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/)


Beijing, 16 March 2013

Let me tell you about Lisa.

That’s not her real name, by the way, it’s her Western name. Like many Chinese, she has adopted a Western name for her interactions with laowai, or foreigners, like us. Which is just as well, frankly, because I personally never remember Chinese names and always mispronounce them dreadfully, which must be trying for the person being mispronounced.

Lisa is one of the army of young people who act as receptionists in our building. My wife and I are not entirely sure what any of these people do. Part of the day they sit at the desk by the entry door, monitoring who comes in and out. Then they disappear to do who knows what somewhere else in the building. They are perched at a somewhat higher level in the building’s management hierarchy than the doormen. They get to sit at the desk in the entry hall, while the doormen (always men, by the way) only get to stand by the door swinging it open for anyone who goes in or out. The two worker categories are distinguished by their uniforms. Lisa and her cohorts wear a white shirt, dark suit (men and women; no tailleurs here), and a dark coat during the winter months. The doormen, on the other hand, wear what looks like army fatigues and a red beret (although we have noticed that one doorman seems to have moved up the ranks and now wears an outfit more akin to the receptionists; but he still opens the doors).

Lisa is a godsend to us, because she speaks pretty good English. Whenever the electricity stops, or the hot water cuts off (which has happened to me twice when I was well soaped under the shower), or the TV mysteriously loses half of its channels, or the air conditioning system doesn’t blow any air out, my wife knows whose mobile number to call to explain what the problem is. In no time at all, Lisa will marshal the right buildings management crew or add some more Yuan to our electricity card, or water card, or hot water card (they have a rather bewildering system here for utilities; money gets credited onto a card, which then is used to credit an account we have somewhere in the building, and the utility magically works again). We always know which are her days off, and we anxiously hope that nothing will happen during those days; dealing with the other young men and women at the reception desk is hard going since they speak hardly any English. Some six months ago, we were also very afraid – as was Lisa herself – that she would be rotated out of the building to another of the host of buildings owned by our real estate company, but luckily this did not come to pass.

Over the year we’ve been in this building, my wife has struck up a good relationship with Lisa. She is a very friendly person and loves to chat. In the process my wife has found out a few things about her. She lives far away on the outskirts of Beijing, with her parents and twin sister. Given her miserable wages (real exploitation; I don’t know what Karl Marx would have said about it), and the fact that real estate in central Beijing now costs the same as in Manhattan, there is no way she can afford to live alone closer to work. And I think there is still an expectation that as an unmarried woman she should live with her parents. She went to a second-tier university to study languages, so it’s a bit depressing to see that the only job she could get was as a building receptionist, admittedly in one of Beijing’s tonier buildings. But the press often has articles about the army of young Chinese whose parents struggled to send them to university – but, crucially, one of the second-tier universities – and who haven’t managed to land a job (or at least a job that fits their expectations after a university degree). They live like ants (the term used in a study of this phenomenon), jammed together in colonies on the outskirts of Beijing and other big cities, as squatters in buildings condemned to demolition, eking out a living with small jobs here and there, often not daring to tell their parents what the true condition of their lives are.  So I suppose Lisa can consider herself lucky to have a regular job, even though she’s paid miserably, works long hours, and hardly gets any time off.

One thing about Lisa that warms the cockles of our hearts is that she has an enthusiastic curiosity about the rest of the world. I think her dream would be to travel all over the world if she could. She took her first small step in this direction some six months ago, when she left the country for the first time in her life and visited Thailand. She had managed to scrape together a week of holidays. She went with a group, of course, and they didn’t do anything very adventurous – Bangkok and a beach somewhere was the sum total of the trip. But she was so happy. She emailed us a photo of her standing somewhat awkwardly next to a guard at the King’s palace in Bangkok, beaming at the camera. And when we met her after she got back she told us all about the trip with a big smile on her face. She said she was looking forward to her next trip, once she had scraped together some more holiday time (she was on duty during the Chinese new year, when most of the receptionists took time off). My wife persuaded her to think of traveling alone, telling her that her English was good enough for her to manage without a group. She showed Lisa where she could buy her own flight tickets on-line and book her own hotels. Lisa was a little hesitant but seemed game to try. She was thinking of going to Viet Nam, she told us.

Yesterday, when my wife was leaving the building, Lisa came running over, beaming with joy. She announced to my wife that she had found a travel companion – traveling alone was too much for her. It was one of the other women at the reception. They were going to Viet Nam, Lisa announced, she had chosen the flights using the websites my wife had given her, everything was going swimmingly. But when my wife came back that afternoon, Lisa was completely crushed; my wife told me she had never seen her so down. When her travel companion had announced to her parents the plan of going to Viet Nam, her mother had nixed the idea: too dangerous, she had pronounced. It is true that China and Viet Nam had had a little war back in the late 1970s and that there is a certain amount of animosity at the moment because of disputes over islands in the South China Sea, but to say that Viet Nam is dangerous is ridiculous. But the parental veto had been cast and that was that. My wife urged Lisa to reconsider the destination. Lisa mournfully said she had thought of Malaysia; China wasn’t having any fights with them. But she had really set her heart on Viet Nam. It’s Lisa’s day off today. Let’s see if the night has brought her counsel, as the Italians say.