Lemon Grass - [Fever Grass,
Ta Khrai, Takrai (Thai); Xa, Sa chanh (Viet); Tanglad (Philippines);
Zabalin (Burma); Si khai, Sing khai (Laos); Bai mak nao, Slek krey sabou,
Kuel skey (Cambodia); Sera (Sri Lanka, India); Ghanda, Bhustrina (India);
Serai (Malaysia); Sereh (Indonesia); Citronella (French);
Cymbopogon citratus and to a lesser extent other Cymbopogon
Lemon scented grasses native to Southeast Asia. C. citratus is essential to the cuisines of all of Southeast Asia, including the Philippines. It is also used in Sri Lanka, parts of southern China, and in the Caribbean, but is not used in cooking in India.
C. flexuosus, intensively grown in India, is mostly used for oils, perfumes and medicinals, though it can be used in cooking.
is the industrial strength version, unpalatable to both people and livestock but
distilled into citronella oils used as insect repellents, antiseptics and
flavorings. It is grown as a decorative in Florida and California but is
a serious and difficult to defeat invader of pasture land in Africa.
Buying: Nearly every Asian market in Southern California that serves a Southeast Asian community now stocks fresh lemon grass - and even some of the Korean markets have it. It may be harder to find in other regions. Lemon grass is used in parts of southern China but traditional Chinese markets may not have it. It is used in Burma but not significantly in India. Lemon grass stalks are generally made up into small bunches of 4 to 6 and sold by the bunch.
Some Asian markets will have packages of pre-chopped lemon grass in the frozen food cases. This is not quite as good as fresh but it is usable in recipes. Dry powdered lemon grass can sometimes be found but it's really hardly worth using - the flavor and aroma are pretty much gone.
Storing: Stalks can be trimmed somewhat at the top, if necessary, and stored refrigerated loosely wrapped in plastic. They will last 2 to 4 weeks depending on original condition, but will gradually darken.
Preparing: Lemon Grass is very tough, even the white inner leaves which we use, and does not soften during cooking. It is, therefore, used only whole, cut into lengths (usually removed before serving), or chopped very fine and preferably then smashed in a mortar.
To use whole, strip off the tough outer leaves, cut the hard root back until you see purple rings. Smash moderately with your kitchen mallet (a plug of root is likely to pop out), then cut the bottom end into two 3 inch lengths, discarding the top.
To chop, prepare as for using whole except don't cut off the top.. Smash well with your kitchen mallet, then cut crosswise as thin as you can, and finally chop. Use about the bottom 4 to 5 inches and discard the tops. For some applications (particularly curry pastes) you'll want to pound the finely chopped lemon grass to a paste in a big stone mortar.
Cooking: Lemon grass is generally used in wet cooking where it should go in with the liquid so it has maximum time for the flavor to infuse the liquid. It is also used in marinades.
Subst: Use zest (yellow only) of a small lemon per stalk of lemon grass. Not quite the same, but something reasonably similar.