Craving kohlrabi – no, really

Craving kohlrabi – no, really
Ari LeVaux - 05/21/2020

Everyone looks forward to tomatoes. We can’t wait for the peaches and corn. Some of us even get excited about zucchini. But who gets pumped for kohlrabi? Anyone?

It doesn’t help that a kohlrabi plant looks like a snake that recently swallowed a beach ball. The edible part is the swollen section of stem, an incongruously large growth in the neck of an otherwise small plant that tastes like the part of broccoli most people throw away.

Kohlrabi is perhaps most popular with farmers who are looking for some early season variety in their market displays, CSA boxes or farm stands. Thus, kohlrabi finds its way into the fridge and lurks there, for weeks or longer, never spoiling, never letting you off the hook.

If you take the time to peel one, you will be rewarded with a crisp, watery bite and a faint hint of spice, like a cross between jicama and a mild radish.

Sliced thickly on a veggie platter next to some dip, kohlrabi may never get a second chance. Sliced thinly or shredded, kohlrabi clings to sauce the way angel hair pasta does, which opens up many possibilities. My favorite way to use shredded kohlrabi is in som tum, a green papaya salad that is one of the world’s favorite Thai dishes. Green papaya are scarce in my parts, and kohlrabi so available I use it instead, along with shredded carrots. Salty, sweet, spicy, acidic, with a bitter garlic pungency and full of umami, this salad has something for every taste bud.

When I was in Bangkok, I spent some time seeking out the best som tum I could find, a mission that took me to a certain outdoor market on the edge of the city. I found my way to the section where stall after stall serves nothing but som tum. I bowed to a man with a bandana on his head.

The “som” in som tum refers to its sour taste, while the “tum” mimics the sound of the pounding of a pestle into a mortar. I’m not sure what I told this gentleman, or what he heard me say, but he nodded and smiled. Then he put a handful of small, living crabs into a tall wooden bowl, and started pounding. His heavy wooden pestle went “tum tum tum” on those crabs until they were a crunchy, gooey paste, to which he added spices and pounded some more. Then he ladled in some fish sauce, generously – the way you would want someone to add hot fudge to your ice cream.

The som tum maker swapped his pestle for a pair of wooden forks and added shredded green papaya, herbs and, for good measure, more fish sauce. He stirred it all together, scooped the salad into a paper bowl and handed it to me.

It was a bit fishy, and hot enough to burn a hole in the sun, but the rich array of flavors was dazzling. The beauty of this dish is how it balances flavors that are so intense that each one would be too overpowering on its own. But together they neutralize each other, like a mutually assured destruction in which the missiles are actually launched.

I respected that som tum, but between the fish sauce, high heat and mashed up crabs, I was in over my head. I didn’t take too many bites, but in looking into that abyss I learned something and returned to my quarters thrilled with my discovery.

Kohlrabi som tum can be an adventure too, if less cathartic. I call it kohl som, which translates to something like “Thai-style sour kohlrabi.”

When summer is in full swing, fresh cherry tomatoes will take this to the next level. You can also add chopped string beans and other forms of greenery too, as available. 

Kohl Som

1 baseball-sized kohlrabi, peeled and grated or shredded (about 3 cups)

1 large handful cherry tomatoes, sliced into halves or quarters

1 medium carrot, grated (about a cup)

1 medium-sized clove garlic, pressed or grated

½ teaspoon salt

1 or more tablespoons fish sauce

Juice of 1 lime (or 3 tablespoons lime juice)

Chile flakes, to taste

Up to 1 tablespoon brown sugar

2 green onions, chopped

½ cup chopped cilantro (or parsley)

Optional garnish: 2 tablespoons peanuts, dry roasted in a pan

Another option: sliced jalapeños instead of red peppers

Combine the kohlrabi, carrot, tomatoes, garlic and salt in a mixing bowl. Give the tomatoes a squeeze to crush them a little. Set aside. Combine the fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and chile flakes, and stir until the brown sugar is fully dissolved. Add this sauce and the green onions, cilantro and jalapenos, if using, to the mixing bowl. Toss the salad in the dressing, a little roughly to crush the tomatoes a bit more, and garnish with the peanuts.

Top Shelf

Long live rock!
Long live rock!
By Chris Aaland
05/21/2020

It’s been nearly two months since “Top Shelf” last graced these pages. In my first 12-plus years of writing this column, I think I only missed two weeks.

Raised on radio
Raised on radio
By Chris Aaland
03/26/2020

Social distancing is driving many of us stir crazy, especially after last week’s big dump. Not only do we crave physical interaction with each other, but we’re also an active community.

The week the music died
The week the music died
By Chris Aaland
03/19/2020

For more than 12 years, I’ve written “Top Shelf” on a weekly basis as a column about the local music scene and nightlife. I also drift into sports, pop culture and political territory from time to time. And, on far too many occasions, I’ve paid homage to a family member or friend who has passed, like my son, brother, mother and festival friend. 

Bogguss' aces, Irish eyes and Salmon splash
Bogguss' aces, Irish eyes and Salmon splash
By Chris Aaland
03/12/2020

Perhaps the biggest and baddest Durango Celtic Festival to date runs tonight (Thurs., March 12) through Sunday, with events alternating between the Henry Strater Theatre and the Irish Embassy Pub. This year’s line up is one of the best in the festival’s history, with five internationally acclaimed artists. 

Read All in Top Shelf

Day in the Life

Soaking it up
Soaking it up
05/21/2020
Local color: Telegraph coloring page winners
Local color: Telegraph coloring page winners
04/30/2020

A look at some (OK, all) of the Telegraph's coloring page submissions

Sole man
Sole man
03/12/2020

At the age of 19, Durango’s Mervin “Merv” Stilson started making shoes and never looked back (except for the time he made a Western-style jacket for Neil Young).

Wonder wall
Wonder wall
By Stephen Eginoire
03/05/2020

Southeastern Utah has no shortage of natural wonders, and perhaps one of the most curious is the 80-mile-long sandstone monocline known as Comb Ridge. 

Read All in Day on the Life