Please welcome Julia, who with this post joins The Perfect Pantry as guest blogger. A trained chef, she has worked in some of the finest restaurants in the country, and for many years ran an innovative cooking service called Interactive Cuisine. A consultant to restaurants, farms and food businesses, and an avid urban gardener, Julia blogs at Grow.Cook.Eat, where you can read more about her cooking adventures in Bali and Vietnam, and in her own kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Guest post and photos by Julia of Grow.Cook.Eat., in Cambridge.
Ten years ago, I traveled to Southeast Asia –- to Bali -- for the first time. I didn’t know much about the cuisine before I went, but I discovered that this ruggedly beautiful island has its own cuisine, unlike that of any other part of Indonesia.
During my vacation I took a cooking course in Ubud, the cultural hub of the island. Even though my culinary school education had included two weeks of classes in Asian cooking, I quickly discovered how much I didn’t know.
The first hour of our class –- sitting in the garden under a thatched roof cabana, drinking fresh hibiscus iced tea -– was devoted to the Balinese pantry. A few of the ingredients I had used before: lemongrass, ginger, onions, garlic, chiles. Turmeric, which all of us have in our pantries in bright yellow powder form, was presented as a fresh rhizome.
Many ingredients were introduced as we learned the essentials of Balinese spicing. Most, like “torch” ginger, kaffir lime leaves and shrimp paste, were new to me. When kencur (also known as “lesser galangal”) was passed around, the distinct, pungent aroma immediately signaled its role as an essential ingredient in Balinese cuisine.
Most Balinese spice pastes consist of several varieties of rhizomes in the ginger family. Galangal -- a tougher, spicier, more medicinal variety that looks a bit prehistoric -- is increasingly available in Asian markets, as it’s commonly used in Thai cuisine. Kencur is less spicy than galangal, with a floral flavor.
When I returned to Boston, I searched high and low for kencur. Since each country has a different name for its ingredients, I didn’t know how to ask for it. Thankfully, a friend had already gone on this hunt and discovered it’s sold vacuum sealed and frozen, simply labeled “rhizome.”
Many culinary experts tell you not to freeze anything longer than a year. With kencur, I’m a bit more lax. Long freezing can ruin texture and diminish flavor, but the texture of the kencur has already been ruined by the initial freezing -– and it wouldn’t matter much anyway, since it’s chopped fine before cooking. And with the vacuum seal, I’ve never had a problem with weak flavor.
Using a variety of rhizomes gives depth of flavor to a recipe; each hits the palate differently. With varying degrees and qualities of spice, a combination of rhizomes will give any dish a rounder flavor. Though only my Balinese cookbooks call for kencur, I sometimes throw a teaspoon into recipes that call for ginger. It adds a new dimension, and keeps my guests guessing about my secret ingredient.
Balinese green beans
This recipe can be made with ginger, if kencur is unavailable. Its otherwise simple ingredient list has made this a staple in my cooking. The little flecks of bird’s eye chiles give the dish a visual and flavor punch. Serves 4.
1 Tbsp canola or vegetable oil
2 Tbsp chopped garlic
1 1/2-inch piece of kencur or ginger, peeled 1 large chile, seeded and minced
1 bird’s eye chili, minced
3 kaffir lime leaves, finely chopped, or 1 Tbsp lime zest
1 lb green beans, snipped
1/4 head of green cabbage, shredded
1/2 tsp sugar
Kosher salt, fresh black pepper, and lime juice to taste
1 cup bean sprouts
2 Tbsp fried shallots*
Heat a large skillet, and add oil. Add garlic, kencur and chilies, and lime leaves or zest, and cook until the mixture becomes aromatic, about 2 minutes. Add green beans and cabbages and sauté, stirring frequently, until green beans are bright green. Add sugar, and adjust seasoning to taste with salt, pepper and lime juice. Add bean sprouts and fried shallots, toss and serve.
More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:
Vietnamese rice stick noodle salad with caramelized shrimp
Thai chicken curry
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