The Enchanting Brutality of Lemongrass

PHOTOS BY CHANDRA WALBOLT

This column is underwritten with generous support from United Noodles,  Minnesota’s largest Asian grocery store, awarded “Best International Grocery” by City Pages in 2014, 2016, and 2020. Chandra Walbolt is a professional chef with experience at several restaurants in the Twin Cities, and she currently serves as a manager at Union Hmong Kitchen. She will soon be the Executive Sous Chef at Yia Vang’s Vinai in Northeast Minneapolis.

For me, food always boils down to time with my family.

My mom frequently cooked with lemongrass at home. I would often hear loud banging and chopping coming from the kitchen, releasing the citrusy-gingery aromas lemongrass has to offer. It was honestly terrifying watching her prepare it. She would pull this long, thick, grass-like herb out of the freezer and whack it against the cutting board. Natural oils and powder would catapult into the air, saturating the room like mustard gas (albeit a lot less deadly), and it looked like she was trying to beat the lemongrass to death. 

After the beating, she would throw it into a simmering pot of whole chicken stock and vegetables giving the broth a whole new layer of sour, moderately earthy flavor. I didn’t know much about lemongrass at the time and how important of a role it would play in my cooking. I was intimidated by it at first, but now it always has a home in my kitchen.

Lemongrass is native to tropical countries, with India its largest producer.  It is often used in Cambodian, Thai, Indian, and Chinese cuisine and its natural oils are used all over the world for holistic medicine.

This perennial grass can grow to almost 6 feet tall, but only the bottom 4 to 8 inches is edible. The green outer layers of the grass are too tough and fibrous to eat, but can add wonderful flavor to any stock or braise. In its natural state, you can find lemongrass in dense bunches, almost like stringy bushes. They grow best in tropical weather with well-drained and loose soil. The grass is harvested on a dry morning to keep most of the aromatic oils in the stalk.

I have been able to find lemongrass at my local Cub Foods by the chilies and herbs, but I find the freshest lemongrass at local Asian markets.

I started working with a lot of lemongrass at one of the first restaurants I cooked at. We would go through 40 pounds a week! The more I worked with it, I found ways to make it easier on my hands and my knives. Some people like to smash the lemongrass with the side of their knife to release the oil, some like to whack it against the table.

I personally like to keep my lemongrass whole and frozen, and then when it comes to preparing, I would let it thaw for a few minutes. When lemongrass is frozen, the moisture expands in between the fibers so when it thaws, some of the fibers would be softened, making it easier to cut through. You want to use a sturdy, sharp knife to cut lemongrass since the stalk can be stubborn, if not unforgiving.

When adding lemongrass to a dish, I finely chop it or blend it. Otherwise I would have long strings of fiber stuck in my teeth all day! You also want to make sure to clean your lemongrass properly. Only the bottom few inches is edible. You want to cut off the green tops, about halfway to two-thirds down the stalk where it just starts becoming opaque. You then want to trim the root end and peel back the fibrous layers until you’re left with the tender bottom part. I would then sauté it like I would garlic or shallots to ensure all those flavorful, aromatic oils come out to play.

The recipe below is great for a grill-out on a beautiful day! My mom would make this Khmer paste, Kreoung, to marinate beef, chicken, or pork to throw on the grill whenever there was a family and friends get-together. Kreoung is savory with a hint of sweetness. It also goes great with seafood! It is versatile, and different versions are used throughout Asian food whether it be marinades or stews.

Cambodian Marinated Pork Skewers

Need: Food Processor or Blender, Small Sauce Pot , Grill or Oven

Time: Marinade 15 minutes

Yield: 1 quart Marinade (serves about 8 people)

Ingredients

4# Pork Shoulder, sliced thin (about 5” x ¼” pieces)

About 30, 8” Bamboo Skewers

Marinade:

325g (3 ½ cup) Lemongrass, trimmed & cleaned, rough chopped

75g (2/3 cup) Garlic, peeled

25g (1/4 cup) fresh, peeled turmeric (or 8g/1 Tbsp turmeric powder)

250g (2 ½ cup) Shallot, peeled

13g (25ea) Kaffir Lime Leaf (found in the refrigerated or frozen produce section of Asian markets)

87g (1/3-1/2 cup) Tamari or Soy Sauce

200g (1/2 cup) Honey

112g (1/4 cup) Oyster Sauce 

50g (1/4 cup) Fish Sauce

50g (1/4 cup) Coconut Milk

1)   In your food processor or blender, add chopped lemongrass, garlic, turmeric, shallot, lime leaf, and tamari. Blend into a fine paste,  add water as needed to get things movin’!

2)   Scoop paste in your sauce pot over medium-high heat. Stir frequently for about 5 minutes, making sure to keep scraping the bottom to prevent burning.

3)   Add honey, oyster sauce, fish sauce, and coconut milk to paste and cook down, again, stirring frequently for about 5 minutes or until everything is happily married and some of the water has cooked out.

4)   Set the paste aside to cool, or at this point you can freeze the marinade indefinitely for later use!

5)   Once your marinade is completely cooled, gently mix with the sliced pork, cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or for up to 2 days.

6)   Skewer time! Soak your bamboo skewers in some warm water. This helps prevent your stick from burning when grilling, and reduces the splinters. Weave your pork back and forth along the skewer and flatten so the meat cooks evenly.

7)   If cooking on a grill, have the heat set to a medium heat, (too hot will scorch the sugar in the marinade) and cook for about 8-10 minutes depending on how thick or thin your pork is. Flip halfway.

If baking in the oven, preheat to 350. Arrange the skewers in a single layer on foil, parchment or a rack over a cookie sheet. Bake for 10 minutes or until the internal temperature of the meat is at least 150 degrees.

Enjoy! My favorite way to eat it is with jasmine rice, some pickled daikon, and carrots!

This column is underwritten with generous support from United Noodles,  Minnesota’s largest Asian grocery store, awarded “Best International Grocery” by City Pages in 2014, 2016, and 2020. At United Noodles, you can find a bounty of Asian snacks, hard-to-find ingredients, noodles in all shapes and sizes, fresh produce, and gift-worthy finds. United Noodles is family-owned, with a strong presence in the community.