The Salt
3:30 pm
Mon September 26, 2011

Lemongrass Brings Essential Spark To Southeast Asian Cooking

Originally published on Mon September 26, 2011 6:06 pm

Imagine you're trekking through the concrete jungle of just about any Southeast Asian city. The first thing you notice is the smorgasbord of smells, some enticing, others downright rank. Amid the urban odor-rama, one sweet herbal fragrance stands out. It's lemongrass. And it's just about everywhere.

This herb is essential to Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Indonesian and other Asian cuisines that have become popular in the West in recent years. And lemongrass takes much of the credit for the light and aromatic character of Southeast Asian cooking. It's prized for lightening meat-laden, oily dishes and strong seafood smells. Thai people also swear by its legendary medicinal properties.

To really understand the role of lemongrass in Thai cuisine, visit Naj, a family-run restaurant and cooking school located beside Bangkok's bustling Convent Road. The founder's son, Tanaporn Markawat shows us where he gets some of his ingredients.

"So now we are in our herbs garden. We have more than 50 herbs," he says, pointing out over the yard. "We have lemongrass, basil, cumin, pandanus...the main ingredients that we use in Thai food."

Tanaporn removes the tough, fibrous outer layers of a stalk of lemongrass, revealing its pink insides, and unleashes an incredible smell.

Inhale deeply, and you will absorb a fragrance that is intense and ornate, like a filigreed eave curlicuing from the roof of a Thai Buddhist temple.

Asian restaurants rely heavily on stir-frying and deep frying, and too much oil can be a problem. But lemongrass, Tanaporn says, can lift the weight of the meat and oil, and replace that weight with an herbal pungency and an exquisite lightness.

"In most of the Thai dishes, we use the lemongrass, it's very important," he explains. "Sometimes when you have the curry, the curry is oily, and the lemongrass can help you digest, it can help your blood circulation. It's very healthy," he says.

To really understand the power of lemongrass, eat a pile of the stuff raw...in the form of a Thai lemongrass salad. It's a dish you seldom find in restaurants outside Thailand, but it's not hard to make yourself. Lemongrass is increasingly available at Asian markets and grocers in the U.S.

Tanaporn cuts several lemongrass stalks into little discs. Bits of dried shrimp, squid and peanuts add crunch. Tiny chili peppers provide punch – far above their weight. Finally, Tanaporn pours on a dressing of lime juice, fish sauce and sugar. He tosses the salad and serves it wrapped in jade green-colored betel leaves. The resulting dish is typically Thai in its combination of citrus, seafood, hot, sour, salty and spicy flavors.

Lemongrass grows wild and in gardens across Southeast Asia. Tanaporn's mother Luckananaj explains that when many Thai people go to their gardens to pick some herbs to cook with dinner, lemongrass is what they come back with. It's just what they go for.

Tanaporn also shows how essential lemongrass is to Tom Yum Gong, Thailand's most iconic soup. He says the lemongrass helps to keep the shrimp from overpowering the soup's coconut and other delicate flavors.

Lemongrass is also a key ingredient in the cuisine of Indonesia, in spicy rendang beef or chicken, scented rice or salsa-like sambal condiments.

At the Jakarta Bed and Breakfast, owner and cooking school teacher Clara Sitompul prepares one of her specialties: lemongrass-flavored beef soup.

First, Sitompul cuts the beef into cubes. Then, to bring the flavor out of the lemongrass, she uses something no Indonesian kitchen should be without.

It's a stone plate and pestle called a cobek, which is used to grind up spices. Then she stir-fries the onion, lemongrass and ginger.

Sitomopul boils the beef and finishes the soup by adding a plate of celery, caramelized onions, tomato, black pepper, coriander and lemon peel.

She says the best way to describe the taste of lemongrass is by its effect: Appetizing, bordering on the Pavlovian.

"When you cook with this lemongrass, you'll be hungry when you smell it, of course," she says, proudly ladling out the hearty, tangy soup.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Imagine for a moment, you're trekking through the concrete jungle of a southeast Asian city. The first thing you notice is a smorgasbord of smells. Some are enticing; others, downright rank. Amid the urban odor-rama, one pungent fragrance stands out: lemongrass. NPR's Anthony Kuhn gives a whiff of the herb that is essential to the cuisines of Southeast Asia.

ANTHONY KUHN: Tucked away beside the bustle of Bangkok's Convent Road is Naj, a family-run restaurant and Thai cooking school. Tanaporn Markawat, the founder's son, welcomes us.

TANAPORN MARKAWAT: Now, we are in our herbs garden. We have more than 50 herbs. We have like lemongrass, basil, cumin leaves, pandanus, the main ingredients that we use in Thai food.

KUHN: Across from the lemongrass is a row of its close relative, citronella. It's used to make citrus-scented candles and a natural mosquito repellent. Tanaporn removes the tough outer layers of a stalk of lemongrass, revealing its pink insides and unleashing an incredible smell.

If you haven't experienced the smell yourself, perhaps the best way to describe it is - ah - the fragrance is intense and ornate like a filigreed eve curlicuing from the roof of a Thai Buddhist temple.

In Thai dishes, Tanaporn says, lemongrass lifts the weight of meat and oil. It replaces the weight with an herbal pungency and an exquisite lightness.

MARKAWAT: Most of the Thai dishes, we use the lemongrass. It's very important, like sometime when you have like a curry, because a curry is oily and the lemongrass can help you digest and can help the blood circulation. It's very healthy.

KUHN: Let the lemongrass overwhelm your senses. Eat a pile of the stuff raw in the form of a Thai lemongrass salad.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUTTING)

KUHN: Tanaporn cuts several lemongrass stalks into little discs. Bits of dried shrimp, squid and peanuts add crunch. Tiny chili peppers provide punch far above their weight. Finally, Tanaporn pours on a dressing of lime juice, fish sauce and sugar. He tosses the salad and serves it wrapped in jade green betel leaves.

Lemongrass grows wild and in gardens throughout much of Southeast Asia. Tanaporn's mother, Luckananaj, explains that when many Thai people go to their gardens to pick some herbs for dinner, lemongrass is often what they come back with.

When you were growing up, did you have lemongrass growing near your home?

LUCKANANAJ MARKOWAT: Oh, yes, sure. Because lemongrass is the most essential ingredient in every dish of our curry. From 10 dish, you may have about eight dishes that have to use this essential ingredient, lemongrass.

KUHN: Lemongrass is also a key ingredient in the cuisine of Indonesia and spicy rendang beef or chicken, scented rice or salsa-like sambal condiments.

At the Jakarta Bed and Breakfast, owner and cooking school teacher Clara Sitompul prepares a lemongrass flavored beef soup. She cuts the beef into cubes, then to bring the flavor out of the lemongrass, Sitompul uses something no Indonesian kitchen should be without.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRINDING)

KUHN: It's a flat mortar and pestle called a cobek, which is used to grind up spices. Then the flavorings are stir-fried.

CLARA SITOMPUL: And then you must cook these onions, ginger and the lemongrass.

KUHN: Sitompul boils the beef and finishes the soup by adding a plate of celery, caramelized onions, tomato, black pepper, coriander and lemon peel. She says the best way to describe the taste of lemongrass is by its effect. Appetizing, almost Pavlovian.

SITOMPUL: When you cook this lemongrass, you must be hungry if you smell it, of course.

KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Jakarta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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