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Lemongrass – Dtakrai

by Kasma Loha-unchit

Thai Ingredient Index

LemongrassLemongrass(dtakrai): Related to citronella, this bulbous, greyish green tropical grass is a favored herb in Southeast Asian cuisines, where its delicate, lemony essence permeates a wide assortment of dishes. In Thai cooking, lemongrass is used most frequently to flavor soups, salads and curries.

lemongrass is a very fibrous grass and comes in long, slender stalks about a foot long, normally with its coarse, flat, grassy blades already cut off. Choose thick, light green stalks that feel firm all along its length and that are not dried out and wilted. They usually require further trimming before they can be used. Cut off the woody root tip of each stalk until the purplish-tinted rings begin to show. Remove the loose, dry outer layer(s) and use only the faintly colored, dense inner stalk that holds together when cut into shorter segments or into concentric rings. Usually, the top third of the stalk is dry and fibrous and, if so, should be trimmed off.

For soups and simmered dishes, cut the trimmed stalk at a very sharp angle into inch-long pieces, exposing its fragrant interior. Smash with the flat blade of a cleaver or heavy knife to bruise and release the aromatic oils before adding to these dishes. The stalk may be cut crosswise, then split in half lengthwise to expose the wetter interior, or easier yet, sliced at a long slanted angle, then bruised. In soups, lemongrass serves as a stock ingredient to flavor the broth; the tough pieces are not meant to be chewed and eaten. Thai people usually do not strain them out before serving; they know what can be eaten and what cannot, and some like to suck on the lemongrass pieces for a delightful hit of flavor. But if you are serving guests who may not be familiar with Thai soups, you may want to strain out these hard pieces so that no one gags on them, especially if you like the flavor of lemongrass and use lots of it, like I do.

For salads, cut with a sharp knife into very thin rounds, breaking up the fibers that run the length of the stalk. When slicing, if the outer layer seems fibrous, peel it off before proceeding. Such thinly sliced rounds of the inner stalk can be easily chewed with other salad ingredients for a refreshing burst of lemony herb flavor.

For curries, cut the stalk into thin rounds before pounding in a stone mortar to reduce to paste. Although lemongrass appears dry when you are slicing it, when crushed, you will see that it really is quite moist. Crushing breaks the juice sacs in the fibers and releases the aromatic oils that make lemongrass so special.

lemongrass is now widely available all over the country and can even be found in some chain supermarkets. Its mild, delicate, but yet exotic, flavor has made this tropical herb popular in East-West cuisines. So there is no reason to use the inferior dry or powdered kinds. lemongrass can be easily grown in any frost-free area, or in a planter to bring indoors in winter; it is not particular about soil as long as it gets plenty of moisture. Root a stalk by submerging the root end in a glass of water, or insert directly into damp soil and keep well watered. One stalk easily multiplies into fifty in no time and forms a large clump. lemongrass grown in cool-weather areas tends to be more grassy with smaller and shorter stalks tinted a deep purplish green.

I find the stalks grown in the less-than-tropical climates of California and Florida to be less full-flavored than the lemongrass from my mother's backyard and the marketplaces of Thailand, and so I use more of it than I would in cooking back home. The strength of flavors of many tropical herbs derive from secretions the plants produce to protect themselves from the intensity of their environments. The more intense the environment, the more intense the herbs' flavors become. Therefore, when cooking Thai food with ingredients grown in more temperate climes, it is best to go by taste rather than specified quantities in a recipe

Wrap well in plastic before storing in the refrigerator to keep the stalks from drying out. Depending on how fresh the stalks are when bought, they can keep for one to three weeks. If you must substitute with dry lemongrass, simmer in water to make stock for soups and soak in warm water to soften a little before chopping and pounding in a mortar to make a chilli/curry paste. Since the powdered kind does not substitute well and the dried pieces do not soften enough to chew, skip lemongrass entirely in salads that require thinly sliced rounds.

Beyond its popularity as a culinary herb, lemongrass is highly regarded by traditional herbal doctors for its profuse healing qualities. It has been used for centuries to treat colds and flu, stomach cramps and indigestion, flatulence and urinary dysfunctions, fatigue, back pain and menstrual irregularity and yeast infections. Infusions of lemongrass are said to be good for the fire element and an effective treatment for conditions arising from too much wind. Its essential oils are reputed to contain a substance similar to insulin and, therefore, can be used in the treatment of diabetes.

Our Ingredients Index contains links to many more Thai ingredients.

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