During lockdown, when my garden was completely overgrown, I got a cut on the neck navigating the veritable jungle of lemongrass. No wonder one of the names for lemongrass is “barbed-wire grass”. Luckily, it wasn’t a deep cut, but since then I have been careful to keep my distance from lemongrass and always wear gardening gloves while handling the plant.
Lemongrass is also known as citronella grass; the essential oil known for its mosquito-repellent properties (among many others) is extracted from it.
While my house chai usually has both ginger and lemongrass, in summer I stick to just lemongrass. It gives tea a lingering aroma and leaves you feeling refreshed. I am not surprised to know that in Brazil, lemongrass tea is considered a remedy for anxiety—it feels calming to sip on this beverage.
In Mumbai’s vegetable markets, bundles of lemongrass greens are sold as lili chai (green tea in Gujarati) or hare chai ki patti—greens added to tea for flavour, not to be confused with green tea.
The leaves are great for making infused water, tisanes, iced tea or masala chai. I have two large bushes of lemongrass growing in my kitchen garden. Sometimes it is tough to pull out the entire bunch with the stalk (not to be tried without gardening gloves), so I end up using finely chopped leaves in curry pastes and soups. The sharp-edged and fibrous leaves need a powerful blender to make a paste of them, as does galangal or Thai ginger.
Thai and Vietnamese cuisines use the white fleshy parts of the stalk after peeling off the thicker, more fibrous outer layer. This lemongrass is sold as stalk alone, not with the leaves. If you find some root attached to the stalk, keep a couple of them in water to root some more and plant them in a pot to grow your own lemongrass bush to add instant refreshing flavour to your tea. Dried lemongrass leaves are also available to add to tea and add nearly as much flavour as the fresh ones.
Lemongrass stalks make the best cocktail stirrers. Bash these up with a pestle or the flat end of a heavy knife before turning them into stirrers. Or try adding bashed lemongrass stalks to a bottle of gin or vodka and leaving them in for two weeks, for the most refreshing flavoured spirits.
I am sharing a recipe for ginger and lemongrass magic pudding, a Cantonese dessert also called ginger milk curd. There’s also a recipe for a Thai curry paste—kept in your fridge or freezer, it will help you make a superbly flavourful curry with minimum effort.
3- to 4-inch piece of ginger, sliced
A handful of lemongrass leaves
One and a half cups of milk (350ml)
4 tsp sugar
In a small mixer jar or spice grinder, grind the ginger and chopped lemongrass leaves to a coarse paste. Squeeze the paste in a muslin cloth to extract the juice. We need around 35-40ml of juice, or roughly 1 tbsp per 200ml of milk.
Take the two cups in which you plan to serve the pudding. Divide the ginger-lemongrass juice equally. Stir the sugar into the milk. Warm it in a pan on the stovetop or in the microwave until it reaches 60-70 degrees Celsius. Use a kitchen thermometer if you have one. If not, 60 degrees Celsius is hotter than lukewarm but not so much that you cannot bear to dip your finger in it. Pour the milk into the cups with the juice from a height of, say, four inches.Do not stir the cups or move them. Cover and let sit for 10 minutes. The pudding should be nearly set. Then cover the cups with a small plate or clingfilm and transfer to the refrigerator. Serve after four hours.
Red Thai curry paste
15 dried red chillies (Byadagi or Kashmiri)
1-2 lemongrass stalks (white parts)
6-8 cloves of garlic
1-inch piece galangal (Thai ginger), thinly sliced
2-3 tbsp chopped coriander stems + roots
3 shallots, peeled and chopped
Zest of 1 lime
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp miso (optional)
Soak the dried chillies in hot water for 30 minutes. Thinly slice the lemongrass stalks and galangal. Drain the chillies and reserve the water. Combine with the rest of the ingredients in a high-powered mixer jar or a bullet blender. Add around a quarter-cup of the chilli- soaking water and blend to a smooth paste. Use a little more of the water if needed to get a thick smooth paste. Remove to a bottle and keep refrigerated or frozen in an ice tray for easy use.
Notes: Ginger can be used instead of galangal but the sharp citrusy, grassy notes missing in ginger can be compensated by adding extra lime zest.
If you find coriander with the roots, wash the roots well and use them along with the stem for a more intensely flavoured curry paste. In fresh coriander, the roots have the maximum aroma, followed by the stem and then the leaves.
To zest a lime, grate the outer yellow part of the peel only, using a sharp fine grater. Take care not to grate the bitter white layer underneath.
The original recipe for red Thai curry paste has shrimp paste that gives it an umami flavour. In the vegetarian version, this is omitted. I use a bit of miso paste for a similar umami flavour.
To make a quick curry, sauté a mix of vegetables like broccoli, zucchini and eggplant along with cubed tofu in some coconut oil. Take the required quantity of curry paste. Sauté for one-two minutes along with the veggies. Season with salt. Add coconut milk and bring to a gentle simmer. Serve with steamed rice.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is Everyday Superfoods. @saffrontrail