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The ingredients for Thai cooking are a bit hard to come by. And as far as I know, there are no ready substitutes for the things that make Thai food so delicious. There are Asian markets, of course, and we frequent them somewhat. But for reliable and very fresh supplies of the key ingredients, I have learned from Lawan that the best thing is to grow them.
There are at least five ingredients that I grow in order to be sure I have what I need for my favorite Thai dishes. They are all grouped together in a hot spot near a source of water. They all agree on heat, strong sun, and a good bit of moisture.
Thai basil is pretty different from any other kind. "Siam Queen" is slow to start in the season, and showy, with a strong anise flavor. The nearest thing is cinnamon or purple basil. Close, but no cigar. The taste of Siam Queen is worth having on hand. Bees love this plant, which I have often grown cheek-by-jowl with tabasco peppers. They look beautiful together and grow at a similar pace.
The pepper of choice is the Thai Dragon. Another slow starter, it is prolific. One or two will give you all you want. This is the chili out of which both the green and the red curry pastes are made. HOT. Handle with care.
Then there is galanga root. This is a form of ginger, but it is not the common ginger whose root is available everywhere. It is milder and more delicate-tasting. Lawan's wonderful shrimp soup requires it; ordinary ginger is too strong-tasting for this soup.
Now, some stores carry galanga root. Asian food stores do so reliably. Central Market less so. But when you buy it in a store it tends to be tough, it seems to me. And it does not store and keep as well as ginger (which I keep in the freezer and shave for cooking in stir frys annd curries).
So once again I take my cue from Lawan. I got a galanga root and buried it. Just about the time I gave up on it, it sprouted. I think water is the key. It laid low until a rainy spell. That's it just below, looking like a ginger.
Then there is lemon grass. Cymbopogon is its botanical moniker. I used to be so confused about how to use it. You treat it like a green onion. Gently pull out a whole clump by the roots. Cut off the top. Then treat the plump base (maybe 6-8 inches of it) like a leek or onion, finely slicing it into rings.
Lemon grass is available from quite a few sources, but it's worth growing because, in the right spot with sun and water, it grows rampantly. In the store, three or four little semi-dried-out stumps will run you three or four DOLLARS. Nurseries around here sell lemon grass starters in the spring. A caution: I think this of one of those herbs you can overdo: too much might be hazardous to your health.
Here's a happy lemon grass clump. It may not survive the winter (depending on how cold). I think probably I should pull a few starter-clumps and keep them in the greenhouse over the winter. But if I lose it all, I can buy one little plug in the spring and it will be this large in about a month!
Two more major ingredients are tamarind and the amazing Indonesian Lime tree. These two have their own pages.
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