Galangal, an immensely pungent and fiery rhizome, is often found in Thai, Indonesian, and Malaysian cooking. A rhizome is an underground creeping stem of a plant that sends out shooters to create new plants. Ginger is also a rhizome, and at first glance you might mistake galangal for ginger. Galangal is a little bigger though and it also has a shinier, whiter skin than ginger’s soft brown coating. It’s much, much harder than ginger, too.
Galangal also tastes different than ginger. It’s more piney and sharp, with a strong citrus scent. It gives, oddly, both an earthy note and a higher citrus note to curry pastes and dishes. Galangal is very hard and woody, although the centre is usually a little softer and juicier than its woody exterior. Use a very sharp knife to cut it into splinters then grind it with a good spice grinder. There aren’t many good substitutes for galangal. Don’t substitute ginger; they are often both called for in Malaysian and Indonesian recipes anyhow. You can find galangal powder which adds a little of its citrus flavour, but it’s not a good substitute for the real thing. You can usually find frozen galangal, however, in your Asian grocer’s freezer, if you can’t find it fresh. For a fresh-tasting soup to serve as a starter to your dinner guests why not try this Tom Ka Gai, a soup made of chicken (Gai) cooked (Tom) in coconut milk which has been infused with galangal (Kha), lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves, that we love from shesimmers.com.
- 3 cups sodium-free chicken stock
- 450g boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite size pieces across the grain
- 230g fresh or canned straw mushrooms (drained)
- One stalk lemongrass
- 5-6 fresh bird’s eye chilies (more or less depending on your heat preference)
- 5cm piece of fresh galangal, sliced thinly crosswise
- 4-5 fresh kaffir lime leaves
- 4-5 limes
- ¼ cup fish sauce (but have more ready)
- ½ cup fresh cilantro leaves
- 1½ cups full-fat coconut milk
- First, concentrate the stock. Put the chicken stock in a wide and shallow saucepan (to ensure fast evaporation), bring it to a boil, and reduce it over medium-high heat until the liquid measures half its original volume. (If you have access to very, very good chicken bouillon granules which are not all about salt and very little flavor, by all means, dilute double the amount you normally use in 1½ cups of water and use that in place of the concentrated chicken stock.).
- Halve (or quarter) the straw mushrooms into bite-sized pieces; set aside. (You can also use white button, cremini, and oyster mushrooms. Any meaty, mild-flavored mushrooms will do. Portobello mushrooms are fine flavour- and texture-wise, but even with the gills carefully scraped off they still turn the broth into an unappetizing shade of gray. Do not use shiitake; the flavor is way too strong for this. Also, I would never use any kind of dried mushrooms which will change the flavor profile of this dish quite drastically, and not in a good way.)
- Cut the lemongrass stalk into 3cm pieces and smash them with the side of a large Chinese cleaver, a pestle, or any heavy object lying around in the house; set aside.
- Do to the chilies what you just did to the lemongrass; set aside.
- Remove the stems and the tough veins that run through the middle from the kaffir lime leaves, and tear them up into small pieces. You can also bruise them a little. Set aside.
- Juice 2 limes; set aside. (You may need more; you may not. It’s better to have more than you need than not enough.)
- Put the coconut milk into a medium size sauce pan, followed by concentrated chicken stock, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass pieces, and galangal slices.
- Bring the mixture slowly to between 71.1 – 82.2 degrees C (slightly below a simmer), allowing the herbs to infuse the liquid for about a minute.
- Keeping the temperature steady, add the mushrooms and the chicken to the liquid; adjust the heat to maintain the temperature. The liquid should never at any point come to a rapid boil. Don’t worry; at 71.1 – 82.2 degrees C , your chicken will be thoroughly cooked.
- Stir gently to ensure that the chicken is evenly cooked. (If you want more liquid, add more plain water or unconcentrated broth.)
- Once the chicken is cooked through, throw in the smashed chilies and remove the pot from heat immediately.
- Add the juice of 2 limes and the fish sauce to the pot, stir, and taste. Add more lime juice and fish sauce, if necessary. The soup should be predominantly sour, followed by salty. The sweetness comes from natural sugar in the coconut milk.
- Stir in the coriander leaves and serve your tom kha gai with steamed jasmine rice as an entree.