Lemongrass, a plant native to India and Southeast Asia, looks like stiff grass stalks (it really is a grass!), but it smells and tastes a bit like lemon or lime. The stalks, which can reach five feet in height, also grow in Australia, Africa, and the United States. The oil from lemongrass is used to scent soaps and bath products, as a potent antiseptic, and, when diluted and applied to the skin, to reduce acne. Lemongrass contains citral, which studies have shown induce cancer cells to self-destruct.
Lemongrass also contains vitamins A, B, and C, plus calcium, magnesium, and phosphorous. According to studies, it is a great antioxidant (one of our FoodTrient properties) with anti-fungal and antibacterial properties. Lemongrass has a long history in herbal medicine as a strong anti-inflammatory (another FoodTrient property). It is used in Ayurvedic medicine to detoxify, calm stomachs, reduce cholesterol, and lower blood pressure. You can find fresh lemongrass (a.k.a. lemon grass) at melissas.com and Indian and Asian markets. I’ve even seen frozen, chopped lemongrass in grocery stores. I’ve also discovered lemongrass puree in a tube made by Gourmet Garden.
I love to cook with lemongrass. It adds a wonderful perfume and zingy flavor to both savory and sweet dishes. It pairs particularly well with coconut milk, ginger, red chiles, chicken, and seafood. Use the white, more tender section of the stalk in recipes where it remains in the final dish. If you’re just steeping the stalk, as in my tea recipe below, you can use all of it, including the tougher green part.
In Thailand, lemongrass is added to seafood soups. It’s the star of Tom Yum Soup, a classic Thai dish made with chicken stock, garlic, Thai chili paste, fish sauce, shrimp, cilantro, palm sugar, and kaffir lime leaves. There are plenty of variations of this soup. For example, you can add coconut milk to the broth, noodles, or veggies like scallions, radishes, straw mushrooms, or even tomatoes.
Lemongrass is also popular in Vietnamese cuisine. In one classic recipe, thin beef slices are marinated (for 2 hours in the refrigerator) in a mixture of minced lemongrass, minced garlic, fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar, and vegetable oil and then cooked over tabletop charcoal grills.
I like to add a few tablespoons of minced lemongrass and a pinch of salt to the cooking water when I boil rice. For a fragrant, coconut-lemongrass rice, I substitute half of the water for light coconut milk. Is there any substitute for lemongrass? Lime zest and juice can impart a similar flavor in cooked foods, but you won’t get the same health benefits.
Lemongrass tea is another classic Southeast Asian staple. In my recipe, I pair lemongrass with natural, unprocessed honey because it, too, has antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties. Honey’s fructose content gives it fewer calories than cane or beet sugar, and the body tolerates it better. Honey also contains antioxidants and has been shown to be a natural cough remedy. The combination of honey and lemongrass makes a very tasty drink that not only helps you relax, it also helps heal whatever ails you.
Healing Honey-Lemongrass Tea
1 stalk fresh lemongrass, chopped
1 cup hot water
2–4 Tbsp. honey
1. Soften lemongrass by simmering in 2 cups of water for about 20 minutes.
2. Remove from heat and pour into a French-press coffee pot. Depress plunger.
3. Decant into teacups and add honey to taste.
Yield: 2 drinks