What is lemongrass?
Lemongrass – also known as barbed wire grass, silky heads, Cochin grass, Malabar grass, oily heads or fever grass – is an edible, fragrant grass plant, prized for its distinctive taste and smell, both of which are often compared to lemon. It is used as an aromatic herb in various dishes, and is most commonly associated with Thai cuisine.
Although native to India, lemongrass is grown throughout Asia, as well as in Africa, Australia and the Caribbean. It is a woody, blue-green grass, with sharp-bladed leaves, that grows in clumps to a height of between three to six feet tall. There are at least 55 different species of lemongrass, which have been used for a variety of purposes, including cooking, by different cultures around the world.
In India, lemongrass is used as a medicinal herb, and in perfumes, while in Brazil, it is traditionally consumed as a tea to help relieve anxiety. Drawing on these medicinal traditions, lemongrass has become a popular essential oil, and is still used in folk medicine to treat a range of ailments, including anxiety, headaches, nausea, and diarrhoea. It is also used as pain relief, and to help lower blood sugar and cholesterol. Although there has been some research into these health claims by modern science, there is so far no conclusive evidence to back them up.
What are the properties of lemongrass?
What we do know, however, is that lemongrass oil has antibacterial properties, and can be used to help prevent certain infections and diseases. It is also an antifungal, and can be used to prevent fungal infections like athlete’s foot and ringworm. As well as these infection-fighting qualities, lemongrass oil is an anti-inflammatory, and contains antioxidants. And of course, it smells pretty good too. Try mixing with a few drops of carrier oil and using it as a massage oil, or adding to a warm bath.
The lemongrass species cymbopogon nardus, commonly known as citronella, is used to scent soaps and other toiletries, and also as an insect repellent, with many people lighting citronella candles in their gardens to keep the mosquitos at bay. This useful plant is also popular with beekeepers, who use it to mimic honey bee pheromones in order to attract the bees to a hive or swarm.
There are two species of lemongrass commonly used in cooking – cymbopogon citratus, or West Indian lemongrass, and cymbopogon flexuosus, or East Indian lemongrass. The West Indian variety, which is a slightly thicker plant than its cousin, is the more popular of the two.
If you’re looking to use lemongrass in your own cooking, it should be available from most Asian markets and grocery stores, either in the fresh produce aisle, or in the freezer section. As the majority of its flavour is concentrated in the stem, lemongrass is usually sold with the majority of the leaves removed, so what remains resembles a scallion, or spring onion.
Look for stalks that are firm and fresh-looking, with a fat bulb at the bottom and a fragrant smell. They should be a light yellow-green at the base of the stem, becoming gradually greener towards the leaf end. Avoid anything that looks brown or desiccated, as these are likely to be past their best.
How to use lemongrass in cooking
Lemongrass is used to add a bright, aromatic flavour to a variety of dishes, from soups and stews to fragrant Thai curry pastes and even cocktails. It doesn’t lose its flavour when cooked for long periods of time, making it a great choice for slow-cooked stews and curries.
What does lemongrass taste like?
Contrary to popular belief, lemongrass does not taste exactly like lemon, so if you substitute one for the other, you may not get quite the result you were looking for. There are definite similarities, but lemongrass has a lighter, more herbal flavour, like a cross between lemon and lemon mint.
How do you eat lemongrass?
Lemongrass can actually be eaten raw, and is a popular ingredient in Thai salads like Yum Takrai, a spicy seafood salad with lemongrass and ginger. Raw lemongrass can be tough if not prepared properly, however, so always remove the outer woody stem, and slice as thinly as possible.
There are two ways to use lemongrass in cooking. You can either cook it in with the rest of your ingredients, or steep it in liquids. For both these methods, you should use the bottom of the stem only – around 7- 8cm where the plant feels most tender – as this contains the majority of the flavour. Cut away any leaves, along with the upper section of the stem, and the bulb at the bottom.
For regular cooking, you should also peel away the tough outer layers of the lower stem, so you are left only with the tender inner section. Dice as finely as possible, or grind into a powder using a pestle and mortar, before adding to your cooking. This method works well for flavouring curries, stews, spice rubs and marinades. Remember that lemongrass releases more flavour the longer you cook it, so if you want a stronger flavour, add it at the beginning with the rest of the aromatics. If you’re looking for something a little more subtle, however, you should add it later on in the cooking process.
If you’re using lemongrass as an infusion, you still need to use the lower section of the stem, but because you won’t actually be eating the lemongrass, there is no need to remove the tough outer layers, which still contain a lot of flavour. In fact, you can save on waste by keeping hold of the outer layers removed during regular cooking to use in infusions.
To infuse lemongrass into soups, herbal teas, or even your favourite alcoholic drink, crush the tender part of the stem with the side of a knife, like you would a garlic bulb, then cut into 3-5cm pieces. For hot infusions, like soup or tea, steep for five to ten minutes and then remove, and to infuse a bottle of vodka or gin, leave for four to five days. As with cooking, the longer you leave it in, the stronger the taste.
Other exotic flavours
If you like experimenting with ingredients from other cultures, there’s a whole world of flavour still to discover. If you’re on the lookout for your new favourite food, take a look at these seven global ingredients to try for your next meal, where you’ll find new and exciting foods from cassava root to daikon radish.
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Source: Fine dining lovers
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