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Cooking with Galangal

Southeast Asia’s secret to perfect curries, this buried treasure is right at home in Southern kitchens

Photo: John Burgoyne

While traveling through Southeast Asia in 2015, chef Marcus Jacobs, co-owner of Marjie’s Grill in New Orleans, couldn’t help but feel at home. “I really started to see similarities in the way of life there and the way of life in South Louisiana,” he says. “With the food, for instance, you’ll see cured pork as a seasoner in so many dishes in both Southeast Asia and the South. The way they spice their foods, serving curries over rice—these dishes are really very similar to the gumbos of South Louisiana.” Asia is also where Jacobs discovered galangal—a popular addition to curries similar to ginger but with a distinctly sharp flavor that borders on fresh mustard. While in Thailand, he was watching someone cook, and when the galangal paste hit the hot lard, he knew he had discovered something special. “There was just this incredible aromatic steam coming off the pot,” Jacobs says. “I remember being like, What is this because it’s amazing?!” Galangal grows well in the South in cooler months, so you may be able to find it at farmers’ markets, but if not, nearly every well-stocked Asian market should have plenty. When selecting, press a piece with your thumbnail. If it releases a strong fragrance, it’s fresh. Jacobs prefers to use young galangal (it’s softer and smaller, usually less than four inches) because you can shave it raw over a salad, or grate it over greens to add a hit of spice. But his favorite way to use it is ground into a curry paste and worked into a seafood stew. “This is the time of year when we crave those types of dishes—warm and brothy,” he says. “It’s the kind of meal that just feels right in the winter.” 

The Chef Recommends

Curried Seafood Stew

Yield: 2 servings

10 to 15 Thai chiles, chopped
1 tbsp. chopped galangal
2 tbsp. chopped lemongrass
2 tbsp. chopped shallots
1 tbsp. chopped garlic
1 tsp. Thai shrimp paste
1 tbsp. lard
2 tbsp. Thai fish sauce
2 cups smoked speckled trout meat (or another mild white fish), picked over for bones
1 cup seafood, pork, or chicken broth
12 shrimp, peeled and deveined
Chopped Thai basil, scallions, and shredded galangal for garnish

Make a curry paste by pounding the first 6 ingredients with a mortar and pestle, following the order in which they’re listed and smashing each entirely before adding the next. For stew: Heat lard over medium heat until it shimmers, then add 2 tbsp. of curry paste and cook for a minute (refrigerate the rest for up to 10 days), and season to taste with fish sauce. Add the fish and broth and simmer for 10 minutes. Add shrimp, and simmer for a couple of minutes until they’re just cooked. Top with scallions, basil, and shredded galangal, and serve with rice and lime wedges.

Tip: When you find fresh galangal, grab a bunch and freeze it in resealable bags for use year-round.