Lengkuas vs. Serai, the Blues and Voodoo


So I was flipping through mum’s old Female Cookbooks…you know those amazing 70’s and 80’s cookbooks that teach you how to do astirfry on a charcoal stove! Those strange books that use weird ingredients such as ovalette and pisang raja.

I mean…who makes goreng pisang from scratch or peranakan prawn sandwiches? I feel sadly longing for those days when your Eurasian or Pernakan neighbour would be making some strange kuih and the smell would go wafting up into your house and you kaypohly saunter near her gate hoping that she will give you some to taste test. Then you discover her stupid son has just come home from school and polished the whole batch off in the time it takes for one Thundercats programme.

 I digress.

So as I’m flipping through this book, there are these conflicting uses of serai and lengkuas in there. I mean I’ve studied Malay intensively but when do we ever know when to ditch the lengkuas and go for serai instead? what’s the difference? So in the interest of sorting this out for once and for all…Here goes!

MAIN DIFFERENCES! So what in Malay is lengkuas and Cantonese lam keong is better known in the English world as as blue ginger, is a rhizome with culinary and medicinal uses, best known in the west today for its appearance in Southeast Asia cuisine but also common in recipes from medieval Europe. It resembles ginger in appearance and taste but has this soapy, earthy aroma and a pine-like flavor with a faint hint of citrus. It is available as a powder from vendors of Oriental spices and also available in whole, cut or powdered from vendors of herbs. A mixture of galangal and lime juice is used as a tonic in parts of
Southeast Asia. It is said to have the effect of an aphrodisiac, and act as a stimulant.

Serai or lemongrass has more to do with grass and less with lemons. It is a tall perennial grass. Common names include lemon grass, lemongrass, barbed wire grass, silky heads, citronella grass or fever grass amongst many others.It has a citrous flavour and can be dried and powdered, or used fresh. The stalk itself is too hard to be eaten, except for the soft inner part. However, it can be finely sliced and added to recipes. It may also be bruised and added whole as this releases the aromatic oils from the juice sacs in the stalk.   SO WHAT’S THE TASTE DIFFERENCE? Ok so now you know. Lengkuas = Root. Serai = Grass. But both of them are sort of citrusy so how do I know just how much and where to add these 2 old school roots and grasses?Like other members of the ginger family used in Thai cooking, Lengkuas’ pungent spiciness freshens the taste of seafood. For salads, slice the root as thinly as possible, then stack several slices at a time and cut into very fine slivers; for soups, thin slices are simmered to flavor the broth. Galangal is also an essential ingredient in Peranakan cooking and is chopped and pounded to a paste with the other usual suspects of rempahs. If I start talking about rempah’s this might go un till tomorrow. Well anyway, Lengkuas adds a heat and depth that normal ginger doesn’t. Now you understand where the heat in Tom Yum Gung comes from…its not just from those chilli padis baby!Speaking of Tom Yam soup, scientists are now studying
Thailand’s favorite soup: Tom Yum Kung, which contains all of these herbs and spices, with lemongrass as the key player. So if Lengkuas adds the heat in Tom Yam soup, then what does Serai do? Well it adds a citrusy kick that more subtle than just popping a lime zest would do. Personally I feel a stalk of serai in my prawn sambal really elevates the taste of my sambal and of course, you need to boil it up nice and long to infuse the taste into your rending. In fact, I’ve seen a few smarty pants use serai stalks as skewers to BBQ Satay and Sotong and it really adds that special hint of flavour. A friend used to slice up the tender inside stalk of the serai and mix it up with plum sauce, fish sauce, sweet chilli and lime juice as a great basting sauce. Oh and
it is often used as a tea in African countries (e.g. Togo) but I think its too damn strong as a tea.ANYTHING INTERESTING ABOUT LENGKUAS AND SERAI?


Blues musicians sing about Lengkuas all the time. “Ya old son of gun Lengkuas” they would yelp. Erm actually Lengkuas was believed to be some crazy cool African root that could make you higher than Snoop Dogg on a Grammy’s night! Lengkuas was known as John the Conqueroo, also known as High John the Conqueroo, John the Conqueror, or John the Conquer root, to which magical powers are ascribed in American folklore, especially among the hoodoo tradition of folk magic among African Americans. The root, in turn, is named after a folk hero called High John the Conqueror. The root and its magical uses are mentioned in a number of blues lyrics. Regardless of which name is used, in all of these contexts “conqueror” is invariably pronounced “conker”. Now who is this John the Conqueror?John the Conqueror was supposed to be an African prince who was sold as a slave in the
Americas. Despite his enslavement, his spirit was never broken and he survived in folklore as a sort of a trickster figure, because of the tricks he played to evade his masters. In one traditional John the Conqueror story , John falls in love with the Devil‘s daughter. The Devil sets John a number of impossible tasks: he must clear sixty acres (25 ha) of land in half a day, and then sow and reap the sixty acres with corn in the other half a day. The Devil’s daughter furnishes John with a magical axe and plow that get these impossible tasks done, but warns John that her father the Devil means to kill him even if he performs them. John and the Devil’s daughter steal the Devil’s own horses; the Devil pursues them, but they escape his clutches by shape-shifting.
Now what’s all this got to do with Lengkuas and its magical powers?  Well Lengkuas is a strong laxative if taken internally. It is not used for this purpose in folk magic; it is instead used as one of the parts of a mojo bag. It is typically used in sexual spells of various sorts and it is also considered lucky for gambling. It is likely that the root acquired its sexual magical reputation because, when dried, it resembles the testicles of a dark-skinned man. OK SO I AM REALLY NOT SEEING THE BLUES CONNECTION!Ok to cut the crap, 1954, Muddy Waters recorded a very popular version of Willie Dixon‘s “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man” song with an additional verse mentioning John the Conquer root:I got a black cat bone, I got a mojo too,
I got a John the Conquer root, I’m gonna mess with you,
I’m gonna make you girls lead me by my hand,
Then the world will know the hoochie coochie man.
SO WHAT ABOUT SERAI?Serai unfortunately is not so exciting. Its also known as citronella and used as some sort of mosquito repellent. Head down to Bunnings and you’ll see loads of it in big containers. 


One response to “Lengkuas vs. Serai, the Blues and Voodoo

  1. This is one of the most amazing insights into lengkuas i have ever found!!!!

    Please keep on linking music and food and history…..i love it!

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