Lemongrass is a popular herb taken from the leaves of the cymbopogon, a tall, fragrant grass plant. It adds a bright, aromatic flavour to a variety of dishes, from soups and stews to fragrant Thai curry pastes and even cocktails. It is most commonly associated with Thai cuisine, but can also be found in dishes from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India.
As the name suggests, lemongrass has a scent and flavour similar to that of a lemon, but there are also some noticeable differences. Lemongrass has a lighter, more herbal flavour, with hints of ginger and mint, and even a suggestion of floral notes. It doesn’t lose its flavour when cooked for long periods of time, making it a welcome addition to slow-cooked dishes like stews and curries.
Although it is also available in dried or powdered form, fresh lemongrass is best if you can get it. Fresh lemongrass has a more potent and complex flavour, while dried versions can have an unpleasant woody aftertaste. Quick dishes such as stir-fry in particular require freshly-diced lemongrass, as dried lemongrass needs time to rehydrate during cooking and will simply add a flavourless, woody texture.
Lemongrass is usually sold in bunches of two or three full stalks, with the bulb still attached at the bottom. The bulb, leaves and most of the stem are too tough and fibrous to be used in cooking, with the only edible part of the plant being the tender part of the bottom third of the stem. Follow these simple steps to prepare your lemongrass properly, so you’re left with the tenderest, most flavourful parts, and no unappealing woody fibers.
Place the lemongrass on a cutting board, then take a sharp chef’s knife or paring knife and remove the top of the stem, so you are left with only the bottom 7-8cm, then also remove the lower 1.5cm, so you are left with only the tenderest part of the stem.
Cut the remaining section of stem in half lengthways, laying your knife across the middle and applying pressure first at the tip, then rolling it backwards to cut the stem with the entire length of the knife.
Take one half of the stem and test the tenderness with your thumbnail. Any parts that cannot be easily marked with your thumbnail should be discarded. This should include at least one outer layer, and some of the lower part of the core.
Repeat the process with the other half of the stem, so you are left with two halves of tender yellow-to-light-green lemongrass.
Lay one half of the stem flat side down on the cutting board and dice it with your knife, pushing the lemongrass under the knife each time you raise it, rather than moving the knife along the length of the stem.
Repeat the process with the other half of the stem, until your lemongrass is fully diced.
You can use the diced lemongrass in your cooking as it is, or grind it in a mortar and pestle to release the flavours.
Where to Find Lemongrass
Although native to India, lemongrass is also grown throughout Asia, as well as in Africa, Australia and the Caribbean. There are at least 55 different species of lemongrass, which have been used for a variety of purposes by different cultures around the world, including cooking, folk medicine, as an essential oil and even an insect repellent.
In the West, lemongrass can be found at local Asian markets and in most grocery stores, either in the fresh produce aisle, or in the freezer section. Lemongrass stalks are usually sold with the leaves removed, in bunches of two and three, so they will look like a small bunch of scallions, or spring onions.
Select stems that are firm and fresh-looking, with a fat bulb at the bottom and a fragrant smell. The ideal colour is a light yellow-green where the stem joins the bulb, becoming gradually greener towards the top. Avoid anything dry-looking, or with brown patches, as these are signs that lemongrass is past its best.
Recipes with Lemongrass
To find out more about the many uses of lemongrass, as well as tips on how to recycle those tough outer layers, take a look at our guide on how to use lemongrass. And if you can’t wait to add the aromatic flavour of this iconic south-Asian herb to your cooking, we’ve created a list of some of our very favourite lemongrass recipes.
For real comfort food that’s bursting with Thai flavours, our recipe for grilled Thai chicken is an instant classic. A whole chicken, marinated in a mouthwatering combination of lemongrass, garlic and coriander root with soy and fish sauces, then cooked on the grill until golden and crispy.
Wonderfully fragrant and warming, this shrimp and cabbage curry from Bon Appetit is the perfect blend of sweet coconut milk and spicy homemade red curry paste. For a vegetarian version, replace the shrimp with cubed squash or pumpkin.
We also love this traditional recipe for Indonesian nasi goreng, again courtesy of Bon Appetit. An Indonesian favourite, and one of their national dishes, nasi goreng is a crispy fried egg on a nest of umami-rich fried rice, seasoned with soy sauce, chillis, herbs and spices. The dish is served with an aromatic sauce known as sambal matah, full of bright, zingy flavours like lime, ginger, and, of course, lemongrass.
For a soothing hot drink with a fresh, zesty flavour, try this simple recipe for lemongrass tea from Zen Health. It tastes great and will make your kitchen smell delicious too.