Larb, Tom Ka Gai, Pho, Tom Yum Goong — whether you cook Laotian, Vietnamese or Thai style the tart aromatic flavor of lemongrass becomes a key component in countless Southeast Asian dishes. Not every grocery carries this delicious herb and it can be quite expensive ($3.50 per four ounces at Kroger’s website) especially when you consider the amount of waste in a bundle. No one eats a whole bundle of lemongrass I bet, a bundle of eight stalks is enough for about 24 pots of soup. Although it will keep in a refrigerator for a couple of weeks, you are nearly certain to throw a lot away. The closest store to me that evens sells it is 30 miles from here, in Bloomington, Indiana.
Last year on a shopping trip to Bloomington we stopped at Bloomingfoods Co-op to check out their fresh herbs, planting stock and delicious fresh ground honey-roasted peanut butter. I looked through the pots of herbs on the stands outside but saw no lemongrass, so I asked the fellow working the stand if they sold it.
“Lemongrass?” he said knowingly. “No, we don’t have it. It’s really hard to find.”
“That’s ok,” I said. “I’ll get some at Kroger and plant that.”
I’ve done this several times before. If the lemongrass is fresh and the base of the stalk is intact, growing lemongrass is very simple. I learned this from my ex, a lady from Thailand, who would never have thought of buying planting stock through the mail. If she grew Thai chilies she would just open up a dry pod from a grocery packet and plant a few seeds in a pot of garden soil mixed with rotted chicken manure. If she wanted lemongrass she just stuck a few stalks in another pot of the same mixture. Keep either one watered and warm and you have chilies and lemongrass.
It can take a couple of months to grow enough lemongrass that a harvest doesn’t set the plant back, so out of the bundle of eight stalks I planted seven and saved one for Tom Yum Goong. Six of the seven stalks grew, which is a pretty good percentage for any tropical plant that has been treated that badly. None of the stalks still had roots and they had all been cut back to about 14 inches. I set them in a mix of garden soil and potting soil, in clay pots, and watered them daily. In just a few days the tops showed the expanding growth that guarantees the plants are still alive, and in a few weeks they had risen to full height and begun to divide.
During the hottest part of the summer, when the pots began drying out quickly, I dug holes in the garden and set the pots so that the rims were at ground level. Lemongrass needs frequent watering so I gave them a good drink every couple of days. After the divisions were obvious and nearly full size I could harvest individual stalks to use as seasoning. Instead of digging up the entire plant I cut a stalk off at ground level, so the base of the plant could recover.
Lemongrass likes heat and water and rich soil. In cool weather it will go dormant, and a frost will definitely ruin it. It will not overwinter in the north unless you keep the pots inside, in a warm sunny location. Lemongrass isn’t like some tropicals that die simply because soil cools. It’s more like ginger root and can stay alive in cool soil, so if I keep it moist but not wet and I find ways to keep it warm through the winter, I might not have to buy new planting stock next year. I will at least have plenty of fresh lemongrass stalks to use in my winter soups.
Maybe next spring at Bloomingfoods, the herb master will have Kroger lemongrass in pots for sale. I will still buy it at Kroger if I need it.
When you use fresh lemongrass, remember it’s not actually edible. It’s a flavoring. You don’t eat bay leaves and you don’t eat lemongrass. Cut a section of stalk about four inches long and make a series of cuts across the stalk and about halfway through it. I use the back of my santoku knife to gently pound the stalk over the full length, partly crushing it without taking it to pieces. Do not chop it into little bits or you’ll have inedible pieces of lemongrass all through your Tom Yum Goong. No one wants that but I’ve even seen this served in Thai restaurants, by people who know better but don’t care.
I did eat a piece of lemongrass once, at a friend’s house in Bangkok. I was new to Thai cooking and was trying to be polite. A spoonful of soup I ate included a piece of lemony vegetable that I thought would go down like celery. Nope, after a long bout of chewing it expanded into a fibery blob. Not wanting to embarrass my hostess, I swallowed it anyway. It stuck about halfway down but after several tries I did get it into my stomach. Everyone laughed when they found out I had eaten it and cautioned me never to do that again. I concur.