Lemon Grass

Lemon Grass

(Cymbopogon citratus) A tall lemon-scented grass which multiplies into clumps as it grows. The leaves are narrow and sharp-edged, with a central rib. Easy to propagate in most warm climates with a little water and minimum care. It even grows in temperate zones, given enough sun.

One of the most popular herbs of South East Asia, mainly because lemons do not grow easily in the tropics. Used to flavor curries and soups, and a vital flavor in Thai curry pastes. If lemon grass is not available, it is quite acceptable to substitute 2 or 3 strips of thinly peeled lemon zest (no pith) for a stalk of lemon grass.

If using lemon grass, the outer tougher layers should be peeled away and only the pale lower portion of the stem is used. Since it is a very fibrous plant, slice it very thinly crossways so that there are no long fibers to spoil the finished dish.

Lemon grass purchased from markets is usually devoid of leaves. Make sure the stem is firm and smooth. Avoid those stems which look dry and wrinkled. If you grow lemon grass yourself or someone offers you some from their clump, take care when handling as the edges of the leaves are razor sharp and even brushing past can cause almost invisible lacerations to exposed areas of skin. With a sharp knife, cut a stem close to the ground and trim off the grassy top section. The bulbous lower stem, creamy white to pale green is the part to use.

The leaves may be used for infusions like tea, but are not used much in cooking. Sometimes the whole stem, bruised first so it imparts its fragrance readily, is simmered in a soup or sauce and discarded before serving. For this, leave it long enough to tie the bruised stem and leaves into a loose knot for ease of lifting from the finished dish.

Lemon grass is usually sold in bunches of 3 or 4 stems, held together with a rubber band. Usually the stems are about 40 cm in length of which only the lower half is used. They will keep for weeks in a plastic bag in the refrigerator and can be kept frozen for up to 6 months, well wrapped.

To simmer a dish, bruise the stem by pounding with a pestle or mallet. Tie it in a loose knot so it is not awkwardly long, and drop it into the dish to cook, removing it before serving. If it is to be pounded or ground in a curry paste, first remove the outer layer (or two if necessary) and slice off the hard root, then cut in very thin crossways slices before putting it into an electric blender.

If preparing lemon grass for a salad, peel off outer layers and use only tender, white portion, very finely sliced. The slicing is easily done in a food processor with fine slicing blade attached. This is a procedure recommended even when grinding lemon grass with other ingredients into a paste, because unless sliced crossways the fine, strong fibers will survive blending and make their undesirable presence felt in the finished dish.

In Chinese medicine a decoction made from the plant is used to treat coughs, colds and blood in the sputum. The roots induce sweating and act as a diuretic. In Asian countries, the leaves in water are used in a bath to reduce swelling, remove body odor, improve blood circulation and to treat cuts and wounds. In Western herbal medicine, a tea is made from the leaves is used for stomach ache, diarrhea, headaches, fevers and flu. The antiseptic oil is a treatment for athlete's foot and acne, and is sprayed to reduce airborne infections. In aromatherapy, the oil is said to improve circulation and muscle tone.

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