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Tangy and Refreshing - Citrus and Lemongrass

DK PublishingDK Publishing 2/07/2014 DKBooks
© Provided by DKBooks

Citrus and Lemongrass

The fresh clean citrus zing that makes your tongue tingle is a vital characteristic of Asian food. It can be as simple as a wedge of lemon or lime with some grilled shrimp or more complex, in the form of lemongrass and lime leaves with the addition of tamarind. In whatever form, the sour citrus notes are essential not because they have a nice flavor (although this is true), but because when combined with the other strong flavors in Asian cuisine they bring everything into balance. In Thai cooking, this is called rot chart, or “correct taste.” The opposite of hot is sweet because the acid in chiles is soluble in sugar, not water. This is why, when you have something that is too hot or spicy, you should cool it with yogurt, cucumber, or honey, or something sweet. The opposite of salty is sour. When these four elements are combined, there is a perfect balance of flavor and the food is delicious.

“Citrus notes are essential not because they have a nice flavor (although this is true), but because when combined with the other strong flavors in Asian cuisine they bring everything into balance.”

The role of citrus

Citrus cuts through the fattiness and richness of foods such as roast pork or coconut cream. It also refreshes and enlivens any dish, forming contrasts between ingredients. A squeeze of citrus at the end of cooking works much like a highlighter pen on a page of writing. It draws attention to certain elements and helps them to stand out—it makes other ingredients work harder. Lemons and limes (Citrus spp.) are probably the most widely used citrus fruits in the world. Lemons originated in India and were brought to Europe by the Romans in the 1st century AD. These fruits have been used as food and medicine in Asia for thousands of years. They both work as the perfect natural flavor enhancer. If something you are cooking is overseasoned and too salty, add a squeeze of lemon or lime juice to readjust the balance and counter the saltiness.

Both the zest and the juice can be used in many different styles of dish. The zest provides all the vibrancy, but with none of the acid. When you are zesting citrus, it is important that you zest only the thin colored part of the skin that contains all the citrus oils, not the bitter thick white pith. Also, to maximize the amount of juice from a tough lemon or lime, roll the fruit firmly under your hand on a board with your weight on top. This breaks down the fibers inside, resulting in more juice.


Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) is mostly used in Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, and some Malay and Indonesian food. This highly perfumed reed-like plant is native to Southeast Asia and has an amazing lemony perfume, but without the acidity of citrus. Lemongrass is used in a number of ways. The tough stalk is pounded and bruised to release the aromas, then cooked whole to impart a huge burst of flavor as in tom yam (hot and sour soup). Alternatively, the tough outer layers of the stalk are removed, leaving the more tender stem inside. This is finely chopped into thin rounds and added to salads and garnishes. It must be cut very finely; if too thick, it would be like chewing a stick.

In Southeast Asia, the flavorful stems are also used as skewers, to impart their unique aroma. Lemongrass also features as one of the main ingredients of Thai curry pastes and marinades.

Kaffir limes

Kaffir limes (Citrus hystrix) are often called fragrant limes or makrut limes, and look quite unusual compared to regular limes. The skin is dark green and very knobbly. Both skin and the fragrance of the juice are very intense, reminiscent of a citric essence or the most expensive type of perfume. These have far less juice than ordinary limes, but a little goes a long way. Kaffir lime zest can be grated into curry pastes, marinades, and herb dressings. The zest can also be frozen for later use. If kaffir limes are not available, double the amount of regular limes.

The kaffir lime tree also produces a fragrant dark green leaf that is common in the Southeast Asian larder. Used whole in soups and curries, or finely shredded as a garnish and marinade ingredient, the leaves are best kept in a sealed bag in the freezer to hold their color and prevent them from drying out. The leaves defrost in seconds and can then be finely chopped or shredded, or used whole to flavor sauces.

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