Not many years ago, few of us had ever experienced lemon grass. Now, with the massive popularity of Thai cuisine all over the world, we are familiar with this wonderful herb both from restaurant food and from our own spice cupboards.
Lemon grass plant
Lemon grass stalks
Growing lemon grass in a pot
Probably South-East Asia.
The genus cymbopogon has about 55 species, most of which are native to Southern Asia, South-East Asia and Australia. The so-called "East-Indian lemon grass" c. flexuosus is native to India, Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand and the related "West-Indian lemon grass" c. citratus is generally assumed to have a Malesian origin. Although the two species can almost be used interchangeably, c. citratus is more relevant for cooking. In India, it is cultivated as a medical herb and for perfumes, but in the rest of tropical Asia (Sri Lanka and South-East Asia), it is an important culinary herb and spice.
Stalks and leaves.
The botanical genus name cymbopogon is derived from Greek kymbe "boat" and pogon "beard" and refers to the boat-shaped spathes and the many-awned inflorescences which are reminiscent of a beard.
The species name citratus relates to the prominent lemon fragrance of that plant. Most European names of lemon grass are either adapted from local names of lemon, e.g. citronella, or are compounds meaning "lemon herb" (e.g. Finnish sitruunaruoho, Portuguese erva-cidreira and Turkish limon otu) or meaning "lemon-grass" (as in Danish citrongraes, Lithuanian citrinžolė, Czech citrónová tráva and Hungarian citromfű). Similar compounds are Russian limonnoe sorgo "lemon-sorghum" and Spanish te de limón "lemon tea".
The English word "grass" and its Latin cognate gramen (from older grasmen) "grass-blade" or "stalk" cannot readily be explained. It is probably derived from an Indo-European root referring to plant growth, gher, "sprout" or "grow". Related English words are "grow" and "green" and in German the basic meaning is preserved in grat "ridge" or "crest" and gräte "fish bone". Given the importance of grass as an animal fodder, it is not coincidental that a similar Indo-European root, gras-, means "devour" or "digest".
The medieval English name squinant is a corruption of earlier schoenanth and derives from two Greek words, schoinos "rush" or "grass" and anthos "flower". Another name from that period is Dutch kamelhewe "camel's hay" which refers to the caravans that transported dried lemon grass on the back of camels from tropical Asia to Europe along the "spice route". Lemon grass was once used for beer brewing and for the preparation of spiced wines.
The fresh taste of lemon grass is typical of South-East Asia and Sri Lanka. The spice is most popular in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and on the Indonesian islands. In Thailand, finely ground fresh lemon grass is added to Thai curry pastes. Its fine fragrance goes well with poultry, fish and sea food.
Vietnamese cookery, much less spiced, makes use of lemon grass in several ways. A popular Vietnamese meal is bo nhung dam, translated as "vinegar beef" or "Vietnamese fondue". At the table, each diner boils thin slices of beef in a vinegar-flavoured broth containing lemon grass. The beef is then wrapped in rice paper, together with fresh vegetables and coriander, mint and Vietnamese coriander and eaten with spicy sauces based the fish sauce nuoc mam, lime juice, peanuts and chillies. This recipe illustrates the Vietnamese preference for food prepared at the table, for wrapped bits of food and for fresh herbs. Lemon grass is also used for Vietnamese curries.
In Indonesia, the term bumbu (in Bali, jangkap) refers to mixtures of ground fresh spices whose composition is unique for every single dish but for which lemon grass is a standard ingredient. Bumbu is made by grinding spices together in a mortar. Onions provide the background and garlic, chillies and nuts are normally included. Further common ingredients are greater and lesser galangale, turmeric, ginger, kaffir lime leaves, Indonesian bay leaves and lemon grass. Bumbu is used either raw or after being stir-fried for a few minutes. Vegetables are often cooked in a little water, stock or coconut milk together with bumbu. Meat, on the other hand, is more frequently rubbed with bumbu and fried or broiled. Gravies can be intensified by adding one or two tablespoons of bumbu before serving. Bumbu dissolved in meat broth makes the basis for most Indonesian soups (e.g. chicken soup soto ayam) and for Malaysian laksa. Fried bumbu can also be used as a condiment.