A tall fragrant member of the grass family Cymbopogon, lemon grass is a signature flavor in the foods of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. It’s native to India, where it’s used in curry powder. It also grows well in Florida and California and is available domestically in well-stocked groceries and Asian markets.
You can purchase lemon grass powder, but cooking with fresh stalks gives much better results. Look for stalks that are fragrant and tightly formed, and avoid those that are turning brown or coming apart. Pull away tough outer leaves and cut off the bottom of the bulb. The fleshy, yellowish part of the shoot is relatively tender and can be finely chopped for various recipes. The woody green upper part can be simmered in soups and curries to infuse flavor but is generally discarded at the table. The leaves can be steeped for tea.
Lemongrass contains citral, an essential oil found in lemons to a lesser degree. At Ben Gurion University in Israel, scientists administered citral to both normal cells and cancer cells. In concentrations roughly equivalent to the amount of citral in a cup of lemongrass tea, the cancer cells “committed suicide,” while normal cells remained vital—a remarkable feat of selective toxicity. Benny Zabidov, Israel’s only major lemongrass grower, was subsequently inundated with requests from cancer patients, who he now greets with plates of cookies and cups of aromatic lemongrass tea.
—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.