Fins Restaurant
Good Weekend: Sydney Morning Herald June. 2000
Photography Mark O'Meara Food Styling by Yael Grinham

Tang Dynasty

One advantage of living in the country is having lemon myrtle, bunya nut, davidson plum and bay trees in my garden.

I would have to be starving before I would eat some bush tucker, but other offerings, such as lemon myrtle, impart a special flavour and aroma to food.

Lemon myrtle (Backbousta citriodora) is a native plant with creamy yellow flowers and shiny, pale green, lemon-scented leaves. Found only in Australia, it occurs naturally as a shrub or small tree (3 to 8 metres high) in rainforest on the coastal strip between Brisbane and Mackay. It will also tolerate colder climates, Victoria's included, as long as there is no frost. Friends in Sydney grow it in a pot so that they always have a leaf at hand.

Lemon myrtle is to me what lemongrass is to other cooks. Some enthusiasts describe its leaves and the oil derived from it as "more lemon than lemon". 

Citral is the component that gives lemons, lemongrass and lemon myrtle their scent. Lemon oil, cold-pressed from lemon rind, is usually 3 to 10 per cent citral; lemon myrtle is 95 per cent citral. It is also seven times stronger than the popular lemongrass. However, it adds a subtle, rather than overpowering flavour - as a guide, two leaves in a full pot with two teaspoons of green tea provide a satisfying tea with definite lemon myrtle overtones.

In cooking, lemon myrtle may be used fresh or dried. Use it as you would a bay leaf in recipes requiring a lemony flavour and substitute it in any recipe calling for lernongrass. It is available as a syrup or as dried or powdered leaf from Cherilsoff Pty Ltd - The Rare Spice Company, (02-9818 2800; and from Herbie's Spices (02-9555 6035;

1 use lemon myrtle straight from the bush. The best-quality leaves are pliable and smell sweet when rubbed between your hands. To dry fresh [caves, place them somewhere with good air circulation for three to four days, or dry them in your car's glovebox. Fresh or dried leaf can be stored in an airtight jar, and it also freezes well.

Lemon myrtle has a natural affinity with seafood, but complements any meat or vegetable dish requiring lemon flavour or aroma. It can be used in pasta, rice, vinaigrette, chutney, cheesecake, confectionery, lemonade and, ice-cream. 1 use it in a pie with apple, polenta and golden syrup. It can be added to stocks, or to ginger, garlic, chilli, basil and coriander in Asian dishes, or to wine, basil and cream if there's Mediterranean on the menu. The fresh leaves also enhance presentation of any dish.

It can be only a matter of time before lemon myrtle is elevated from a fetish to a staple.


(serves 4)

200 ml fish or chicken stock
4 fresh or dried lemon myrtle leaves
30ml peanut oil
1 tsp sesame oil
1 medium onion, sliced finely
1 garlic clove, chopped finely
5 mm piece of ginger, chopped finely
1 tsp palm sugar
1 tbsp red curry poste thought, or see recipe below)
32 large green king prawns, peeled and devined
40 ml fish sauce
15 ml sweet soy sauce
80 ml coconut milk
12 basil leaves (with 1 cm of the stem left on)
12 coriander leaves
2 spring onions, sliced diagonally

Heat stock and steep with lemon myrtle for 20 minutes.

Fry the oils, onion, garlic and ginger in a wok over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add the sugar and curry paste and fry 2 minutes or until aromatic. Add the prawns and coat with the mixture, then add fish and soy sauces and the stock with lemon myrtle. Bring to a simmer, then add the coconut milk and remaining ingredients.

Serve immediately with steamed or boiled rice. (A lemon myrtle leaf cooked with the rice is a good idea.)

(makes about 1 cup)
6 dried red chillies, socked overnight, then chopped
5 white peppercorns
8 red shallots, peeled and sliced
6 lemon myrtle leaves, destemmed and finely chopped
2 stalks lemongrass (tender part only), finely chopped
1 tbsp gulangol, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 tbsp chopped coriander root
1 tsp blachan (shrimp poste, from Asian food stores), fried in oil or wrapped in foil and softened under a grill
1 tsp carry, powder
1 tsp rice flour
60 ml chilli water (from soaking dried chillies, above)
2 tbsp bosil leaves
1 cup peanut oil

Puree all ingredients except the oil in a food processor, then heat in a wok with the oil and cook 30 minutes over medium heat. This paste may be stored for up to a month in the fridge, with a film of oil on top and then covered.

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