One hot, steamy afternoon in Singapore, I dropped into Bumbu, a Thai-Indonesian restaurant in an old district near the famous Sultan Mosque. I hardly noticed the charming colonial ambience of the small, dark room, nor the alluring dishes on the menu. All I could think about was quenching my thirst. A drink made with lemon grass caught my eye -- it sounded tropical and cooling. I quickly revived as I drank this clear, sweet beverage, its gentle herbal flavor more soothing than sharp-tasting lemonade.
Lemon grass is light, almost ethereal, like a delicate perfume. It has none of the mouth-puckering sourness and acidity of citrus fruit, yet it lends a subtle, refined citrus essence when added to a dish.
It’s hard to believe this bright, delicate flavor is trapped in such a tough, hard stalk.
Lemon grass is a grassy plant with long, slim stalks that are somewhere between a green onion and a leek in size. Slender leaves flow from the top; the plant looks like an ornamental grass. However, in Asia, grass is not part of the name. Thais call lemon grass takrai. In Indonesia, it is sereh.
Lemon grass has long been familiar to Los Angeles diners, who find it in Thai restaurants in various guises -- such as tangy tom yum goong (hot and sour shrimp soup).
But the herb is wonderfully versatile, and in recent years it has drawn the attention of chefs from many backgrounds who enjoy experimenting with its elusive flavor.
Lisa Gardner, pastry chef at Maple Drive in Beverly Hills, has incorporated lemon grass into a rice pudding. “It’s really nice and fresh tasting,” she says, explaining that chef Eric Klein “wanted to do something with lemon grass and coconut.” She layers the pudding between coconut tuiles and drizzles it all with a vibrant mango-papaya sauce.
Christian Plotczyk, executive chef of Asia de Cuba in the Mondrian Hotel, makes an appetizer of grilled chicken skewered on lemon grass sticks with lychees and loquats. There’s lemon grass in the marinade too, as well as coconut milk, rum, sake, Thai fish sauce and chiles.
“While you grill it, the flavor of the lemon grass enhances the chicken,” says Plotczyk, who grew lemon grass in his backyard when he lived in Miami. “I love it. It enhances soups, sauces, anything you put it in.”
The trick is getting the enchanting flavor out of the tough stalks and into whatever you’re cooking. In Southeast Asia, cooks might bruise the stalk and let it infuse as a dish cooks, then remove and discard it, as you would with bay leaves. Thais grind the firm part of the stalk into curry pastes, or cut it into pieces and add them to soups.
Indonesians might simmer bruised stalks with ground spices, beef and coconut milk in the spicy Sumatran dish called rendang, also found in Singapore and Malaysia.
Lemon grass is widely available in Asian markets and well-stocked supermarkets. It grows easily in California’s temperate climate, and part of the state’s supply comes from Hmong and Lao farmers around Fresno. It also flourishes in backyards, spreading from a single stalk into a large, bushy plant. The leaves are usually removed before it is brought to market.
Lemon grass stalks can be long, but it is customary to use just the bottom 6 to 8 inches. After peeling away the tougher outer layers, you then slice, chop or pound it as needed.
The stalks are so tough that they require a strong, sharp knife. Lemon grass is too coarse to eat when cut into large pieces. However, it can be sliced very thin for a wonderful Thai salad. I’d heard raves about the one at A-Roy Thai restaurant in Singapore, and when I sampled it on that recent trip, I was wowed by the beautiful, bright flavor: The salad really puts lemon grass in a starring role. To make it, Chef Varin Maturavaj combines the finely cut lemon grass with dried shrimp, fried cashews and toasted fresh coconut. Then she adds a tangy-sweet dressing spiced with super-hot Thai chiles. The salad is eaten wrapped in tender little romaine leaves.
Back in Los Angeles, I made the salad with lemon grass, shrimp, lettuce and chiles from a local Thai market. The flavor and texture were extraordinary. All that was lacking was steamy weather.
Grow your own
Lemon grass, a perennial, is easy to grow and can be started from the stalks you buy in the produce section of Asian markets. Look for stalks with bits of root attached, like small stubs. Stand them in a glass of water until thread-like roots form, then plant the stalks in a pot or in the ground in a sunny area where there’s room for them to spread a bit. A single lemon grass plant should keep you plentifully supplied for seasons to come.