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I Spice: Galangal


I enjoy reading Su-Mei Yu because she writes things like, “The perfume released from galangal reminds me of the warm and fresh scent in the air after a heavy downpour of monsoon.”

That makes me want to run in the kitchen and cook with galangal, so I interviewed her about it. And when I did, the wet-weather metaphors continued. “Sliver a tablespoon or two of young galangal into matchsticks and add to your salad," she suggested. "It is like sprinkling a bit of a rain shower over it as it magically perks up other ingredients by sharpening their tastes and flavors."

Born in Thailand, Su-Mei Yu describes herself as a avid health food crusader and food historian. She is also the author of "The Elements of Life: A Contemporary Guide to Thai Recipes and Traditions for Healthier Living" (Wiley, 2009), a simply gorgeous book. She was full of other tantalizing suggestions for using galangal, but before I get to those, let me back up a bit.

What is galangal, you ask?

Much like ginger, it's a rhizome: commonly referred to as a root but technically (and more accurately) an underground stem. Used in Thai, Malaysian, Moroccan and Indonesian cooking, galangal is very aromatic with a spicy, almost peppery taste.

There are two primary types of galangal: greater and lesser. We're interested in greater galangal, which is the one used in Thai cooking and the one more commonly available in large Asian grocery stores. Lesser galangal is more often used in medicine than in cooking and is usually sold in jars; if you are unsure which is which, ask.

When purchasing galangal, look for young pieces that have a shiny, almost translucent peel with gentle shades of peachy beige. They can be eaten raw or added to stir-fries. Older galangal roots are hard and woody, generally pounded into pastes before use. To store, just wrap galangal in a paper bag and refrigerate. It will stay fresh for months.

Now on to Yu's suggestions for using galangal: Mince and mix with freshly squeezed lemon juice, salt, pepper and olive oil and slather all over a chicken, then stuff six or seven more slices of galangal and the rinds of the lemon you just squeezed in the cavity and roast. Add a few slices to your pot of chicken soup, or when making apple cider to give it a new personality.

You can buy galangal dried, but Yu does not prefer it for cooking. She does suggest that it makes a nice spa motion for massaging into aching muscles: Combine a teaspoon or so with 1/4 cup almond or rice bran oil and cook for a few minutes over low heat.

Closer to home, baker Patrick Deiss of 2941 also gave me a slew of suggestions for using galangal. Deiss, a former chef de cuisine at 2941, loves to work with Asian ingredients.

  • Sauté lightly and puree in curries, red or green.
  • Make a vinaigrette: Briefly saute finely minced galangal, then combine it with garlic, kaffir lime leaf, fish sauce, lime juice and black pepper.
  • Slice it paper-thin using a mandolin and deep-fry, then use to garnish spicy curries and fish dishes.
  • Slice it into 1/8-inch coins, top fish fillets, then wrap in banana leaves and steam.
  • Roast galangal slices with shallots, lemongrass, onions and Thai chilies and combine in a mortar and pestle or blender to make a curry base.
  • Combine minced galangal with tamarind and peanuts to make a satay sauce.

-- Monica Bhide

(Monica Bhide)

Glazed Pears in Lemon Grass and Galangal Syrup
4 to 6 servings

MAKE AHEAD: The pears can be cooked, cooled and refrigerated in their syrup for up to 3 days.

Serve with low-fat vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. Adapted from "Elements of Life," by Su-Mei Yu (Wiley, 2009).

4 stalks lemon grass, tough outer layers removed, tender inner stalk cut into thin slices then pounded
10 to 15 thin slices galangal, lightly pounded
4 or 5 strips lemon zest (without any white pith)
2 cups water
2/3 cup sugar
3 firm Anjou pears, peeled, cut in half and cored

Combine the lemon grass, galangal, lemon zest and water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat.

Reduce the heat to low and cook uncovered for 30 minutes.Discard the lemon grass, galangal and strips of lemon zest.

Increase the heat to medium; add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Then add the pears and turn to coat. Cover, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 5 minutes. Uncover and cook for 25 to 30 minutes, until the liquid turns syrupy, turning the pears occasionally.

Discard the syrup (if serving the pears right away); serve warm or cold.

Per serving (based on 6, without syrup): 50 calories, 0 g protein, 13 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 80 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 9 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  March 26, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide, recipes  
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