We at Épices de Cru are big fans of rhizomes. The subterranean plant structures that connect leaf, stalk, and root systems, offer continual and delicious inspiration to our work. Edible rhizomes include everything from lotus to asparagus, but are most present in our lives as turmeric, ginger, and their many cousins like galangal and kra chai. These botanical wonders are the base of many of our dishes and many of the ideas at Épices de Cru. The not-quite-root, not-quite-stem sections of many successful plant species resist, in force, fixed definition at every turn- botanically, linguistically, and of course, culinary. Just as we are in constant search of new spice horizons, rhizomes present new challenges. Each step deeper into their world only opens up more questions and possibilities- just the way we like it.
Rhizomes are astonishing natural phenomena: they can reanimate themselves after being cut off the plant, form extensive root networks sometimes miles wide, and offer health and nutritional possibilities that science is only beginning to understand. Their polyvalent mystery has even given rise to a philosophy that has nurtured art and activist collections around the world!
The many questions that rhizomes raise can be seen in Épices de Cru’s profusion of turmerics. Turmerics from different terroirs rotate in and out of stock like cousins visiting from out of the blue- yesterday we were happy to host turmeric from Lakadong (currently out of stock), and today we’re getting to know one from the Alleppy region of India (a regal and potent character). Next year, who knows? Maybe Sri Lanka. In our store, turmeric is the only spice we offer in many forms: whole, crushed, sliced, powdered. We just don’t know which is best-which is best is determined by your needs.
Diving into the world of ginger and its relatives is a dangerous proposition. In addition to the well-known gingers of China and India, Banglé, galangal and kra chai also grace our shelves. What’s the difference between galanga and kra chai, you ask. Culinarily, subtle differences in appearance can hide wild variations in flavour. Whole chunks of ginger from Cochin are slightly spicy and sweet, crushed galanaga is more mild and aromatic while kra chai has a subtle hint of citrus.
Really, the answer depends on where you are. If you’re on one of Indonesia’s larger islands, it may be that galanga is larger and hotter. In Northern Thailand, there could be no difference. In China, kra chai may be for medicinal purposes, but they are referring to what in Indonesia in known as Banglé. For us, banglé is bright and spicy rhizome, but in Bali it’s a pedestrian spice. Categorize gingers with strict definitions at your own risk.
Far from being frustrated by this knobbled world of multiplicity, we are inspired by it. No one owns the noble rhizome, just like no one owns a dish or a way of using spices or a combination of flavours. Why presume to ascribe only certain spices to certain dishes? Who knows what new delights await discovery? Our task is only to recognize that the way spices are used is always in motion. “A rhizome has no beginning or end; it has no beginning or middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo,” write Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guttiari in their book, a Thousand Plateaus. For them, the rhizome’s persistent slipperiness served as a philosophical example of joyful profusion- of ideas, of people, of the possibilities springing from uncertainty. For us, it is a useful guide for approaching spices.
So we prefer to think less of what it is and more of what it does. Does it make you happy? Does it sound like fun? Then do it. Put kra chai in your coleslaw. Add turmeric to your omelette (even though it’s already yellow). Make a ginger butter. We’ll tell you that galanga is traditionally used in Lodeh, an Indonesian stew. But we’re not saying you have to use it that way. Tradition and authenticity are useful signposts, but they are a beginning, not an end.
When ideas and vegetables pass from East to West, top to bottom, one to another, they are consumed, metabolized, changed. The results can be terrible or fantastic, but the are always interesting. For Deleuze and Guttiari: “A rhizome may be broken, shattered at its given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines.” Cooking with spices like kra chai or Alleppy turmeric may seem complex, but complexity is an invitation for creative discovery.