Young Galangal – Kha Oon – ข่าอ่อน
I have many fond memories of my apprenticeship at a young age to my grandmother in her kitchen. One of the tasks I performed was harvesting the tender stems and rhizomes—the horizontal, underground stem that sends out roots and shoots from its nodes—of the galangal plant.
In the old days, we had a few galangal bushes in our garden and when grandma wanted to make her soup – Tom Som Kha Oon (ต้มส้มข่าอ่อน) - from young galangal stems she would ask me to go search for the youngest shoots and stems. Over time, I learned the wrong and right ways to harvest them, and I have some tips to help you with your harvest. As you read my story through to the end you will learn more about how to prepare and cook the young galangal stems as well.
First choose a young plant. It should be about one to three feet tall above the ground. (Older plants are about five feet tall.) A young plant should have no more than three green leaves. Harvesting the shoots is similar to harvesting bamboo shoots. Holding the leaves, I use strong force to snap and pull the stem away from the bush at a 45-degree angle. This should give me the whole stem and, with some luck, part of the young plant with the rhizomes attached as in the photo below. If grandma needed some older rhizomes, I would use a small shovel to remove the soil around the plant and a knife to cut out the clump of rhizomes around the new stems.
Galangal typically takes about four months to reach this size and become ready to harvest. Its smell is softer and gentler than the strong pungent smell of older galangal that has stayed in the ground for almost a year. In Thailand, you will typically find young galangal in the market and in the kitchen.
Lemongrass and kaffir lime fruit and leaves are common fresh Thai herbs, but galangal is just as significant—if not more so—to Thai cuisine. We use galangal widely. It is in almost every dish possible except for in the rustic vegetable soup known as yellow sour, or sour curry in Southern Thailand (Gaeng Luang or Gaeng Som – แกงเหลืองหรือแกงส้ม and Gaeng Leang – แกงเลียง. The most well-known dishes that use galangal are Tom Kha, Tom Yum, and Thai curry paste.
A few years back I visited a lemongrass and galangal plantation. I am happy to share with you the photos I took there. This picture was taken during the dry season. This plant is not as busy as my grandma’s, which were planted closer to the water and given mulch. Galangal plants typically reach four to eight feet in height. When young plants reach about one to three feet tall, their young shoots and rhizomes – Kha Oon – ข่าอ่อน – can be harvested. The older and more pungent rhizome, called Kha Gae - ข่าแก่ - is most like the galangal that you find in the U.S.
This beautiful bouquet of young galangal and shoots is fresh from the farmer’s market in my Thai village. I am glad that the farmers have them available every day. I purchased a few for my mom to make her favorite soup – Tom Som Kha Oon (ต้มส้มข่าอ่อน). It is a sour soup of young galangal stems and banana stems that is common in Phuket cuisine.
I hope you enjoy my mom’s tips and step-by-step techniques for preparing galangal stems. It may be difficult for some of you to find young galangal stems, so I hope that this post will at least increase your knowledge of Thai cuisine in a Thai village.
Step-by-Step: How to Prepare Young Galangal and Tender Stems
The general rule is to remove the hard, fibrous leaves of the galangal plant and to use all of the parts that are tender and can be cooked in 15 minutes. All parts that are tender are edible like just vegetables. Their texture is similar to asparagus, and they have a gentle fragrance that is sweet with a mild pungency that is not as noticeable after cooking in a sweet and sour soup.
Place tender stems on a cutting board and smash with a cleaver or pestle to soften, then cut into 1 to 1 1/2 inch lengths.
Cook until tender in liquid such as soup or curry, about 15 minutes.
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