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The finger ginger is in blossom

August 13, 2012

The rainy season is the flowering season for gingers of all sorts. There are more than 1200 different ginger species (Zingiberaceae) in the world, most are considered edible. In Thailand there are at least 276 species in this family. One which blooms right now at Dokmai Garden is the finger ginger (Boesenbergia rotunda syn. B. pandurata, Zingiberaceae).

You see the rhizome (a horizontal underground stem) and its fingerlike roots for sale at all northern Thai markets where it is often called ‘krachai’ or ‘krachai kao’ to emphasize its difference from ‘krachai dam’ or Kaempferia parviflora. Unfortunately some people in Thailand call the finger ginger ‘krachai dam’.

Wikipedia and Mabberley’s plant-book claim that finger ginger is an important ingredient in making Thai green curry paste. According to Ketsanee and my own limited observations finger ginger is mainly used in making fish dishes, not for making green curry. The reason for this reputation may be that, confusingly, it may be called ‘galangal’ or ‘galanga’ in English, while the real ‘galangal’  (Alpinia galanga, Zingiberaceae) is an ingredient in Thai green curry. This species might be confused with ‘lesser galanga’ (Alpinia officinarum), which in turn can be confused with Kaempferia galanga, another plant we grow at Dokmai Garden. If any of our readers have seen finger ginger being used in making Thai green curry paste please let me know (and taste).

These examples show the confusion caused by English and Thai vernacular names, and how a dictionary may screw up your cooking. To be absolutely sure how to repeat the making of your favourite Thai dish, then watch the Thai cook make it and taste the raw ingredients. Ask the cook to plant the ingredients in your garden, because if you go to the market to buy them yourself, using the cook’s names, the vendors may use your cook’s local names for other plants/ingredients, and the dish will taste differently. Wait until you see the flowers and then use botanical literature for their proper identification. Once you have its international standardized name (the scientific Latin name) you can pick any vernacular name you want, but now you will know the ingredient by looks and name.

The genus Boesenbergia, coined by the German botanist Otto Carl Ernst Kuntze (1843-1907) after his sister Clara and her husband Walter Boesenberg, encompass about 80 species, of which at least 20 are found in Thailand. According to ginger expert Kai Larsen finger ginger may be native to northern Thailand, but since it escapes from cultivation it can be hard to prove.

According to Ketsanee, you should harvest the underground rhizome and its roots when the green leaves are gone. That happens during the dry season when the plant is dormant and all nutrients for next rainy season’s growth are packed in rhizome and roots. The Seehamongkol family grows finger ginger within a few footsteps from their kitchen, being a frequently used cooking ingredient. In our vegetable section we keep many more specimens.

Text & flower photo: Eric Danell

Photo of root: Anna Kiss from the book ‘Fruits and Vegetables in Southeast Asian markets’.

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