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Cilantro abounds in Thai cuisine
Flash in the Pan!

Cilantro abounds in Thai cuisine

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Every inch of the cilantro plant is edible, but the seeds (aka coriander) and leaves get most of the attention. At the farmers market the other day I spotted a bunch of cilantro with the roots still attached. I brought a bunch of those intact plants home and ate the leaves in tacos that very night. Cilantro roots are mellower than the leaves and seeds, but still have that unmistakable penetrating cilantro flavor. The next day, based on a tip from Kou Moua, my cilantro root source, I prepared a pot of Thai stock. Kou said his mother-in-law in Fresno makes the best cilantro root soup. In a whimsical lilt, he rattled off a list of familiar ingredients from southeast Asia.

Cilantro parts, including seeds, leaves and roots, abound in Thai cuisine. The strong cilantro flavor is often balanced with equally assertive ingredients, which together make the cilantro’s flavor less glaring.

But not everyone is on board. Many find cilantro to taste soapy or worse — sometimes with a toxic flavor that’s been likened to the juice of unexpected bugs in your salad. Julia Child famously boasted of plucking cilantro leaves from her food and unceremoniously tossing them on the floor. A minority of cilantro-haters are truly genetically averse to it, reacting to the aldehyde molecules that give the plant its unique flavor. But most cilantro haters simply haven’t had the proper introduction necessary to acquire a taste for it. A trip to Thailand would probably cure that, but a pot of this magical Thai stock is a more accessible alternative, providing you can get the ingredients. My local store has all of them except cilantro root, and any farmer or gardener with cilantro in the ground has loads of that.

Like any stock, this one can be a gateway into many dishes. It’s only a few ingredients shy of tom yum, the iconic Thai sour soup that is often served with prawns. It’s also the base of the legendary chicken coconut soup called tom kha gai. In the recipes below, I’ll explain how to make a Thai stock, and how to use it to make tom yum and tom kha gai.

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The next time you look at a bunch of cilantro, you will look longingly at the spot where the roots should be. But there is no reason to act helpless. If you plant a crop of cilantro now, you will have roots in a month. While you wait, eat some leaves. When it flowers, eat the flowers. When the remaining flowers make seeds, enjoy your coriander. Or let them fall and plant themselves. Once you welcome cilantro into your garden, and your life, it tends to stick around.

Thai Stock

This stock contains many classic Thai ingredients, and can be used in an endless array of sauces, marinades — even as a poaching liquid. And it’s the backbone of many classic Thai soups.

1 tablespoon palm oil

2 cups minced shallot or strong onion

3-6 cloves of garlic

4 lemongrass stalks, each cut into thirds and pounded to release flavor

4 quarter-inch slices of peeled galangal root

4 quarter-inch slices of peeled turmeric root

4 lime leaves

crushed red chile, to taste

10 slices of ginger; smash each slice

10-20 cilantro roots, with about an inch of stem attached

4 quarts water

Heat the oil and fry the onions on medium until they are translucent: about 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic, lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, lime leaves, ginger and cilantro roots. Add two cups of water and turn the heat to high. Cook for 10 minutes with the lid on. Add the rest of the water and bring to a near boil and turn the heat to low-medium. Simmer for an hour, covered. Turn off and let cool to room temperature. Strain, and store in the fridge for up to a week. Then freeze.

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Tom Yum

Most restaurants in the U.S. serve tom yum with seafood like shrimp, fish or mussels. You can also add pork, or even (gasp) go protein-free.

Serves 6

Your Thai stock from previous recipe (about 2 quarts)

1 pound tomatoes, large ones cut into quarters

3 tablespoons fish sauce

Juice of one lime

2 stalks lemongrass, cut into thirds

Choice of protein

Optional: veggies like pea

Cilantro or red pepper for garnish

Heat the stock on medium. Add the tomatoes, fish sauce, lemongrass and lime. Check seasonings and adjust with more lime and fish sauce to taste. It should be plenty sour. Add the proteins and extra veggies and cook until done. Remove the woody and strong-flavored lemongrass and lime leaves if you wish. Garnish and serve.

Tom Kha Gai

This is typically made with boiled chicken — tom kha gai literally means boiled chicken with galangal root — but I have to say a rotisserie chicken does a nice job too. It doesn’t have the same chewy texture but it’s quick and delicious. It’s built on a base of plain tom yum without any extra protein (other than the chicken we are about to add).

Serves 6

Your tom yum (about 2 quarts, assuming you haven’t devoured it)

8 ounces of mushrooms, cut in half

6 slices of galangal root, about an 1/8th inch thick

1 pound cooked chicken, cut into bite-sized chunks

1 14-oz can coconut milk

Other veggies like peas, if desired

Lime juice and fish sauce for seasoning

Heat the tom yum on medium. Add the chicken, galangal, mushrooms and coconut milk. Bring to a simmer and keep it there for 30 minutes. Season with lime juice and fish sauce to taste. Remove the very woody, very strong flavored galangal root slices if you wish. Serve garnished with cilantro leaves.

Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column carried in more than 60 newspapers nationwide. Though his audience is national, he says he “always writes about Montana. Usually.”


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