When we think of Thai chefs who love using local herbs and cooking Thai food using traditional techniques, the celebrated Chef Chumpol Jangprai is usually among the first that come to mind.
This leading man of R-Haan, a two MICHELIN Starred Thai restaurant, does more than strive to save authentic Thai food from extinction. He also works tirelessly to advocate for Thai food as “medicine”, as he has learned from ancient local wisdom, encouraging people to to incorporate Thai herbs into daily diets to reap their healing benefits, alongside eating seasonal vegetables to strengthen immunity against diseases from the inside. Such a herb is “fingerroot”, which is currently all the rage, yet has long been a staple ingredient in Thai cuisine.
Never too much — add just enough for good flavour
“When it comes to Thai food, you really cannot go without fingerroot in dishes such as ho mok (steamed fish in curry paste), curries served with khanom chin, kaeng pa (clear spicy curries), and fiery stir-fries. Dishes like kaeng liang (spicy vegetable soup) become more aromatic with fingerroot,” explains Chef Jangprai on the charms fingerroot adds to Thai food. “You’ll notice that fingerroot goes very well with kapi (shrimp paste), and this is an ancient cooking tip passed down through the generations. The fingerroot distinctive character is in its spicy heat, as well as its great aroma. This makes it a popular addition to spicy stir-fry dishes to enhance the fragrance, especially with beef dishes. It’s game over if you try to cook a kaeng pa without fingerroot. Or if you try to make any fish dishes, such as curries or meatballs. For ages, people would add fingerroot to help eliminate the fishy smell. For all these reasons, we could say that fingerroot is an herb that has always been essential in authentic Thai kitchens.”
The reason fingerroot is more popular compared to its sibling, Thai black ginger, is because fingerroot offers a stronger aroma and is juicier. Besides being an ingredient in curries and stir-fries, it also makes for great snacking. An example would be a side dish that comes with khao chae called luk kapi, which is kapi served with, of course, fingerroot.
According to ancient Thai wisdom, here’s how to turn fingerroot and other herbs into food so you can best absorb its healing properties to help strengthen your immune system. Chef Jangprai recommends never putting in too much, as the taste may become too strong to be edible. On top of that, you should not consume one herb for too long. Most importantly, it is crucial to understand a herb’s characteristics. For example, to make fresh fingerroot juice, you would put the whole root, along with its peel, into the juice blender. After the juice is separated from the fibre, it should be slightly warmed before honey or lime juice is added. This is because fingerroot is, well, a root that grows in soil, so it may be contaminated with bacteria. Another option is to add salt while blending to avoid stomach problems for those with weaker constitutions.
Southern-style sour curry with fingerroot and mixed vegetables
In addition to making juice, another dish from which you can reap the herb’s full healing benefits that Chef Jangprai recommends is “Southern-style sour curry with fingerroot and mixed vegetables. This mixes elements of the sour curry found in Central and Southern Thailand. The Central Thai version requires the curry paste be made with fingerroot. Although the south variant does not include fingerroot, it focuses on a sour palate that boosts your vitamin C levels. There’s also the very healthy turmeric which creates a more yellowish tint, just as it does in yellow curry.
There are three easy parts to making Chef Jangprai’s version of the Southern-style sour curry with fingerroot and mixed vegetables. This consists of preparing the soup, making the curry paste, and putting everything together. Preparing the soup is much like making most soup stocks. Start with about one litre of water in the pot. Add 20 chopped dried chillies, a dash of salt, and ten dried shrimps for a touch of umami. Peel, chop, and add five sections of fingerroot. After that, separate the shrimp heads and scoop out the shrimp fat from the heads. Save the fat for later, and only add the heads to the soup stock.
While waiting for the soup to boil, prepare the sour curry paste. Blend together five roughly chopped red onions, one tablespoon of shrimp paste, and one full spoon of ready-made sour curry paste. When the soup reaches boiling, lower the heat and filter the liquid and throw out all the shrimp heads. Add the filtered boiled fingerroot and chillies to be blended with the other curry paste ingredients. Slowly pour in three ladles of the soup as you are blending the mixture.
The last step is to bring everything together. Bring the soup to a boil again and add your curry paste. Stir until well mixed and wait approximately 20 minutes for the soup to bubble. Then add fish sauce, dried shrimps, tamarind juice, and coconut or palm sugar to season. You should taste flavours in the order of sour, salty, and then sweet. As the soup is boiling, add the mixed chopped vegetables, followed by the shrimp bodies and fat. When the shrimp is cooked, the soup will boil again, so turn off the heat. Add in the juices of one lime, one kaffir lime, and one bitter orange to kick up the tang to a true Southern sour curry, as well as to add loads of vitamin C to your body. And there we have it -- delicious as well as super healthy Thai food.
Who knew that this long-time favourite of Thai kitchens was so easy to make? And what’s even better is how this curry can also be an immune-boosting dish— something that we all need to get us through these unique times.
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Hero photo: © Anuwat Senivansa Na Ayudhya / MICHELIN Guide Thailand