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.
— Barbara Hansen
Lemon grass- coconut rice pudding
Total time: 1 1/2 hours, plus 1 hour standing time
Note: Adapted from Lisa Gardner, pastry chef at Maple Drive.
2 (14-ounce) cans coconut milk
1 cup whole milk
1/2 vanilla bean, split
1 cinnamon stick
1/4cup chopped fresh ginger, wrapped in cheesecloth
1 stalk lemon grass, cut into
1 cup Calrose rice
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1. In a large pot, combine the milks, vanilla bean, cinnamon stick, ginger and lemon grass. Bring to a boil and boil 5 minutes, then turn the heat off. Let the mixture steep for 10 minutes.
2. Add the rice to the milk mixture. Cook over low heat, stirring frequently to prevent the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Cook until the rice is soft in the center but not mushy, about 30 minutes.
3. Mix the egg yolks, eggs and sugar in a large bowl. Remove the cinnamon stick, lemon grass, vanilla bean and ginger from the rice mixture. Slowly pour the rice mixture into the eggs, stirring constantly to prevent the eggs from scrambling.
4. Pour the mixture back into the pot. Continue cooking until it begins to thicken, about 5 minutes, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.
5. Pour the pudding into a clean large bowl and add the butter. Stir until the butter is melted. Cool in an ice bath.
Coconut tuile cookies
3/4cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened shredded coconut
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons flour
3 1/2 tablespoons melted butter
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1. Mix the coconut, sugar and flour in a large bowl. Add the melted butter and orange juice and mix well. Let the mixture stand for 1 hour, covered.
2. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking pan with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Spread 1 1/2-inch circles of batter on the paper. Bake until golden brown, about 6 to 8 minutes. (Cookies will spread to 3 to 3 1/2 inches wide.) Cool and remove from pan. Set aside. Makes about 25 cookies.
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1/2 papaya, peeled, seeded and cubed
1/2 mango, peeled, seeded and cubed
3/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1. In a small saucepan, make a simple syrup by bringing the sugar and water to a boil, then lowering the heat and simmering until the sugar dissolves. Cool.
2. Combine the syrup in a blender with the papaya and mango. Purée until smooth. Strain through a fine mesh strainer, then stir in the orange juice. Makes 1 1/2 cups.
Coconut tuile cookies
1 mango, seeded and finely chopped
1 papaya, seeded and finely chopped
1. Spoon about 2 heaping tablespoons of chilled pudding onto each dessert plate. Place a cookie on top. Add 2 tablespoons of pudding on top of the cookie, then add another cookie and top with 1 heaping tablespoon of pudding.
2. Spoon the mango-papaya sauce around the pudding and on the edges of the cookies. Combine the chopped mango and papaya and sprinkle about one-fourth cup of the fruit over and around each dessert.
Each serving: 735 calories; 11 grams protein; 74 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 47 grams fat; 34 grams saturated fat; 256 mg. cholesterol; 71 mg. sodium.
Yum takrai (lemon grass with dried shrimp and cashew)
Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Servings: 4 appetizer servings
Note: This salad is from chef Varin Maturavaj and Luyong Kunaksorn, co-owners of the A-Roy Thai restaurants in Singapore.You can substitute one-third cup unsweetened toasted coconut (available in Asian markets) for the fresh coconut.
Meat from about 1/4 of a fresh coconut
1/3cup lime juice
3 tablespoons nam pla (Thai fish sauce)
3 tablespoons sugar
8 to 10 stalks lemon grass
2 green onions
1/4 cup oil
1/2 cup raw cashews
3 tablespoons dried shrimp
2 Thai chiles, cut into small pieces
1. Crack the coconut and cut away pieces of the meat, then use a vegetable peeler to make thin (1-inch) strips until you have about one-third cup of thin strips. Toast the coconut strips on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven for 15 to 17 minutes until golden. Remove, cool and set aside.
2. Combine the lime juice, fish sauce and sugar and let stand while preparing the salad. Taste and add more sugar, if desired.
3. Cut off the root end of the lemon grass stalks and discard. Use 6 inches of the lower part for the salad. Discard the rest, or save for another use. Remove the coarse outer layers of each stalk. With a very sharp knife, slice the lemon grass stalks crosswise as fine as possible. There should be about 1 1/2 cups sliced lemon grass.
4. Peel the shallots; quarter them lengthwise, then slice thinly. Trim the root end of the green onions and cut off part of the green end, leaving 1 inch of the green part. Cut the onions in half lengthwise, then slice thinly.
5. Heat the oil in a small skillet. Fry the cashews until golden, about 50 seconds. Drain on paper towels. Fry the dried shrimp until crisp, about 1 1/2 minutes. Drain on paper towels.
6. In a bowl, combine the cashews, shrimp, lemon grass, shallots and green onions. Just before serving, add the small pieces of Thai chile to the lime juice-fish sauce dressing, pour over the salad and toss well.
7. Place a large romaine leaf on a serving plate. Spoon the salad onto the leaf. Sprinkle on the coconut strips. Prepare a plate of tender romaine leaves (or the top halves of romaine leaves, center ribs removed).
To eat, use your hands to shape a piece of lettuce into a little cup, spoon salad into the lettuce, wrap and eat.
Each serving: 334 calories; 6 grams protein; 30 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 23 grams fat; 10 grams saturated fat; 8 mg. cholesterol; 1,063 mg. sodium.
Lemon grass drink
Total time: 1 hour
Note: From the Bumbu Thai-Indonesian restaurant in Singapore.
1 pound (12 to 14 stalks)
2 quarts water
1/3cup sugar, or more
1. Wash the lemon grass. Trim off any root remaining at the bottom of the stalks. Roughly chop.
2. Place the water and chopped lemon grass in a large saucepan. Bring it to a boil, then remove from heat and stir in the sugar. Cool to room temperature. Strain the liquid, discarding the lemon grass. Stir in additional sugar to taste. Chill or serve over ice.
Each serving: 32 calories; 0 protein; 8 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 0 sodium.