Serai or lemongrass is a herb that is used for a variety of Southeast Asian dishes, as a natural bug repellent it could commonly be found in a lot of Malay gardens. It is generally pretty easy to care for. In fact, here in Kuala Lumpur where a daily evening shower is not uncommon, I have left my lemongrass without watering it for months and it survives when some of the fussier ones might not.
However, my father would always remind me to give the plant a periodic trim to boost its growth. I’ve often watched him snip the leaves off the stalks and later cutting them into small pieces before scattering them in various pots to be used as mulch (with a bonus aromatic fragrance that would last the rest of the day). And as his work kept him busy and I began to take over the mantle, I too would prune them from time to time, usually after my father remarked on how long the leaves have grown.
Which is why it came as a surprise to me when I found out that some people actually buy lemongrass leaves to make tea! My mother had long been brewing lemongrass stalk for its health benefits but we had never considered the leaves to be edible. And as someone who is ‘allergic’ to the term ‘discard’, I was excited to find one extra use out of the leaves before I return them to the earth.
Traditionally, lemongrass is known for its ‘detoxing’ properties as well as a remedy for some gastrointestinal issues but more and more research is proving that lemongrass comes with a lot of beneficial properties.
In labs and animal studies, lemongrass exhibits antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticancer and antiproliferative properties which would help against problems like cell degradation and tumour growth. They also show vasorelaxant properties and in one observational study, those who drank lemongrass tea experienced a moderate drop in systolic blood pressure with a mild increase in diastolic blood pressure. Lemongrass oil has also been shown to help control cholesterol levels in animals although it is not known if the same effect could be seen from simply taking lemongrass tea. Lemongrass extract also gave hypoglycaemic effects on rats which suggests it would help with Type 2 diabetes.
What surprises me most was how effective lemongrass oil is in its antimicrobial and antibiofilm properties. In fact, in a preliminary study, lemongrass oil has even been shown to be a helpful addition to periodontal therapy for treating chronic periodontitis (a severe gum infection). Which is why in many countries , people have been traditionally chewing the stalks as a part of their oral hygiene routine–and the fibrous stalk works well as an emergency brush.
Despite all of these amazing benefits, it is important to remember that like all things, natural or artificial, everything likely comes with a side effect of some sort and it is important to keep things in moderation (even too much oxygen can kill you!). Many people suggest steeping 1-3 teaspoons of fresh or dried leaves in a cup of boiling water and you could either let it cool with a couple of iced cubes or serve them hot.
My mother, at the moment the only person who regularly drinks the tea, likes hers cold so I usually boil a pot of water, drop the chopped leaves of one stalk in after I turn the gas off and once it has cooled, just pop them into the fridge for a couple of hours. If it is a thicker stalk with more leaves, I would dilute the tea before serving.
I tried having the tea once but having the taste of what I usually associate with savoury food in my tea was very confusing. But knowing what how healthy this tea is now, I might give it another try.
So please, don’t throw your leaves out. Even if you don’t like having it in your drink, you could repurpose them into your cooking. It doesn’t taste exactly like the stalk but it still has the lemony scent which would go well into a number of soup and broth. And you’ll feel good about repurposing something that otherwise would have gone into the bin.