Lemongrass Substitutes for Thai Curries and Fusion Soups

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If you are planning Thai for dinner and found that the fresh lemongrass lurking at the bottom of the refrigerator is way past its best, then there are some other things you can use in place of lemongrass in your Thai Green Curry.

Also a key ingredient in Tom Kha Gai (chicken coconut soup), lemongrass is used in many other soups, curries and teas. It pairs well with chicken, meat and seafoods, often bringing a ‘fusion’ flavor to our more Western dishes. It can also be used in dipping sauces, as flavoring in crème brûlée or even served in fresh salads with Asian salad greens.

Lemongrass is a herb. The lemongrass plant or Cymbopogon citratus grows commonly in South east Asia and other tropical climates and the part that we use in cooking is the stalk of the lemongrass plant.

Lemongrass contains the same essential oils as lemons, which is why lemongrass has a lemon flavor with some ginger and floral notes. As well as in cooking, lemongrass was used traditionally in cosmetics and in medicines, and was actually called ‘fever grass’ in some cultures as it was used as a treatment for fevers. Lemongrass is still used in some areas, including the Caribbean to aid digestion and reduce blood pressure.

It was in the early 1900s when the possible benefits of lemongrass began to spread and by the late 1940s, lemongrass was being commercially cultivated in Haiti and Florida.

Lemongrass contains a number of bioactive compounds such as B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, potassium, zinc, phosphorus and folate, although you would have to consume a lot of lemongrass to obtain any nutritional value from these as they are in such small amounts.

One tablespoon of lemongrass contains 5% of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of iron for men, and 2% of the RDI for women. It also includes citral and limonene, two compounds that gives lemongrass, lemons and other citrus fruits their distinctive lemony aromas.

It is thought that lemongrass may have some benefits when consumed in food or drunk in tea. Lemongrass has been able to inhibit some yeast and bacterial growth in the laboratory and it contains compounds linked with reducing fevers and also pain.

At present, lemongrass is likely safe to take when consumed in food amounts, although those who are pregnant should avoid consuming lemongrass as it is also linked with menstruation control.

Lemongrass may be available fresh, frozen or dried at your local grocery store, or if not, an Asian specialty store. Fresh lemongrass is usually sold in a bunch of long stalks. Look for stalks that are yellow-white at the base and green towards the top. It should also be firm and bulbous at the base and the outer leaves should be fresh, not brown or crusty.

Fresh lemongrass will keep for a few weeks in the refrigerator, or it can be frozen in whole stalks or minced pieces.

Cooking with Lemongrass

Where possible, fresh lemongrass should be used in recipes as this has more complex and brighter flavors, whereas a dried lemongrass tends to have more woody flavors. Lemongrass is a very fragrant herb that also adds a slightly tangy and sharp taste to a dish without overpowering other flavors.

When using fresh lemongrass, the tougher outer leaves should be removed along with the lower bulb. You can then either cut the stalk into smaller lengths (two to three inches) and make superficial cuts along their lengths before bending (or ‘bruising’) the sections several times to help release the flavors.

These can then be added to the pot and removed before serving or removed from the dish when eating.

If you prefer to leave lemongrass in the dish, then the stalk should be sliced thinly and then added to your food processor for further blending as lemongrass is fibrous and stringy. Your recipe should also be allowed to cook for at least five to ten minutes to help soften the lemongrass.

However, dried lemongrass can be used in recipes that require simmering as this gives time for dried lemongrass to re-hydrate and its flavors develop. Dried lemongrass should be removed before serving, unless it is a lemongrass powder which can stay in the dish for eating.

One stalk of fresh lemongrass can be substituted with one teaspoon of dried lemongrass in a recipe, and it is better to keep to meat and poultry dishes that have a base when using dried lemongrass.

Substituting Lemongrass

Although lemongrass is uniquely flavored, its stronger hints of lemon means that lemon (or some other citrus fruits) are probably the easiest ‘go to’ when you don’t have any lemongrass to hand for your soup or curry.

Below we have listed a variety of substitutes, some of which are very easy to obtain, while others are more unusual, and you may have to source them from specialty stores.

1. Lemon

This is probably the easiest lemongrass substitute due to its availability.

The zest of one lemon will replace one stalk of lemongrass in a dish. You can also pair lemon zest with arugula to add more of the lemongrass notes to the dish. If you pair these, then one arugula leaf with a teaspoon of lemon zest will replace one stalk of lemongrass. It is important to use arugula sparingly because of its peppery and sharp taste and this substitution is best used in fish stews and broths.

Lemon juice is probably better added to liquid recipes such as curries or soups where the extra liquid will not alter the consistency of the dish. Use fresh squeezed lemon juice rather than bottled lemon juice. If the recipe only needs a small quantity of lemongrass, then a squeeze of fresh lime may also substitute.

If you have preserved lemon available, then using the peel and pulp of this in seafood dishes is an acceptable lemongrass substitute.

2. Ginger and Cilantro

Suitable for use in broths and soups, you can substitute lemongrass with ginger and cilantro.

Two teaspoons of cilantro stalks alongside two teaspoons of fresh ginger will replace one stalk of lemongrass. It is important to use cilantro stalks rather than leaves as the stalks are richer in flavor.

3. Kaffir Lime Leaves

Kaffir limes (Citrus hystrix) are limes with bumpy skin which have a very bitter taste. Also called porcupine oranges, the limes themselves are not consumed but are often used in household products in countries such as Thailand.

Although the limes themselves are inedible as they are, zest from the Kaffir limes can be used in curry pastes and the leaves can be eaten either cooked or very thinly sliced. Popular in dishes such as curries, stir-fries, soups and salads in Thai, Cambodian and Indonesian cuisines, the Kaffir lime leaves are uniquely flavored - both citrusy and spicy - and they also have a unique aroma.

Kaffir lime leaves are generally used like bay leaves in cooking; they can be added whole or in smaller pieces but when if they are being cut finely to be consumed, the mid-rib of the leaf must be removed as it is tough. Otherwise, remove the Kaffir lime leaves before the dish is served.

Part of the citrus family, Kaffir lime leaves can be sourced fresh, dried or frozen, although you may need to visit a specialty store focusing on Asian cuisines to find these.

If you are making curry or soup, you could also replace one stalk of lemongrass with one Kaffir lime leaf, two tablespoons of fresh lemon juice and one tablespoon of lime zest.

4. Kreung

Kreung, or lemongrass paste is a Cambodian cooking ingredient which you can find in some Asian grocery stores. As well as lemongrass, kreung contains galangal (a tuber resembling ginger which has a sharp and citrusy flavor with pine-y notes) and shallots.

One teaspoon of paste should be used in place of one tablespoon of fresh and chopped lemongrass.

Just for reference, three to four stalks of lemongrass chopped will give you around half a cup (4 oz) of chopped lemongrass.

5. Japanese Yuzu

Also called citrus junus, Japanese yuzu is a citrus fruit that is lemon colored, grapefruit sized, and its zest has hints of mandarin orange! Yuzu also has a floral fragrance and taste, perhaps most similar to the bergamot in Earl Grey tea.

Traditionally used in east Asian cuisine, yuzu is used in sweet and savory dishes; often added to curries or fish recipes.

If using yuzu in any recipe, you will find it more difficult to extract the same amount of juice as you would from a lemon or lime as yuzu has larger pips and produces less juice. If a recipe needs the juice of one lemon, then you would probably need two or more yuzu to extract the same amount of liquid, but care should be taken with yuzu as it does add powerful flavor to dishes.

6. Other Lemongrass Alternatives

Other herb substitutions include four lemon balm leaves for one stalk of lemongrass. Ideal in desserts, lemon balm should be chopped and added to a dish towards the end of the cooking time.

You could also use lemon verbena in savory cakes, curries and sauces, although this should be used with care because of its intense aroma and flavor. You only need to add two chopped or torn lemon verbena leaves in place of one stalk of lemongrass.

Final Words

If you do not have fresh, dried or frozen lemongrass to hand, then the easiest options for substituting are lemon, ginger and cilantro or kaffir lime leaves. Some of these can also be used in combination with each other to represent not just the unique flavor of lemongrass, but also its heady aroma.

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1 thought on “Lemongrass Substitutes for Thai Curries and Fusion Soups”

  1. I would like to tell u that kaffir lemons are edible and it has been one of our staple.
    Iam from Tamil Nadu and we make kaffir lime pickle. A lunch doesn’t go pass without it in our home.

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Chris P. Brown

Chris has a degree is in community nutrition and he currently works with a not-for profit organizati...

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