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.
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.
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