year-round supply of truly fresh Lemongrass.  Lemongrass needs a lot of water and each plant can grow from 3 to 6 feet, smaller if in a container indoors. [3]

Where to Get It: Widely available in Asian markets and is usually sold by the bunch.  Also available fresh from online sources like melisssa.com or adrianscaravan.com.

Or you can buy the seeds at ufseeds.com and try growing it from seed.

Shopping for Lemongrass: When you buy Lemongrass, look for stalks that bend easily and are not dried out.  Light color is best, and indicates it is not too old.

Nutrition and Health Aspects: Numerous health benefits have been claimed for Lemongrass, both as a cooking herb and a tea.  There is a lot of supporting research and documentation for more than a dozen health benefits including:

  • helping control hypertension
  • reducing inflammation
  • strengthening the immune system

Lemongrass is also said to help in fighting fungal infections and controlling fever.

The list of benefits is extensive, including claims that Lemongrass can help prevent cancer.

There is some objective scientific evidenced that a compound included in Lemongrass, citral, can attack cancer cells and help destroy them.  Research in Israel confirms that Lemongrass can attack cancerous cells while leaving normal cells unharmed.

However, there is other research indicating that the citral can have opposite effects.  Due to the estrogen action of citral, it might also induce enlargement of the prostate.

The research on this topic is sketchy and not too recent; more work is needed on possible benefits and risks. [4]

In conclusion,

Lemongrass is the not-so-secret ingredient of several Southeast Asian cuisines, is very versatile with many uses in curries, soups, stews, baked goods and even as a tea.  There may be some cancer-preventing properties, but there may be some area for concern in cases of heavy use.  As with many things, moderation is the key.

For Further Information:

[1] “Cymbopogon,” article, Wikipedia — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cymbopogon
[2] Su-Mei Yu, How to Make Lemongrass Tea —  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDHpnWR4xu8
[3] Lemongrass Recipes — http://allrecipes.com/recipes/herbs-and-spices/herbs/lemon-grass/
[4] Growing Lemongrass —  http://www.gardeningblog.net/how-to-grow/lemongrass/
[5] Health Benefits, Potential Risks —  http://planetwell.com/lemongrass-health-benefits-and-healing-properties/


7 thoughts on “Lemongrass

  1. Lemon oil may be used in aromatherapy. Researchers at The Ohio State University found that lemon oil aroma does not influence the human immune system, but may enhance mood.

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