Digging Up Delicious Lemon Grass

Columns Ono, You Know

October 4, 2015

Story By: Ali Resich | Photos by: NATHALIE WALKER

One of the culinary world’s most mysterious ingredients, lemon grass is much like an invisible miracle worker — rarely seen, but always putting its magic touch on food with a whimsical stroke of refreshing flavor. The tropical herb is often left out of the final presentation of entrees — as its fibrous stalk is too tough to eat — but its earthy meets citrusy essence may be extracted to permeate foods for the better. You may not be able to pick it up on your plate, but you’ll definitely smell its fragrant, intoxicating aroma and savor its soothing taste.

Lemon grass is heralded for its medicinal benefits in India and used in cuisines throughout Asia, especially in Vietnam and Thailand. It may be steeped in soothing tea, or used fresh or dried to season everything from soups to meats to salads.

This week, let’s take the mystique right out of lemon grass and expose what it has to offer. We’ll discover what it looks like, tastes like, and where you can find some truly unforgettable dishes made with this uplifting ingredient.

Little Village Noodle House

As David Chang will tell you, lemon grass isn’t prevalent in traditional Chinese cuisine, but there’s still a place for it on the menu at Little Village Noodle House, where he serves as general manager and partner. After all, the haven of Northern-style Chinese fare has been known to add fun, worldly flavors to its selections to cater to a diverse American customer base.

So when one of his guests has a craving for the unmatched charm of lemon grass, Chang offers up a few delights, including Lemon Grass Chicken ($10.50). Emblematic of the Thai influences on the menu, this dish features completely drool-worthy chicken that has been breaded, fried and coated in glazed goodness. To bring our star ingredient into every bite, “We extract the lemon grass flavor into a big pot of liquid, and we actually do a reduction on it. Then we strain out the liquid, get the flavor and then we make the sauce out of it,” explains Chang. When paired with crispy basil, this sauce becomes addictive.

Patrons also may taste strong hints of lemon grass in Shrimp Pineapple Fried Rice ($10.50), which fuses a number of Asian seasonings — from ginger to li hing — to create an island-inspired fried rice. One bite of this combination of shrimp, soft pineapple, veggies and a kick of jalapeno, and you’ll be planning your next visit.

Little Village Noodle House

1113 Smith St., Honolulu

Chef Chai

With a menu of inspired Thai cuisine up his sleeve, celebrity chef Chai Chaowasaree knows what he’s talking about when it comes to lemon grass.

The chef recently shared with me his Ox-tail a la Chai ($15 happy hour, $29 regular), an oxtail soup found on his menu at Chef Chai. As it turms out, oxtail soup actually is very popular in southern Thailand, though it’s quite different than the local rendition we’re used to. Chaowasaree uses a family recipe with slow-braised oxtail and a hot broth infused with lemon grass’ natural oils, galanga (Thai ginger) and Chinese celery. Not surprisingly, many customers say it’s the best they’ve ever had.

“The broth itself is so healthy because it has a lot of nutrition from the garlic and the lemon grass,” says the chef. “And lemon grass is good for you for your cold and your sinuses.”

Chaowasaree also informs me that while many people don’t know it, one part of the lemon grass plant you can eat is the inner layer, which is less fibery and very tender.

He chops these portions extremely fine and uses them in a lively salad dressing for his Naked Shrimp Salad with Lemon Grass Garlic Dressing ($7 happy hour, $12 regular). This dish shines so brightly with pops of mango and large shrimp.

Chef Chai

Pacifica Honolulu,
1009 Kapiolani Blvd.,

Hawaii's Best
Hawaii's Best