MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
Imagine for a moment, you're trekking through the concrete jungle of a southeast Asian city. The first thing you notice is a smorgasbord of smells. Some are enticing; others, downright rank. Amid the urban odor-rama, one pungent fragrance stands out: lemongrass. NPR's Anthony Kuhn gives a whiff of the herb that is essential to the cuisines of Southeast Asia.
ANTHONY KUHN: Tucked away beside the bustle of Bangkok's Convent Road is Naj, a family-run restaurant and Thai cooking school. Tanaporn Markawat, the founder's son, welcomes us.
TANAPORN MARKAWAT: Now, we are in our herbs garden. We have more than 50 herbs. We have like lemongrass, basil, cumin leaves, pandanus, the main ingredients that we use in Thai food.
KUHN: Across from the lemongrass is a row of its close relative, citronella. It's used to make citrus-scented candles and a natural mosquito repellent. Tanaporn removes the tough outer layers of a stalk of lemongrass, revealing its pink insides and unleashing an incredible smell.
If you haven't experienced the smell yourself, perhaps the best way to describe it is - ah - the fragrance is intense and ornate like a filigreed eve curlicuing from the roof of a Thai Buddhist temple.
In Thai dishes, Tanaporn says, lemongrass lifts the weight of meat and oil. It replaces the weight with an herbal pungency and an exquisite lightness.
MARKAWAT: Most of the Thai dishes, we use the lemongrass. It's very important, like sometime when you have like a curry, because a curry is oily and the lemongrass can help you digest and can help the blood circulation. It's very healthy.
KUHN: Let the lemongrass overwhelm your senses. Eat a pile of the stuff raw in the form of a Thai lemongrass salad.
(SOUNDBITE OF CUTTING)
KUHN: Tanaporn cuts several lemongrass stalks into little discs. Bits of dried shrimp, squid and peanuts add crunch. Tiny chili peppers provide punch far above their weight. Finally, Tanaporn pours on a dressing of lime juice, fish sauce and sugar. He tosses the salad and serves it wrapped in jade green betel leaves.
Lemongrass grows wild and in gardens throughout much of Southeast Asia. Tanaporn's mother, Luckananaj, explains that when many Thai people go to their gardens to pick some herbs for dinner, lemongrass is often what they come back with.
When you were growing up, did you have lemongrass growing near your home?
LUCKANANAJ MARKOWAT: Oh, yes, sure. Because lemongrass is the most essential ingredient in every dish of our curry. From 10 dish, you may have about eight dishes that have to use this essential ingredient, lemongrass.
KUHN: Lemongrass is also a key ingredient in the cuisine of Indonesia and spicy rendang beef or chicken, scented rice or salsa-like sambal condiments.
At the Jakarta Bed and Breakfast, owner and cooking school teacher Clara Sitompul prepares a lemongrass flavored beef soup. She cuts the beef into cubes, then to bring the flavor out of the lemongrass, Sitompul uses something no Indonesian kitchen should be without.
(SOUNDBITE OF GRINDING)
KUHN: It's a flat mortar and pestle called a cobek, which is used to grind up spices. Then the flavorings are stir-fried.
CLARA SITOMPUL: And then you must cook these onions, ginger and the lemongrass.
KUHN: Sitompul boils the beef and finishes the soup by adding a plate of celery, caramelized onions, tomato, black pepper, coriander and lemon peel. She says the best way to describe the taste of lemongrass is by its effect. Appetizing, almost Pavlovian.
SITOMPUL: When you cook this lemongrass, you must be hungry if you smell it, of course.
KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Jakarta.