Lemongrass: Hope Springs Eternal

Machane Yehuda in Yerushalayim is a riot of sound and smell that can be completely overwhelming for anyone their first time there. It is here in this public market that one can find the mundane and the exotic. Mostly the mundane.

Having come from the US, I am accustomed to a wider variety of ingredients than is available in Israel. This is simply a demand issue, because anything can grow in Israel. It aggravates me and I often complain how there are a grand total of fourteen vegetables in Israel, and little in the way of varieties among them. There are something like thirty varieties of cucumbers in the world alone, and considering this is the Israeli salad capital of the world, I haven’t seen a kirby since I made aliyah. Don’t even ask about the pickles here. Lower East Side sours are part of our heritage for crying out loud!

For the most part, the vendors of Machane Yehuda are owned or supplied by three or four vendors. There are, however, a few vendors that regularly stock vegetables and food materials that aren’t on everyone else’s displays. Of course it’s premium stuff, for a premium price, but then how many times a week are you eating King Oyster mushrooms?

Let me tell you a little story…

Once a groom had insisted that we make Lemongrass Chicken as a choice for his wedding. When the boss came in with the request, the chef snorted and muttered some unflattering comments about the guy. He told me to get twenty dollars for lemongrass. Being a newly minted commis and relatively new to high-end foodservice, I politely asked for a description of lemongrass. “Looks like scallion, smells like lemon, go up to the Korean section of Flushing and ask in any grocery store. Get two bunches.” I grabbed the money and headed up to the Not Jewish part of Flushing. Decked out in my chef’s coat and pants (and kippah of course), I started wandering in and out of Korean groceries searching for lemon-scented scallions.

After maybe three smaller shops I turned into a larger grocery. The owner/maman sitting at the register asked me, the only Not Asian in her store, “What are you looking for?” I have no idea what she expected me to answer. I’m sure she didn’t know what to expect from me.

“Uh, lemongrass?” I answered, not sure if there was any correlation between lemongrass and whatever the word was in Korean [turns out it’s lemon geuraeseu.. silly me]. Or if she, too, wouldn’t have it.

Lemongrass. Like a scallion, only not.
Lemongrass. Like a scallion, only not.

“In the refrigerator, right side.” She went back to whatever she was doing, totally unfazed. Okay, so in her world Jewish chefs walk into her store every day and ask for lemongrass. I walk back to the fridge and sure enough there were bunches of scallion-looking things. I picked one up and smelled it. Lemongrass smells distinctly like citronella candles. Mainly because they use the oil from lemongrass to make citronella candles.

After spending a few more minutes perusing the shelves, which included 1-pound blocks of jellied pigs’ blood and robins’ eggs, I paid for two bunches and headed back to the kitchen.

When we started prepping for the wedding, the chef had me fetch the lemongrass from the fridge and dice it. He added it to the chicken breasts with lemon juice and who knows what else. The feedback from the boss was that the groom said it was, “the best lemongrass chicken he’s ever eaten.” Whatever. Over the years I’ve thought about this episode over and over.

Fast forward fifteen years.

Imagine my surprise when walking through Machane Yehuda I spotted a handful of fresh lemongrass stalks. Sure, a number of spice merchants have dried lemongrass available regularly, however since it is mainly an Indian, Thai, Indonesian, and Vietnamese seasoning, I hadn’t expected it to turn up fresh here in Israel. I asked how much it cost. He said five shekel. A kilo?


Oh brother.

Since you don’t really eat lemongrass (it’s too woody), you only use it as an aromatic the difference between dried and fresh is minimal. The good news is that if you prepare it properly, one stalk will go a long way. And, since it was right there in front of me, I splurged and bought the fresh stalk. The. One. Singular. Now I have to develop a recipe worthy of a five shekel stalk of citronella-scented woody scallion.

When using lemongrass, bruise it with a meat tenderizer to allow the oil in it to flavor your dish. Tie it in a soup bag or cheesecloth so you can fish it out easily. Don’t try to chew it though, it’s very tough.

If I can find lemongrass in Israel, I’m sure that it’s only a matter of before I find other exotic ingredients. Exotic relative to Israel, that is.

In 2006 a research team from the Ben Gurion University in Israel found that lemon grass (cymbopogon citratus) caused apoptosis (programmed cell death) in cancer cells. Through in vitro studies, the researchers examined the effect of citral, a molecule found in lemon grass, on both normal and cancerous cells. Using concentrations of citral equivalent to the quantity in a cup of tea (one gram of lemon grass in hot water), the researchers observed that citral induces programmed cell death in the cancerous cells, while the normal cells were left unharmed.

Source. Let’s hear it for Israel :-)



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