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06/11/2014 07:00 am ET

What The Hell Is Lemongrass, Anyway?

Dejan Patic via Getty Images

You've heard of lemongrass, and you've probably tasted it, but do you know what the hell it is? Lemongrass is actually exactly what it sounds like: a grass-like herb that has a lemon flavor. There's a lot more to it than that, however.

Popular in Thai and Vietnamese cooking, lemongrass also works well in Western cooking -- its complex flavors can liven up a variety of dishes and are are also enhanced by many different spices and seasoning. Lemongrass's slightly sweet, pungent and lemony taste makes it great for spicy stews and curries, but it also works well in desserts and sodas and cocktails.

If you haven't explored the complex notes of lemongrass yet, or if you're an avid fan who just wants to learn more about this common but somewhat mysterious ingredient, here are nine things you should know. Read all about it and then check out the lemongrass recipes below.

  • 1 Lemongrass is an herb that is part of the grass family.
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    It is tall a perennial grass, which means it comes back year after year. The plants can grow up to three feet tall and wide.
  • 2 Lemongrass is native to South Asia, South-east Asia and Australia.
    Dejan Patic via Getty Images
    It is cultivated throughout Asia and used heavily in Asian cooking, from Vietnamese to Thai to Indonesian.
  • 3 India is the largest producer of lemongrass.
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    Responsible for 80 percent of the world's lemongrass crop, India produces more lemongrass than any other country in the world -- by a long shot. It grows in the states of Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, as well as in the foot-hills of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim.
  • 4 There are many types of lemongrass.
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    Three common varieties are Cymbopogon citratus, Cymbopogon flexuosus and Cymbopogon nardus or C. winterianus. Cymbopogon citratus, which has a large bulb similar to a scallion, is often found in Thai cooking. Cymbopogon flexuosus, also called Cochin Grass or Malabar Grass, is native to India, Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand and also used in cooking. Cymbopogon nardus is mostly cultivated for oil.
  • 5 Lemongrass can be dried and powdered, or used fresh.
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    It is a versatile herb that can lighten meat- and oil-heavy dishes with its lemony, pungent flavor. To use it for flavoring, you can dry it and then pound the stalks to release fragrant oil. You can then use the stalk as you would an herb to season meat or fish when cooking, placing the stalk in or around the meat or fish in roasts. You can also simmer the stalks for soups or tea. If you want to eat fresh lemongrass, slice the central core into thin pieces, and make sure you don't slice too thick, because lemongrass can be very woody. You can toss slices into salads or stir fries, or puree into a seasoning paste.
  • 6 Lemongrass oil can be used for more than just cooking.
    Juanmonino via Getty Images
    It can also be used in soaps, detergents, candles and for aromatherapy. It can also be used to repel insects -- ordinarily the form of citronella oil.
  • 7 Citronella oil comes from lemongrass.
    goodmami/Flickr
    Citronella oil, which is used as an insect repellant, is derived from the leaves and stems of different species of lemongrass. It's often used in a candle to ward away mosquitoes.
  • 8 Lemongrass is also said to have medicinal qualities.
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    People say it aids with digestion and blood circulation. Lemongrass oil is also used topically to treat headaches, stomach aches and muscle pain.
  • 9 When you're buying lemongrass...
    David Hannah via Getty Images
    Look for firm and heavy stalks with no bruising and larger bulbs. The heavier stalks mean they have retained moisture; avoid the lighter ones because they have likely dried out. You can store lemongrass stalks in your refrigerator for for up to three weeks.

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