Bangkok, 20 August 2015

One of the things I always do when I go to a new country is to inspect the vegetable section of the local markets or supermarkets, to see what fruits and vegetables they have on display which I have never seen before, and then I try to figure out how the locals eat them. I also play this game with fish, where one can see interesting variations around the world. I normally don’t bother with meats, since there is much less variety here. Chicken, pork, and beef probably cover more than 95% of all meat products sold over the counter. Throw in a few other fowl, like turkey and goose, and you’re probably up at 99%. I’ve never seen meat aisles where you can buy camel or llama or hamster or dog (although I was once in a place where I could have bought kangaroo).

In any event, I played the game when we arrived here in Thailand, and one of the things that immediately jumped out from the vegetable aisles was lemongrass – it’s not a vegetable really, more a spice, but it tends to sit alongside the vegetables, so that’s where I saw it.

lemongrass bunch

Anyone who has lived in Thailand for more than a couple of months will quickly realize that lemongrass plays an important role in Thai cuisine. I’ve mentioned in a previous post one Thai dish in which lemongrass plays a not unimportant role, Tom Yum soup.

tom yum soup

There are other Thai soups which have lemongrass in their recipe, lemongrass coconut noodle soup for instance.

Coconut Lemongrass Noodle Soup

It also finds its place in the green and yellow curries which are omnipresent in Thailand and which Thais will eat with various meats and vegetables. Here they are accompanying chicken.

chicken green currychicken yellow curry

Lemongrass also plays an important role in various sauces, in this case as a coconut and lemongrass sauce accompanying mussels.

mussels in coconut and lemongrass sauce

In truth, it is not only in Thai cuisine that lemongrass finds a role. It is common to much South-East Asian cuisine. In Viet Nam, for instance, in pork meatballs the meat is mixed with lemongrass and other herbs.

Vietnamese Lemongrass Pork Meatballs

Or there is Indonesia’s beef rendang, where beef is cooked slowly in a mix of spices which includes lemongrass.

Indonesian beef-rendang

In Cambodia, there’s the national spice-mix paste called Kroeung, which almost always includes lemongrass, and which is used in many dishes, for instance in the fish-based Amok trey

cambodian fish amok trey

For Laos, I cite stuffed lemongrass, the one dish where lemongrass plays a star role.

Laotian stuffed lemongrass

Myanmar gives us as one among many examples Mont Di soup, from Rakhine state

Myanmar Mon Di soup

And let’s not forget the Philippines, from which I’ll cite Lechon Cebu. Lechon, a national dish, is a whole roasted pig. Among its many regional variations there is Cebus’s, where the pig is stuffed with a mix of spices and herbs which includes lemongrass.

Philippine lechon cebu

This enthusiasm for lemongrass is not surprising really. The two forms of the plant which are edible, C. citratus and C. flexuosus, both have their tap root buried deep in this part of the world. Anyway, it’s super for me because I have a great fondness for lemongrass. This affection goes back a long way; I first came across the plant some 50 years ago, as a ten, eleven year-old child. It was in Cameroon, in West Africa. My father had moved there after his stint in Eritrea. One afternoon, at tea time at someone else’s place, I was served this delicious pale yellow infusion, which smelled and tasted softly lemon-like.

lemongrass infusion

After I’d oohed and aahed about it for a bit, I was shown the plant, a rather spiky big grass

Lemongrass Plant

whose leaves gave off this wonderful lemon scent when you rubbed them between your fingers.

I did not consume lemongrass in any other form while in Cameroon, nor did I ever consume it any other way until I came to Thailand. In fact, an exhaustive search on the internet has led me to conclude that nowhere between Cameroon and S-E Asia does any traditional cuisine include lemongrass (I stress traditional cuisine; with the globalization of cuisines many people are now trying S-E Asian recipes, either straight or fusing it with their own cuisines). Everywhere in the world, there is much enthusiasm to consume lemongrass but only in the form of infusions. I had high hopes to find traces of lemongrass in the Berber regions of North Africa, where their traditional form of cooking, the tajine, is very much a form of stewing, which is quite close to the way lemongrass is used in this part of the world.


But no, I found no trace of cooking with lemongrass in the shadow of the Atlas Mountains. Not even in India have I found any trace of lemongrass being used in traditional cuisine, even though the subcontinent shares many culinary traits with S-E Asia – curries being the obvious one

south indian curry

and even though the lemongrass plant grows well there (to the extent that C. citratus is known as West Indian lemongrass while C. flexuosus is known as East Indian lemongrass).

I was somewhat astonished by this finding, but also rather disappointed – I had been looking forward to showing pictures of yummy dishes from around the world in which lemongrass plays a role. My first thought was that the consumption of lemongrass infusions the world over was a result of colonialism. In this narrative (a favourite word these days among the chattering classes), Europeans would have discovered the lemongrass infusion (I suspect in India, given the name we Europeans gave the plant)

english lady drinking tea in India

and carried the plant off around the world and hooked our colonial subjects on the drink (the plant’s anti-mosquito properties may also have helped in this diffusion; more on this in a minute).

english lady serving west indians tea

(OK, my pictures show the imbibing of the even more famous herbal infusion, tea, but the general process would have been the same.)

This tidy narrative of mine got a rude shock, however, when I picked up another, insistent, narrative on the internet, which held that already 3,000 years ago the Ancient Egyptians, and through them later the Ancient Greeks and Romans, were familiar with the plant. And there was a big difference. The Egyptians did not eat it, they used it for incense mixes. Incense was big business in Egypt (as it was indeed in all ancient religions). We have here, for instance, Ramses I burning incense as a ritual offering

Rmases I burning incense

and what the Pharaoh did, every man, woman, and probably child, did the length of the country (the country did not have much breadth).

If the Egyptians used lemongrass for incense, I suspect they also used it for their perfumes and perfumed oils. After all, this is also how lemongrass is used today, especially by our friends the aromatherapists.

lemongrass oilI couldn’t find an Egyptian mural showing someone using oils or perfumes, so instead I throw in a picture of ladies using cosmetics more generally.

ancient egyptians using cosmetics

But now the question is, if the Ancient Egyptians were indeed using lemongrass, how did they get it from its place of origin, S-E Asia? I have to think that the answer lies in the spice trade, which was already flourishing in the time of the Pharaohs. Spices like cinnamon and cassia were finding their way to Egypt from Sri Lanka, so it takes no great leap of the imagination to think that lemongrass and other spices were being picked up in S-E Asia and shipped westwards, eventually coming up the Red Sea.

egyptian ship

My personal view is that contrary to many spices, where the product and never the plant was shipped (the plant being treated almost like a state secret), the live plant also eventually made its way to Egypt, perhaps overland through India and Iran, along the Fertile Crescent, and then down into Egypt (and from there I would guess eventually along the coast of North Africa). I say this, because lemongrass has another very valuable use, one which I alluded to earlier, and that is as a deterrent to mosquitoes. The little buggers don’t seem to like the odour given off by the plant, and a strategy still in common use today is to plant lemongrass around a house to keep them away.

lemongrass with mosquito

Where does that leave us? Well, with a gigantic culinary opportunity. The S-E Asian countries should plunge in and promote the use of lemongrass in cooking everywhere where the plant is now growing, which is just about anywhere where there is no frost (the plant is not frost hardy). I’ll be happy to help out, throwing lemongrass into anything I find cooking.


Lemongrass bunch: http://www.ashlyns.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/shutterstock_107826104.jpg (in http://www.ashlyns.co.uk/shop/lemongrass-bunch/)
Tom yum soup: http://greenpawpaw.efe.com.vn/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/ctg-amb-128.jpg (in http://greenpawpawthai.com.au/menu/)
Coconut lemongrass noodle soup: http://www.lafujimama.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Bowl-of-Coconut-Lemongrass-Somen-Noodle-Soup.jpg (in http://www.lafujimama.com/2010/09/coconut-lemongrass-somen-noodle-soup/)
Chicken green curry: http://sushibeveren.com/online/image/cache/catalog/05.%20kip-500×500.jpg (in http://sushibeveren.com/online/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=90)
Chicken yellow curry: http://rachelcooksthai.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/yellow-curry-5.jpg (in http://www.rachelcooksthai.com/yellow-curry-with-chicken-and-potato/)
Mussels in a coconut and lemongrass soup: http://www.taste.com.au/images/recipes/nb/2010/09/25589_l.jpg (in http://www.taste.com.au/recipes/25589/mussels+in+coconut+and+lemongrass+broth)
Vietnamese meatballs with lemongrass: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-Asn6_ojGAY4/UxzHHvW1oAI/AAAAAAAABLQ/XGg1oUmlMf8/s1600/Vietnamese+Lemongrass+Pork+Meatballs.JPG (in http://alwaysinthekitchen.blogspot.com/2014/03/vietnamese-inspired-lemongrass-pork.html)
Indonesian beef rending: http://cdn.noshon.it/wp-content/uploads/2012-10-17-r-beef-rendang.jpg (in http://noshon.it/recipes/beef-rendang/)
Cambodian Amok Trey: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-nWM9m8GUofk/U6r1rqzgBMI/AAAAAAAAPH8/TBOl0hNPnXA/s1600/cambodian+fish+amok+trey+8.jpg (in http://wendyinkk.blogspot.com/2014/06/amok-trey-cambodian-fish-mousse-aff.html)
Laotian stuffed lemongrass: https://gallivance.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/stuffed-lemongrass.jpg (in http://gallivance.net/2012/11/10/a-global-gumbo-ethnic-food-adventures/stuffed-lemongrass/)
Myanmar Mont Di soup: http://www.hsaba.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/12/rakhine_moti.jpg (in http://www.hsaba.com/recipes/rakhine-moti)
Philippine Lechon Cebu: http://tenminutes.ph/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Cebu-Ayers-Lechon-Order-Online-Manila-Shipping-Contact.jpg (in http://ww90.trafficads10.com/)
Lemongrass infusion: 5240254223_8f0879e852_z.jpg (in https://farm6.staticflickr.com)
Lemongrass plant: http://www.herbalteasonline.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Lemongrass-Plant.jpg (in http://www.herbalteasonline.com/lemongrass-tea.php)
Tajine: http://blog.zingarate.com/wanderlustt/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/tajine.png (in http://acquisto.acquea.com/s/tajine)
South Indian curry: http://www.chillimix.com/images/stories/easygallery/resized/0/1212337046_meen%20khatta.jpg (in http://www.chillimix.com/indian-recipe/fish-and-sea-food/meen-khatta.html)
English lady drinking tea in India: http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2015/04/07/vv1190_custom-2fb3f28e67d8197b7555bed3a80833675d5ff748-s900-c85.jpg (in http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/04/07/396664685/tea-tuesdays-how-tea-sugar-reshaped-the-british-empire)
English lady serving West Indians tea: http://cache3.asset-cache.net/gc/3228476-21st-september-1944-west-indian-ats-volunteers-gettyimages.jpg?v=1&c=IWSAsset&k=2&d=v9WwiBskt0bjdeMIS%2fO97bO7qBvmTdPLrPrzxlLhIMyq9QGXYV1QZzXet54z3qgP (in http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/west-indian-ats-volunteers-being-served-tea-at-the-colonial-news-photo/3228476)
Ramses I burning incense: http://cache1.asset-cache.net/gc/112187026-egyptian-antiquities-pharaoh-ramesses-i-gettyimages.jpg?v=1&c=IWSAsset&k=2&d=bGR6JCu8pZbf%2b2sqs4ajC3pr1O6j4GFGzEmSgJKUFx%2fwR1Oa4nADTEaQuSTwZMs0 (in http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/illustration/egyptian-antiquities-pharaoh-ramesses-i-burning-incense-stock-graphic/112187026)
Lemongrass oil: http://38.media.tumblr.com/c2faea8d8070dc30761b84931745bdbe/tumblr_inline_nifdirPvOm1snpbkm.jpg (in http://blog.massagetablesnow.com/page/3)
Egyptian ladies using cosmetics: http://www.notorious-mag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/ladies.jpg (in http://www.notorious-mag.com/2015/08/05/beauty-tips-ancient-egypt/)
Egyptian ship: http://cache3.asset-cache.net/gc/98952627-mural-painting-depicting-scene-of-carriage-of-gettyimages.jpg?v=1&c=IWSAsset&k=2&d=0njLr93epyP%2fp14uTH5hjWyeKg7%2bNmMNGiew1vRXySmP3uh4n3I9GzP5Xf2kYAzW (in http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/photo/mural-painting-depicting-scene-of-carriage-high-res-stock-photography/98952627)
Lemongrass with mosquito: http://www.jewanda-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/98a5997abe901c1f53505e529852c4d7.jpg (in http://www.jewanda-magazine.com/2015/08/lifestyle-10-moyens-naturels-pour-eloigner-les-moustiques/)


Bangkok, 23 November 2014

I must say, I am feeling very pleased with myself. When my wife and I first arrived in Bangkok, we did the time-honored thing of scouting out local culinary delicacies to taste. One that intrigued me was Tom Yum soup. It is described as a “clear spicy and sour soup”. It was the sour part that interested me. Sour soup …. What a fascinating concept, I had to try that. But the spicy part made me hesitate. As I have pointed out forcefully in a previous post, I hate spices, or at least hot spices like chilli. But my desire to experience the sour part trumped my distaste of the spicy part. And so I tried it.

Delicious, absolutely delicious! OK, with every spoonful I was making strange rasping sounds at the back of my throat to counteract the chillies, which after a while had my wife drumming her fingers on the table, and I had to drink iced water by the gallon to calm the fires in my mouth. But behind all this mayhem, I could sense the wonderful sourness of the soup. How was this done? I started scouring the web. The answer is: fish sauce meets lime (fruit and leaf), supported by lemongrass. As usual, different recipes add various other bits and pieces, the most common of which are shrimps, tomatoes, mushrooms, galangal (a sort of root like ginger), and coriander (as a final garnish). And of course, always, without fail, chillies.

I took a momentous decision. I was going to make Tom Yum soup WITHOUT chillies. I was going to show the correctness of a fundamental belief of mine, that hot spices actually add nothing to dishes, that food can be enjoyed quite as much without these terrible ingredients.

Today was the day. Yesterday, my wife took me to an upscale supermarket to find the necessary ingredients. I knew I was on the right track when we found that the supermarket helpfully offered packets of the core ingredients. The remaining ingredients were quickly rounded up.

This morning, after a good night’s rest, I got to work. After reviewing a number of recipes again, I decided on the course I would take, to whit:
1. Boil the water.
2. Cut several stalks of lemongrass into short segments. Bruise them so that they more easily exuded their lemony oils. Cut a few slices of galangal. Destalk the lime leaves and cut them up a bit. Squeeze the limes and collect the juice.
3. Ostentatiously throw away the chillies, the ones that the supermarket had added to the pre-packed set of ingredients.
4. Add 2 tablespoons of fish sauce to the boiling water. Add the juice of 2 squeezed limes. Add the lemongrass segments, the slices of galangal, the lime leaves. Bring to a boil. let simmer for a while.
5. Add the mushrooms and the tomatoes. Bring back to a boil and let simmer a bit.
6. Taste. Feel the panic rise because the soup is not nearly sour enough. Add 3 more tablespoons of fish sauce and the juice of 2 more limes. Let simmer. Taste again. Better, but not there yet. Add 2 tablespoons of fish sauce and 1 more lime. Simmer. Taste. That’s better! Now we have that sourness!
7. Add half a dozen shrimps, cook briefly.
8. Serve, spreading chopped coriander on the surface as garnish.

We ate it with a side-dish of rice my wife made.

My wife was the official taster. She pronounced the soup to be absolutely delicious, and declared that the chillies weren’t missed at all. She concluded that henceforth I could be considered the official family provider of (chilliless) Tom Yum soup, along with mashed potatoes (my speciality). My breast swelled with pride.

Now that a few hours have passed and I have reflected on the experience, I would say a few things. First and foremost, I was right: you don’t need chillies! I will now attack various other dishes which I would like very much were it not for the spices that cooks insist on adding (maybe I should make a web-site of this culinary crusade of mine). Second, I think I panicked and made the soup too sour. It was really good at the first spoonful but beginning to get too much by the last. A lighter touch would have carried me through effortlessly to the end. Third, I wonder if something other than shrimps could be used. Their taste really gets lost in the sourness. I have to think about this one a bit. Fourth, I think I have to adopt the European habit of putting the ingredients you won’t eat in a muslin bag. It kind of takes away from the pleasure of eating to have to pile up the lemongrass segments, galangal slices, and lime leaves on the table cloth as you go along. Fifth, I think I should go easy on the coriander the next time. In fact, I might try parsley instead. Sixth and lastly, when I get back to Europe what am I going to use instead of limes? Lemon? Mandarin? Orange? I’m going to have to think about this one too.

Oh, in all the excitement, I haven’t added a photo of the soup. In our haste to try it, neither my wife nor I took a photo of my creation. And I hesitate to take one from the web, because they all are of soups made with chillies. But what the hell, here is a photo.


Also, one day I will write a post on how I make mashed potatoes. Promised.


Tom Yum soup: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-oRNilG7HYh8/T7-q1Kg0suI/AAAAAAAAA_k/Z8gykr2ZYtU/s1600/tom-yam-soup-chef-duminda-2012.jpg (in http://cook-with-chef-duminda.blogspot.com/2012/05/tom-yam-soup.html)