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I have a meal planned in a few days and it calls for lemon grass. Problem is I've been to the store a couple of times and they don't have it.

(the store is a block away and I don't feel like driving all the way to the next one to look)

The dish is curry spiced noodles, basically a stir-fry. Any suggestions?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Western grocery stores generally don't carry lemon grass, you'll need to go to an Asian market. Many of them will also sell dried (powdered) lemon grass, which is definitively the best substitute you can find for fresh lemon grass.

Honestly, there's really very little else you can substitute. Lemon grass has this hint of citrus flavour but also, as the name implies, a sort of grassy, herb-like flavour.

If I were really desperate, I would substitute lemon zest (fresh only), at 1/2 tsp for each lemon grass stalk called for by the recipe, and several pages online seem to suggest adding in some arugula (to give it that grassy quality). But be warned, it is not going to be the same, it's going to be a great deal more bitter, so consider either reducing the quantity or adding more sweet/savoury spices or ingredients to the curry to compensate (cinnamon, perhaps).

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@Aaronut: Do they not carry it in the US? In the UK, almost all supermarkets carry it. –  Orbling Jan 11 '11 at 12:29
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@Orbling: I live in Canada so I can't speak as to the USA. However, most supermarkets here don't carry it. I think there's one that does, but I don't like to go there because there's a T&T (Asian market) that's closer. Then again, most supermarkets here seem to have stopped carrying toasted sesame oil as well, and I have to get it a health food store. Maybe the crappiness of supermarkets is just a Toronto/Canada phenomenon, but it would seem from this question that it's not quite that localized. –  Aaronut Jan 11 '11 at 14:27
    
@Aaronut: My apologies for implying you were in the US. Whilst we do have specialist regional grocers in the UK, they are not over abundant outside of cities. I live in London, and even there it is a 40 minute drive to my nearest Chinese specialist, and about 20 minutes to my nearest Indian specialist. The supermarkets stock most foreign ingredients here, certainly enough to cook most popular dishes in Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Caribbean, Mexican cuisines. It depends on the local population mix for others. –  Orbling Jan 11 '11 at 14:35
    
Don't worry @Orbling, I didn't take offense. Anyway, it's very much the opposite here; most supermarkets tend to only carry common/mainstream ingredients but there are specialty stores, Indian groceries and so on, in almost every pocket of the city. Probably a result of our high ethnic concentrations. Thing is, even if you can find something in a regular supermarket, it's usually going to be less expensive at the specialty store because they sell enormous amounts of the stuff. –  Aaronut Jan 11 '11 at 14:49
    
@Aaronut: I think with London being such a melting pot of cultures, there is no mainstream, so the supermarkets stock everything, lol! Of course you get cultural enclaves, and the less widespread communities tend to have specialist shops within those places. You are totally correct on the cost factor, the specialist stores tend to be many times cheaper for ingredients. Quite interesting. –  Orbling Jan 11 '11 at 15:08

Well I would suggest if you really can not get it, then leave it out altogether. It provides accents of flavour rather than a primary usually in most curry recipes, so it can be omitted.

If you want to substitute it, then you can use lemon or lime zest, possibly with some mint leaves to freshen it a little. But the end result will not be the same, just enhanced in a similar fashion to that which lemongrass achieves.

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In my experience, also, it is best simply left out if you don't have it. It isn't a must have flavour. –  Carmi Jan 11 '11 at 12:38
    
Would you say to leave it out of ALL dishes if you can't find it? I want to make congee (recipe calls for brown rice, lemongrass that I can't find, sweet potato, bok choi, soy sauce, sesame oil, almonds, red chili flakes, ginger, cilantro and scallions), but my local grocery store that used to carry lemongrass hasn't had it in weeks. Doesn't seem like mint leaves would fit in that dish...but I feel like it'll be missing something if I leave out the lemongrass-ness entirely. –  Laura Dec 15 '11 at 16:49
    
@Laura: If you can not obtain an ingredient that provides a significant taste factor, then the end result will not taste as expected. Lemongrass is not often star of the show, occasionally perhaps, but not usually. I would say just add some lemon or lime juice or zest, not too much, and see what it tasted like - or just leave it out altogether. In that congee recipe, I would probably use a squirt of lime juice instead. It wouldn't be the same, but would be alright with the other ingredients. –  Orbling Jan 17 '12 at 17:53

I always think lemongrass tastes more like lime than lemon. I'd use the grated zest of a lime, perhaps mixed with some of lemon.

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Lemongrass freezes well. If you cannot find it in the fresh section, try the frozen section of the market. Personally, and unfortunately, I haven't been able to find it even it at my own local Asian market. Recipes in some of my cookbooks call for lemon zest as an alternative.

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I'm certainly not an expert but as was mentioned briefly before, lemon balm might be a better substitute than lemon or lime zest. It has a subtle lemon-y flavor and also the 'grass-y' note (if fresh). I've used that before when I was out of lemongrass and it was better than leaving it out. I just had to play with the amount, however, adding tiny bits at a time and tasting.

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It's not identical, but probably not a bad substitution. Especially if you add a dash of lime zest to it. –  BobMcGee Jul 2 '12 at 1:49

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