Pickles and Tea Adventures in Asian American Cooking

Ingredient Spotlight: Lemongrass

chopped lemongrass

After lopping the tops and bottoms off the lemongrass stalks, I cut the remaining bulbs into rings

One of my favorite Asian herbs, lemongrass, and its long, slender form is fast becoming a common sight here in the Northwest. You can often find the stalk with its variegated colors–from white to yellow to pale green–three to a bundle at Asian markets, and solo or even in a tube at your neighborhood Safeway.

Lemongrass imbues an array of Southeast Asian dishes with a delicate citrusy flavor that’s part Meyer lemon, part mint and part rose petals. And if you find its scent vaguely familiar, it’s because the plant oils are used in citronella candles, famous for warding off pesky mosquitoes.

While many know it as an herb used extensively in Thai and Vietnamese cooking for dishes such as tom yum soup and caramel chicken with lemongrass and chilies, lemongrass is indispensible in Indonesian cooking too. It’s part of an essential bouquet garni of herbs I call the Holy Trinity–galangal (lengkuas), salam leaves (daun salam) also known as Indian bay leaves, and lemongrass (serai). This trio of herbs make their appearance in many traditional Indonesian dishes.

I throw lemongrass into coconut rice and always always save the discarded bits (see preparation below) to brew with green or jasmine tea.


My latest lemongrass discovery–lemongrass-infused vinegar

In fact, I love lemongrass so much I even tried to grow it when I lived in California. Unfortunately my not-so-green thumb failed me but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a try.

It’s so easy really. Head to the store and buy stalks that are firm and green, a sure sign that they will root. Then simply snip off an inch or so from the leaves and stick the root end into a glass of water. Leave them on a sunny windowsill and roots will start sprouting from the bottom of the stalk in about a week or two.

Once small roots have grown at least an inch long, transplant them into a container or right into rich, garden soil. Just be sure to keep them “damp like a moist sponge.” Lemongrass loves being outdoors in the summer sun—they are tropical after all—but when the temperature drops in the fall, you’ll have to take them inside.

Lemongrass is such a versatile herb and can be used in myriad ways. (Here’s a recipe for Caramelized Chicken with Lemongrass and Chilies.) I opted for something simple on this occasion. After infusing vinegar with chopped lemongrass, I whisked some of the flavored vinegar into a vinaigrette and tossed it with an edible flower salad with white nectarines. It was such a lovely side for a mid-summer evening’s dinner.

Here are some lemongrass tips:


Look for plump, bright green stalks minus any dried brown bits. Lemon grass is available dried and frozen at Asian stores, but fresh provides the best flavor. I’ve seen lemongrass in a tube at supermarkets and that’s okay too in a pinch.


Store them in the refrigerator for up to a week but for any longer, freeze them as is. Or you could prep them and cut them into rings (see below) before freezing them in a freezer-safe container. They’ll last almost indefinitely and there’s no need to thaw them before use.


Peel the tough, fibrous outer layers of the lemongrass. Cut an inch off the root end and about 6 inches off the top leafy end where the green meets the white, leaving about 3 to 4 inches of the white middle. Smash the white bulb with the butt of your knife or a heavy mug to release the essential oils and cut into rings and mince as required.


Zesty Lemongrass-Infused Vinegar

lemongrass in vinegar

I was inspired to make this simple lemongrass vinegar by my friend Pranee who blogged about it on I Love Thai Cooking. Next time I’m going to try adding coriander seeds and/or dried chilies to the mix. This vinegar also makes a wonderful hostess gift. Strain the vinegar and pour into a pretty bottle. Save the lemongrass tops to insert inside the bottle for interest.  (Please visit this Web site for safety tips)

Time: 10 minutes
Makes: 2 cups vinegar

3 fresh lemongrass stalks with no brown spots or blemishes
2 cups rice or distilled white vinegar

Peel the outer layers of the lemongrass. Cut an inch off the root end and about 6 inches off the top leafy end where the green meets the white, leaving about 3 to 4 inches of the white middle. Smash the lemongrass with the butt of your knife or a heavy mug to release the essential oils. Cut the lemongrass into rings and place in a glass container with a tight-fitting lid.

Heat the rice vinegar in the microwave for 2 to 3 minutes on high until it just starts to bubble, or heat on the stove.

Pour the vinegar over the lemongrass, cover tightly and steep at least overnight, two to three weeks for maximum potency in a cool, dark place. Strain through a colander and pour into a clean jar or bottle and store in the refrigerator.

Use in your favorite vinaigrette recipe and toss with salad or drizzle over roast vegetables like asparagus or zucchini.



  • Filed Under

    July 27, 2012
    Culture    Thai    
    • Posted By

      Born in Indonesia and raised in Singapore, Pat Tanumihardja writes about food, travel, and lifestyle through a multicultural lens. Pat especially enjoys covering topics that converge on food, history and culture and has been published in numerous international, national and regional publications. Her cookbook, The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook—Home Cooking from Asian American Kitchens is a treasury of family recipes and stories spanning over a dozen Asian cultures.

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