I remember as a child growing up in Bangkok, our family cook would often enlist me to help in the kitchen. I think it was because she knew I liked to pound on things.
One of the essential tools in Thai cooking is a mortar and pestle. Oh, forget the convenience of a blender or food processor. Believe me. You can tell when someone’s made a Thai dish using ingredients that weren’t lovingly worked upon with brute human force rather than a machine. It just doesn’t taste the same.
Many Thai dishes use ingredients such as lemongrass, galangal root, cilantro root, ginger, garlic, and papaya that require you to either bruise the herb or ingredient, or pound it into a paste in order for the ingredient to release its flavors and fully infuse the dish you’re preparing. A papaya salad will be incredibly difficult to chew if you don’t pound the @#$%!@ out of the papaya in a mortar and pestle before using it in the salad.
Some American households have a mortar and pestle — our kitchen has five, each with a preferred use. We have two small ones for pounding dried herbs and seed pods, one heavy medium-sized one for pounding larger amounts of herbs into a paste, one medium-sized deep-sided one for pounding papaya for salad and for other wet herbs that splatter, and one very large one that could be used as a weapon should a burglar break into the house.
A herb that never fails to trigger my memories of home is lemongrass. When I went back home two years ago and we were picked up at the airport by our hotel’s driver, he gave us chilled wet towels to wipe our faces and freshen up. The minute I opened the packaged towel and placed it on my face, I realized it was infused with lemongrass. When we got out of the car and strolled into the Oriental Hotel at 2 a.m., the scent of lemongrass permeated the lobby. When we asked the concierge the next day, he said atomizers were placed strategically in the lobby and other public areas and timed to release lemongrass perfume into the air. You can smell lemongrass at the markets, in restaurants. It’s everywhere. Here in Oregon, I’m constantly on the lookout for lemongrass-scented soaps, shampoos and lotions. I’m almost instantly taken back home by the aroma.
In Thai cooking, you’ll find a lot of lemongrass used to impart a refreshing, greenish, lemon scent to food, along with limes to actually make the food taste sour. You don’t really eat lemongrass; it’s merely used to impart the unmistakable aroma to food. So you end up eating around it in whatever the dish is, unless the lemongrass has been mercilessly pounded into a pulpy paste that makes it edible.
Two of my favorite Thai dishes are soups that use lemongrass: Thai hot-and-sour soup, or Tom Yum; and hot-and-sour coconut soup with lemongrass and galangal, or Tom Kha.
Galangal is a root that is similar to ginger and is most often found frozen at Asian grocery stores in the U.S. Tom Kha Gai, or chicken soup with lemongrass and galangal, is a refreshing and light soup that is a nice starter to any Pacific Rim or Asian fusion meal, and it’s also easy on the less adventuresome palate. Plus it’s incredibly simple to make…once you get the hang of pounding with a pestle. If you’d like to serve wine with your meal, I’d recommend a Müller-Thurgau or semi-dry Riesling. Tonight for dinner, our friends Steve and Tina Martin brought an Airlie Müller-Thurgau that was perfect.
Tom Kha Gai
- 3 cans (14 oz. each or 415 ml. each) of chicken broth
- 1 can (13.5 oz. or 400 ml.) of coconut milk
- Juice of 2 limes
- 10 or 12 slices of galangal root, cut in round discs
- 2 stalks of lemon grass, cut into 2-inch (5 cm.) lengths
- 2 tablespoons (30 ml.) fish sauce
- 4 or 5 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into approximately bite-sized pieces
- A dozen shiitake or oyster mushrooms, sliced into large chunks
- 4 or 5 chili peppers
- In a pot, bring the chicken broth and coconut milk to a slow boil.
- In a mortar and pestle, add the stalks of lemongrass and pound until the pieces are thoroughly bruised and are starting to come apart, then add to the pot.
- Lay each piece of sliced galangal on a wooden butcher block and use the pestle to bruise each slice of galangal and add to the pot.
- Add lime juice, mushrooms and fish sauce, and simmer for about 10 minutes.
- Add chicken and simmer another 10-15 minutes until chicken is cooked.
- If you want the soup to be spicy, work over the peppers with the pestle until the chilis break and the seeds start to come out, then add to the pot. If you don’t want the soup to be as spicy, add the chilis whole without bruising them. Simmer for a minute or two more and you’re ready to serve.