When I needed to replenish my supply of galangal a few weeks ago, Ted offered to pick some up at the local Chinese market near his office.
Galanga, galangaal, galingale. Lengkuas. Lao. Kha.
With so many names, it must be a fairly common ingredient, yes?
Yes, in Thai, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Laotian and Cambodian cuisines.
But in China, not so much.
Ted couldn't find the dried slices, but he did find a jar of powdered galangal buried on the spice shelf. When he brushed the dust off, he noticed the expiration date — August, 2003. (Thank goodness for expiration dating!)
I live in a small town without an Asian grocer, so I keep galangal powder or dried galangal slices in my pantry. (You can store fresh galangal root in the freezer, though, honestly, I never remember to do that and any leftover usually turns googly on the countertop.)
Galangal is a rhizome — actually, a family of roots related to ginger. There are two main varieties: greater and lesser. Greater galangal, known as laos, is native to Java and popular in Indonesian and Malaysian cooking, as well as in parts of India; it's gingery and mildly pungent. Lesser, known as kencur, is native to parts of China (though it's not used in the cooking there), India, and the rest of Southeast Asia; of the two, lesser is more, as in more spicy and peppery.
Fresh or dried galangal, which tastes like a less-pungent version of powdered ginger, is an essential component in beef rendang, soup, curry — and, occasionally, something as out-of-the-box as these truffles. Purists will tell you to never-ever use dried galangal for fresh, just as you wouldn't substitute dried coriander for fresh cilantro, because they are different animals entirely.
Since moving to the country, with a more limited supply of pantry products available (more than compensated by an abundance of farm-fresh produce), I've learned to never say never. In many recipes, you can substitute a combination of fresh ginger root and a bit of dried galangal to simulate the taste and texture of fresh galangal root.
Chicken curry, Lombok style
Adapted from Maddhur Jaffrey's A Taste of the Far East. Can be made ahead and refrigerated, so it’s a great party dish. Let the cans of coconut milk sit on the counter undisturbed for 30 minutes or more, to make sure the milk and "cream" separate. Serve this curry with rice colored with a bit of turmeric or saffron, for a beautiful presentation. Serves 8-12; can be halved.
2 red bell peppers, seeded and coarsely chopped
6 fresh long hot red chilies, seeds and ribs removed, coarsely chopped, or 2 tsp cayenne
2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
12 raw cashew nuts
2 large onions (or 12-14 shallots), coarsely chopped
8-10 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tsp shrimp paste or anchovy paste
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp whole black peppercorns
8 good-sized slices of dried galangal, or 2-3 tsp galangal powder
8 whole cloves
2-inch cinnamon stick
2 14-oz cans coconut milk (do not shake the cans)
3/4 cup vegetable oil
7 lbs chicken thighs
1 Tbsp salt
Put the red pepper, chiles, ginger, cashews, shallots or onion, garlic and shrimp paste into a blender, and blend to a smooth paste, adding a tiny bit of water if needed. Leave it in the blender container.
Put the cumin seeds, peppercorns, galangal, cloves and cinnamon into the spice grinder, and grind until fine. Put this powder into the blender and whir for a few seconds to mix. (This paste may be made ahead of time and frozen; defrost thoroughly before using.)
Open the cans of coconut milk WITHOUT shaking them. Spoon off the cream at the top and set aside. Pour the remaining milk into a measuring cup; add water to make 3 cups total.
Heat oil in a wok or nonstick pan (or cook in two pans if necessary). When hot, put in the curry paste from the blender. Stir fry 6-8 minutes or until the paste is dark red and quite reduced. Add chicken pieces and salt. Stir fry for another 2-3 minutes. Now put in the thinned coconut milk and bring to a boil. Cover, lower the heat, and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Uncover and cook on medium heat for 5-10 minutes. Turn the heat off.
Spoon off most of the oil that will have risen to the top. Stir in the coconut cream and mix well. Heat through gently. Serve, garnished with additional chiles.
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