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Imagine the flavour of a fresh lemon without its acidic, mouth puckering bite. Imagine the scent of lemon geraniums in the air, the softness of a delicate citrus-like perfume on a warm summer day. That, to me, is what lemongrass conveys.

While lemongrass is common to many Asian cuisines, it has a dominant role in Thai dishes where its aroma and subtle flavour help achieve the balance of sweet, sour and pungent that makes Thai cooking distinctive.

Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) originated in Sri Lanka and looks like something that would grow well on a PEI sand dune. It is an ornamental grass with a bulbous base and long tapered hard blades. It can grow several feet high in dry soil. If it is brought indoors during cold weather, there is no reason that it cannot be grown here.

For a long time, lemongrass was one of those dried herbs tucked into cellophane packets and stapled to cardboard display sheets somewhere behind the cash register in “exotic” grocery stores. I bought it only when a recipe called for it. I made whatever dish I was cooking and didn’t know what to do with the rest of the packet. It would go stale and eventually I tossed it out. The trick, for those of us who do not eat Thai food every day, is to learn to incorporate lemongrass into non-Asian cooking. Minced lemongrass is delicious in marinades, chicken soup, and added to salads. lemongrass tea makes a nice tisane. Just stir a small amount of chopped fresh lemongrass into boiling water. Add honey or ginger for a sweeter or spicier flavour.

Happily, with Montreal’s growing Asian communities, fresh lemongrass is available in stores in Chinatown and occasionally in supermarkets and other stores. It usually sells for less than 50 cents a stalk and is far preferable to the dried variety. I buy it when I see it. It is as easy to use as fresh garlic or ginger. Discard the dried covering around the base and chop an inch or so from the bottom of the stalk very finely. Use about twice the amount in a recipe as you would dried lemongrass.

Just as tasty and more economical is bottled lemongrass. These are shoots, packed in water and ready to use. Les douceurs du marché in the Atwater market (939-3902) sells a brand called Thai Kitchen. One small jar has about 20 shoots, more than enough for several meals. Also interesting is a summer drink made by the Bottle Green Drinks Company near Toronto. This is a non-alcoholic beverage that has lemongrass, ginger and sugar cane. Les douceurs du marché and Loblaws both sell it.

© Barry Lazar 2000 Email Flavourguy

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