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Ginger and Cooking in Thailand



Ginger, or Khing, is one of the essentials in a Thai kitchen. Thais believe that it possesses important medicinal properties, both as an aid to digestion and as an agent to reduce stomach acid. Ginger is eaten both raw and cooked. In raw form it goes into light dishes and snacks.

These include favorites, often eaten in the late afternoon, such as mieng kham, made by wrapping shallots, ginger, chillies, and toasted shredded coconut in a leaf _ usually the types called thong lang or chaphlu in Thai _ and dousing it with a tasty sauce to form a bite-sized packet. The ginger, aside from playing its part in the harmonious combination of flavors, also boosts health.

Raw ginger is also be eaten with the fermented sausage called naem, which must always also be accompanied by shallots and chillies. It is believed that the fermented pork in the sausage can upset the stomach, and that the ginger counters this effect.

In cooked form, ginger contributes its flavor to many dishes. One good example is tom som pla, a traditional Thai recipe that can be prepared using either saltwater or freshwater fish. Its taste combines the sourness of sour tamarind, the sweetness of palm sugar and the saltiness of nam pla, but this combination of tastes must be dominated by the aroma and flavor of ginger.

When the dish is made in seaside communities, the fish called pla krabawk is used. Near freshwater sources, pla chon, or snakehead fish, goes in instead. The pla krabawk version is much more common. The snakehead fish recipe is so hard to find that it seems that the pla krabawk version has forced it off the field. But in fact the ginger is more central to the character of the dish than the kind of fish used.

Then there is gai pat khing _ chicken stir-fried with shredded ginger and other ingredients. This familiar dish can be eaten either with cooked rice or with khao tom (rice soup). In Thailand it often happens that when people are sick they have no appetite for anything but khao tom. But if gai pat khing is served with it the sick person is encouraged to eat more since it is a simple, but flavorful dish.

Another good thing about gai pat khing is that if there is some left over it can be re-fried, after which it becomes even more delicious than it was the first time. And chicken is not the only meat that can be fried with ginger; it also goes very well with pork.

In the past, khao tom shops would cut shark meat into dice-sized cubes and fry it together with ginger and spicy curry paste. It was a favorite with Chinese customers. Today this dish has become scarce, because people are afraid of sharks and uneasy about eating them. Strangely, this nervousness doesn’t seem to affect people when there is shark’s fin soup on the table.

Pla kraphong jien (fried barramundi fish with salted plums and a sweet sauce) also calls for ginger, and plenty of it. The more of a ginger flavor and fragrance there is in the sauce, the better.

Some other dishes that would lose their appeal of ginger were left out are pet yang (grilled duck), moo daeng yang (grilled Chinese red pork) and kha moo yat sai (Chinese-style stuffed pork leg). Some shops set the grilled duck on top of pickled ginger, while others garnish the dish with cucumber slices. Still, there must always be pickled ginger on the plate. Many people will finish off the ginger even before they have eaten the duck.

Pickled ginger has to be made when the ginger rhizomes are still young and tender. The ginger served in grilled duck shops is in thin slices, a popular way to pickle it. But one Thai method of pickling involves making long incisions in the ginger, sometimes in opposite directions, to create a spring-like form that can be compressed like an accordion.

Young ginger is usually white, but it should have a pink tinge to make it look more appetizing. Thais don’t use food coloring to tint ginger. Instead they put a few drops of lime juice onto it and it takes on the right shade. The pickling marinade is made from clear vinegar and sugar. When sourness and sweetness have been balanced as desired, the ginger is put in and allowed to pickle for one or two nights, after which it is ready to use.

Many households have pickled ginger on hand in the kitchen. A cook who is not in the mood to make a big meal can make khao tom and serve it with salted eggs, the sweet Chinese sausage called kunchieng and some pickled ginger.

In the past, every housewife knew how to pickle ginger. At Wat Inthararam in Amphawa, Samut Songkhram, there is an elderly housewife named Mrs Thongyip. She was the first female village head in Thailand, and held the position for many years. Although she has long since retired she remains deeply respected by locals. She is also an excellent cook, and famous for many of her dishes. Her pickled ginger is especially delicious, and she always gives some to visitors.

Ginger is essential to the snack called tao huay, a soft tofu. It is almost tasteless without the ginger broth with which it always shares the bowl. This broth has to be made from big, mature pieces of ginger so that it has the proper strong flavour. The ginger is lightly pounded first to soften it, then set out to dry before it is boiled.

Tao huay in strong ginger broth is a perfect cold weather dish. It is served warm and keeps its warmth in the stomach. Like all of the other ginger dishes mentioned above, it shows why this rhizome is so essential to Thai cooking. While luring you to the table with its appetizing aroma and flavor, it also works to improve your health and sense of well-being.

By Geoff Thomas


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