Lemon grass is from the sedge family and is grown commercially throughout Asia and here in the US (Florida mostly). It has long narrow spear like leaves, and both the leaves and stems are very fibrous. The lower part of the plant is very light in colour similar to a green onion. It is available cut in produce markets, or powdered and dried in some Asian markets. Lemon grass is one of the most distinct flavours in Thai and Vietnamese cooking, and adds a lemony flavour to curries and stir-fries, as well as the classic Thai soup, Tom Ka Gai. To use lemon grass, peel away the dried up outer layers to reveal the inner green part. Cut across the grain of the leaves into very thin slices for a stir fry, or for some soups, simply pound with a mallet to soften and release the flavour, and add the entire piece to the pot. It's also crucial to this recipe for peanut sauce beef!
Origin - The genus has several species native to South Asia, Southeast Asia and Australia; C. flexuosus (Sri Lanka, India) and C. citratus (Malaysia, Indonesia) are widely cultivated. Interestingly, lemon grass is not used for cooking (but cultivated for use in perfumes) in South Asia.
The fresh taste of lemon grass is typical for Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. The spice is most popular in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and on the Indonesian islands. In Thailand, finely ground fresh lemon grass is added to curry pastes (see coconut). Its fine fragrance goes well with poultry, fish and sea food.
Vietnamese cookery, being much less spiced, makes use of lemon grass in several ways. A popular Vietnamese meal is bo nhung dam, often translated "vinegar beef" or "Vietnamese fondue". At the table, each diner boils thin slices of beef in a vinegared broth which contains ample lemon grass. The beef is then, together with fresh vegetables and herbs (coriander, mint and water pepper), wrapped in rice paper and eaten with spicy sauces. This recipe demonstrates the Vietnamese faible for food prepared together at the table, for wrapped bits of food and for fresh herbs.
In Indonesia, the term bumbu (spelled boemboe in Dutch) refers to mixtures of ground fresh spices, whose composition is unique for every single dish. In Bali, they are called jangkap (see Indonesian bay-leaf for details). Bumbu is made by grinding spices together in a mortar: Onions provide the background, and garlic, chiles and nuts are rarely missing. Further common ingredients are greater and lesser galangale, turmeric, ginger, kaffir lime leaves, Indonesian bay-leaves and lemon grass. Dried spices are of minor importance, although coriander and black pepper are frequently mentioned. On Java and Bali, toasted or fried trassi (shrimp paste) is never omitted. Bumbu is used either raw or having been stir-fried for a few minutes.
Often, vegetables are simply cooked in a little water, stock or coconut milk together with bumbu; meat, on the other hand, is more frequently rubbed with bumbu and fried or broiled (e.g., sate, the famous skewers; see lesser galangale for another example). Gravies can be intensified by adding one or two tablespoons of bumbu before serving. Lastly, fried bumbu can be used as a condiment.
Further informations on the cuisines of Indonesia can be found at Indonesian bay-leaf and lesser galangale (Bali), greater galangale (Sumatra), coconut (Sulawesi), tamarind (Java) and mango about the pan-Indonesian fruit salad rujak.
The pleasant aroma of lemon grass is never dominating; it can be substituted by lemon balm (though it is, of course, not the same), but not by lime fruits, kaffir lime leaves or lemon myrtle, which are much more dominant.
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