The Fresh Flavors of Thai Food

As you can see, my shipment from Thaigrocer.com arrived.

Look at how lovely and fresh the lemongrass and especially the galangal look!

Everything smells wonderful, though I have to admit to being a bit disappointed with the lime leaves–usually when I open a box from Thaigrocer, the first scent that strikes me as I unwrap the packing paper is the flowery, linden-sweet scent of the kaffir lime leaves. They are usually fairly tender and soft; the ones from this shipment however, are leathery and a bit dry. Not as fresh as I would like, however, as soon as I crumpled one between my fringers, the characteristic floral scent wafted up and danced with my nostrils.

I cannot wait to make a green curry, now!

Here is a quick a dirty guide to the fresh Thai seasonings most necessary to recreate the scents and savors of a Thai kitchen:

Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) is a fragrant member of the grass family. Several species of lemongrass have importance in the perfume industry; this one in particular, however, is a queen in the kitchens of Thailand and southeast Asia. In India, this species is most often used as a medicinal herb or in perfumery, but in the rest of southeast Asia, it is an important culinary herb.

The young stalks, I am told, are used sliced thinly as edible garnishes; I have only seen lemongrass so sweet, tender and young in tropical areas like Florida, where it can grow as easily as weed. (A friend of my father-in-law, being culinarily obsessed and a curious gardener, planted a clump of it on a whim, and then watched in dismay as it took over his entire lawn. He has been known to uproot entire swaths of it, and drive around to Thai restaurants, giving clumps of it away at the kitchen door to very happy chefs.)

Since I have never come across young lemongrass, my preferred method of using it is as a component to curry pastes, such as those for Panang Curry and Red Curry, in simmered dishes like Tom Kha Gai and in the flavoring pastes for stir fries and dry curries, such as Mu Pad Prik King.

Lemograss is commonly available at Asian markets, but it is also often found in metropolitan grocery store produce sections. It is also available dried, but I don’t much care for it; it has very little aroma or flavor. I would not suggest using lemon zest as a substitute, in large part because it is much stronger and harsher in flavor and scent than lemongrass–the citrus scent of lemongrass is somehow softer, milder and altogether sweeter than the actual scent of a lemon.

If you are lucky enough to live in a tropical climate, you can grow your own lemongrass–that is, if you don’t mind its invasive ways! If you don’t live in a tropical zone, it can be grown in pots–starts are available from a local Athens area nursery–Companion Plants. They specialize in culinary, medicinal, dyeing and perfumery herbs, and they do mail order.

Kaffir lime leaves , which are the leaves of the Citrus hystrixtree are another Thai ingredient that is irreplacable. Zest from regular Persian limes or Key limes is a barely adequate substitute; both of them, while very fragrant and delicious lack the inherent floral quality of the real article. Kaffir lime leaves when young and fresh are strongly fragrant, and nothing will scent a pot of curry or soup quite as well and as deliciously as a small handful of kaffir lime leaves sprinkled over the pot, with the lid clapped down tightly to capture all of the exquisite perfume.

The etymology of the word “kaffir” is somewhat disturbing to me: in English the word was used in some places as a derogatory term for a native African. The root word is from the Arabic “kafir,” which means “infidel” with the overtone of “barbarian” and so it bothers me every time I say. No one seems to know how the name was pinned to this native southeast Asian tree’s leaves and fruit, but it was.

It is said that kaffir lime trees are easily grown indoors, however, I am not very skilled at keeping purely houseplants alive. If I don’t underwater them, I overwater them, or I leave the windows open and the frost gets them, or the worst of all, the cats eat them to nubs. So, I have always just ordered the lime leaves fresh and left it at that. When I have used as many fresh as I can, I store them in ther freezer, and they keep quite well there for months at a time.

I like it best in curries, especially Green Curry, but I also love it in soups like Tom Kha Gai and slivered up and stir fried into Thai Spicy Basil Chicken. The combination of the anise-scented basil and the floral lime leaves really balances the popping heat from the chiles, shallots and garlic that dominate the flavor palette of this dish.

If you are a better indoor gardener than I am, you can find small kaffir lime trees at Logee’s Greenhouse. Full cultivation instructions are available here.

Galangal, otherwise known as “greater galangal” is a woody, quite tough but spicily aromatic rhizome that is related to the more common ginger. Yet another native to Southeast Asia (do we see a pattern here?) this rhizome has been used medicinally and culinarily for thousands of years throughout the region.

My favorite use for it, however, is in Tom Kha Gai, a dish I have made no less than three times in the past month and a half. When the heat soars and I am sweaty and cranky, I really like nothing better than a bowl of steaming Chicken-Galangal Soup to cool me off. I always insist on using either fresh or frozen galanagal in the soup; the dried rhizome chips, chunks or powders have a musty, overly medicinal flavor and aroma that does not give the unique, luscious savor to the soup that the more herbally-scented, spicy and hot fresh or frozen pieces do. (I also use it in my Chinese Hot and Sour Soup, along with lemongrass, which makes the already delicious soup even more complex and beguiling.)

It is also a mandatory ingredient in most Thai curry pastes; substituting ginger in either the soup or the curry pastes results in a completely different flavor. I highly recommend seeking this fresh spice out and using in your favorite Thai recipes and see what a difference it makes in flavor and aroma. If it is not available fresh in your local Asian market, look for it frozen, in unpeeled chunks, wrapped in plastic. Or, order from Thaigrocer.com.

Thai bird chiles or just plain old Thai chiles, are what put the fire in Thai cookery. The original heat source in Thai cuisine were white peppercorns, which are still used in copious amounts, but as soon as the chiles were introduced after the sixteenth century, they were adopted with great ferver and love by the Thai people.

These little (about 1 1/2″ long) chiles are hot wee devils, with the green ones having an herbal bite and the red ones a smoky, fruity flavor. The ones I just ordered came in with a distinctive, fresh scent that bespoke their heat level–I swear you could smell the chile oil in them!

I use these a lot, not only in Thai cookery, but in Indian and Chinese cooking as well. I find that I can freeze them whole with no real loss of quality, and have done that to save the ones I buy fresh at the farmer’s market in the summer for the winter. They do really well that way, though I have run out of the ones from last summer by now.

They are very commonly sold in Asian markets, and I would say are among the most popular of chiles at the market.

The uses for them are many; obviously, they are used in curry pastes, but also in stir-fries, soups, pickles, sauces and salads. I like them in dry curries like Mu Pad Prik King, and in Pad Thai. But, really, I use them in so many recipes, it is hard to really list them all.

Finally, I adore Thai basil so much that I grow it, and have grown it to have fresh in my garden for the past several years. The year I started plants from seed, I had more than fifty seedlings that survived to become healthy, bushy, mature plants, which meant I had a lot of basil to use in stir fries such as Thai Spicy Chicken. Basil and Asparagus and in noodle dishes and curries.

This year, I am growing about ten plants on my deck in various pots, planters and boxes, plus, I can get it all summer long through my CSA. This means I will have a great many chances to improvise with the spicy anise-scented basil with its violet stems and blossoms contrasting with deep green leaves. I am thinking of putting together a sort of Thai pesto and serving it with stir fried rice noodles. We’ll have to wait until I am back at home in my kitchen again to see what happens with that thought, though.

For home gardeners, you can order Thai basil plants from the afformentioned Companion Plants, or you can get seeds from just about any seed company you can think of. A great cultivar is Siam Queen, which grows up big and bushy, with lots of cinnamon-anise aroma and flavor, and pretty purple stems and violet blossoms contrasting with dark green leaves. It is a lovely plant, and the more you cut it back, the more bushy and vigorous it becomes. It is a plant that truly likes heat and humidty, and which appreciates a nice steamy summer with lots of sun. This year, it is growing like mad up on my deck garden!

So, there we are–a quick guide to the fresh flavors of the Thai kitchen. None of these ingredients taste the same, or in my opinion, with the exception of the chiles, taste even as good as the fresh versions. These fresh ingredients are irreplacable, and I highly recommend that if you cannot find them in a shop near you, nor grow them youself, that you seek out a reputable online supplier like Thaigrocer.com and order some of each of these ingredients for yourself and experiment with them. If you are serious about Thai food and want it to taste as authentically wonderful as possible, I think you owe it to yourself and your tastebuds to give these flavors an honest trial, and see what you think of them.

14 Comments

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  1. I’m growing lemongrass for the first time this year. Does anyone know when to harvest? Can the leaves be cut down, with the bulb left in the ground to regenerate? Or must I pull the entire stalk to use at once? I’m looking forward to making Thai shrimp soup (tom yum goong) with my home-grown lemongrass.

    Comment by Lydia — July 19, 2006 #

  2. I rooted a stalk of lemongrass I bought at the grocery store – I looked for one with the tiniest nubbins of it roots still on. I grew it in a pot and bring it inside for the winter. Grew great! I have been advised to cut it off just above the roots and it will continue to grow but I have not tried it this way yet.

    Comment by Christine — July 19, 2006 #

  3. Barbara, as a basil grower, what do you do with basil flowers? Mine have just started flowering, and I don’t know whether to pick them off to keep the plants producing more leaves, or whether to leave them on. Can you cook with the flowers at all–do they have any flavor? This is the first year I’ve had a backyard, so I’m new to herb gardening!

    Comment by Emily — July 19, 2006 #

  4. i love it when you post about thai food! i really want to learn how to cook it but alas, mother hates my experimenting due to me spending lots of time cleaning up afterwards and nobody in my family is really experimental when it comes to food (save for me). i’m thinking about getting a lemongrass plant for my dorm room when i move out to culinary school, so hopefully it will serve me well.

    Comment by Ana — July 19, 2006 #

  5. This is a great Thai primer! A few thoughts…

    LEMONGRASS:
    I have lemograss growing outside in a pot. And while it’s not hot enough here in northern CA to get intensely fragrant, it does OK. I don’t use it much for cooking except when I’m totally out of it and need a quick fix, then I uproot a few stems and off I go. My (half-Siamese) cat goes out every morning and eats some for breakfast. He is a Thai kittie after all.

    My favorite made-up non-Thai recipe for lemongrass is flank steak marinated in a mixture of fish sauce and black (sweet) soy sauce with lots of minced lemongrass and a few broken red chilis. Marinate a day or so and then grill, slice and serve over rice.

    KAFIR LIME LEAVES:
    I too hate the name, but it’s the common name. The authors of “Hot Sour Salty Sweet” valiantly refer to it as “wild lime leaves” thoughout their book, in an effort at obliterating latent racism. But sadly, no one knows what “wild lime leaves” are and if you ask for them you will just get a blank stare. They are marketed consistently as kafir lime leaves…

    An excellent nursery that ships all kinds of specialty citrus is Four Winds Growers. I got mine there and it’s doing fabulously. It droops a bit in the wet winters here, and so I bring it in, but in summer it’s SO happy. Four Winds website is below…

    http://www.fourwindsgrowers.com/

    Comment by Diane — July 20, 2006 #

  6. Lydia–most lemongrass sold in stores has been cut at the soil line, leaving the roots intact. From what I have learned from my father-in-law’s friend whose yard was taken over by lemongrass, cutting it at the soil line and leaving the roots intact allows the plant to regenerate and keep growing.

    Christine–that sounds like the way it works to me!

    Ana–my parents were very food conservative when I lived at home, so I understand what you mean. You probably will not learn much more about Thai food in culinary school–most culinary schools give very short shrift to Asian cuisines, BUT–the instructors tend to be very supportive of individual student study, innovation and experimentation.

    So, you will get a chance to learn on your own. Until then, read as much as you can on Thai food and cooking, and taste what you can in good restaurants.

    Diane–your non-Thai recipe–sounds very like a Vietnamese recipe–lemongrass beef is served either stir-fried or grilled over rice noodles with salads and pickled veggies. It is a lovely, lovely dish.

    Thanks for the growing advice and the tip for getting a kaffir lime tree!

    (And yes–while I am made uncomfortable by the name kaffir lime–I would never try to call it something else in a market just to be politically correct. I may internally wince when I say the name, but I still use it when it is appropriate. I like people to know what the heck it is I am talking about….)

    Comment by Barbara — July 20, 2006 #

  7. Oh, and Emily! About Thai basil–cut off the flowers to keep it from going to seed until frost. You can eat the flowers and use them as a garnish or in food–they taste basically like the leaves.

    I think that the purple flowers look pretty as a garnish, personally.

    Comment by Barbara — July 20, 2006 #

  8. Thanks for the gardening advice, Barbara. I’ve got two lemongrass plants in my herb garden. I’ll cut one at the soil line to see if it regenerates. And if it doesn’t, I’ll have had a fine batch of lemongrass-shrimp soup out of it anyway!

    Comment by lydia — July 21, 2006 #

  9. kaffir addendum:

    A new friend and I were discussing all things subcontinental(rather, she was schooling me) and we hit upon the perceived derogatory implications of the modifier, “kaffir.”

    She says kaffir, rather than meaning foreigner, savage, etc. to her ear has much milder implications:

    she says “kaffir” is like a “sufi” or, less religious, a wanderer, a philosopher perhaps, the “kaffir” is the
    “uncle” or “brother” who’d much rather wander from place to place experiencing the great, wide, strange world than hold down a “regular” job. Of course, this might be construed unfavorably, but it’s a far cry from a slur.

    She finds the whole makrut vs. kaffir dialectic highly amusing.

    Now how even this interpretation relates to the sublime twined leaf remains a mystery.

    Comment by Christopher Gordon — July 23, 2006 #

  10. Yes, Christopher–no one seems to know exactly how the name kaffir came to be associated in English with the lime leaves.

    It is a mystery for the ages, I suppose.

    Comment by Barbara — July 24, 2006 #

  11. Herbs are the plants generally grown for the various purposes like medicinal, culinary or in some cases even for spiritual value. Medicinal herbs are shrubs or the woody plants, whereas a culinary herb is non-woody plant. The green, leafy part of the plant is typically used. General usage differs between medicinal herbs and culinary herbs.

    Comment by Aeryn Honey — July 25, 2006 #

  12. The division between medicinal and culinary herbs is -NOT- along strictly morphological botanical lines as you claim, Aeryn. The leaves of the kaffir lime tree–which are -certainly- used culinarily, are definatelly from a shrub or woody plant–trees definately being woody and all. And yet, they are not to my knowledge used medicinally.

    The leaves and flowers of a chammomile plant, being green and soft, is the “green,” and “leafy” part of a non-woody plant. However, they are more commonly used medicinally than culinarily.

    You are also ignoring the culinary and medicinal uses of seeds, roots, and rhizomes of both woody and non-woody plants.

    Comment by Barbara — July 25, 2006 #

  13. Dear, Barbara

    I stumbled upon your blog and I love it!Very nicely assembled and very informative!

    I’d like to throw in my 2 cent worth in the debate about kaffir lime though.(Being Thai, I always call it makroot anyway) I can see how people take offense of the word kaffir being used.In islamic term it literally means an infidel and the word has been bandied about a bit in fundamentalist islamic schools (even here in the UK). Besides, it is a derogatory term in South Africa, akin to the “n” word in American English. And maybe because the irregular shape of the kaffir lime fruit, it was then known as the “kaffir” lime, indicating inferiority.

    Comment by Win — January 25, 2007 #

  14. Looks great!!! Thanks ;)

    Comment by paul — June 18, 2010 #

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