The Idiot's Guide to Curry, Part 2: Thai Curry
Yet again we have a perfect day in the Cape but, quite frankly, I didn’t pay much attention. I enjoy winter and love the rain & the dark, cloudy skies but that’s only because I love winter food & all my favourite dishes are great in winter. Luckily I’m also nuts about Thai food and most of their curries are absolutely perfect for summer eating, even the hot Thai jungle curry that’s great with a portion of zesty fruit-something afterwards! They’re often light and perfect for summer weather & summer moods.
Anyway, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love Thai curries because there are different ones to suit each palate. It’s a regional thing in Thailand and each region & village has their own special recipe and, of course, each believes they have the best one. Here the curry you’re going to eat depends on the seasons, the region, the availability of ingredients, the customs and on personal tastes. The Thai word for curry is geng ped (thickened spicy liquid) and there are quite a few different kinds with these being the most common:
- Red curry
- Green curry
- Yellow curry
- Massaman curry
- Prik Khing curry – see recipe for quick khing paste below
- Panang curry
- Jungle curry (see below)
PRIK KHING CURRY PASTE
- 6 large dried Guajillo chillies
- 1 tsp shrimp paste, wrapped neatly in a double layer of aluminum foil
- 1 tsp whole black peppercorns
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tbsp fresh Kaffir lime peel or lime peel, finely grated and don’t get the pith
- 1 large stalk lemongrass, finely sliced
- 1 ½ tsp ginger, peeled and grated
- 125 ml garlic, pounded
- 125 ml red shallots, finely chopped
- Clean the chillies as per the instructions below & soak as per the instructions.
- Put the foil wrapped shrimp paste in a heavy based saucepan & cook for a few minutes until aromatic, turning over the packed a few times – then set aside to cool down.
- Grind peppercorns in a pestle and mortar, add the salt & pop into your food processor.
- Put the peppercorns in a large, heavy mortar and grind them to a powder. Transfer ground pepper to the bowl of a food processor. Add the salt.
- Pound the lime zest, the ginger and the lemongrass with a pestle and mortar to make sure all fibres have broken down & then add the garlic and shallots to crush; put the whole lot in the food processor with the shrimp paste; drain the chillies (keep about 125 ml of the soaking liquid) and pop these into the food processor as well.
- Process the whole lot until you have thick, moist paste & if necessary, add a little of the soaking liquid to prevent the paste from sticking to the blades.
- When smooth, remove from the processor and there you have it.
Thai curries are defined by three elements:
- The ingredients in the paste
- The way in which it is cooked and seasoned
- The ingredients in the curry (these have the most obvious influence on the flavour & appearance of the curry but certainly aren’t the most important or the distinguishing element)
Most curries are served with side dishes and accompaniments and these are as important as the curry itself (things like raw veggies, pickled veggies, salted eggs or dried or salted fish)
These pastes have been developed over centuries & the recipes are passed down from generation to generation so if you can get hold of one, grab it and be gracious in your thanks. The most basic ingredients are chillies (fresh or dried), galangal, lemongrass, red shallots, garlic and shrimp paste and if you’re going to cook Thai curry, these are a must; if you can get hold of kaffir limes (for the zest), coriander root, red turmeric, grachai it would be great and a variety of dried spices are also added but gingerly. These curries are balanced and no one flavour may ever overshadow the other one; it’s essential that you taste each ingredient so that you know what you’re putting into your food. I even taste my dried spices to make sure that each flavour that goes into the food is the flavour that I want.
All fresh stuff needs to be washed, peeled and finely chopped or pounded before being added to the pastes; where possible I opt for pounding but that’s a personal preference born out of a fussy family who don’t like ‘to eat bits’. The French call this mise and plus and it’s one of the first things I learnt when I started to cook. It’s also one of the most important things I learnt. The ingredients for a Thai curry should be prepared as follows, added to the paste in this order:
Chillies and what you need to know about them
The amount depends on your taste, bearing in mind that a green curry is always hotter than a red curry and depends on:
- type of curry being made
- ingredients being used
- personal preference
The colour of the type of chilli being used also distinguishes between the curries; it’s not just the difference between fresh green and red chillies, but also between the kinds of dried long red chillies (use the darkest ones for seriously red curries & the lighter ones for the sour orange or yellow curries); the dried long red chillies are the most commonly used in curries as they are fruity and hot. In the south & north-east they use bird’s eye chillies a lot and the curries are mouth numbingly hot. To cool these down, cut off the stems, slice down the middle of the pod, remove the stems and then remove the seeds & the membranes to which the seeds are attached; rinse these under running water to remove any remaining membranes or seeds & then soak them in cold salted water for 10 – 20 minutes; dried red bird’s eye chillies should be soaked in the same way but they are rarely deseeded because they’re just so darn small – you’ll know when your curry has been made with bird’s eye chillies, they’re hellishly hot. Some of the colour of the chilli will be leached out by the soaking but the taste will remain.
- The more chillies you use in a paste, the better the colour, flavour and heat.
- Soaked dried chillies must be squeezed to extract as much water as possible so that they don’t dilute the paste or splatter when they are pureed.
- Occasionally fresh long chillies (red and green) are used in curry pastes: deseed them and remove the fleshy white membrane (you don’t need it).
- Chillies are pounded or blended with salt and they should be always be completely pureed before any other ingredients are added.
Salt and what you need to know about it for Thai curries
Salt isn’t only used as as a seasoning but also as an abrasive to help grind the chillies and the ingredients that follow; it’s also a preservative. A freshly made paste needs less salt than one that has to be kept longer but take care that you don’t over-salt a curry – it’s a truly horrible thing to taste. Always try to find and use the best quality salt that you can afford.
Kaffir limes and what you need to know about it
It adds a floral flavour which means that it’s very aromatic so don’t overdo it; only use the outer green zest (the pith tastes like soap). Grate finely and before adding this to the paste.
Garlic and what you need to know about it
Garlic is the bridge of any curry & connects all the ingredients to one another; too little will result in a sharp, insipid curry and too much will turn the curry into a an oily, overly rich & overly pungent curry with a garlic taste that’ll stay with you (and everyone else) for days; clean the garlic and if it has a little green sprout, remove this because it tastes awfully bitter.
Galangal and what you need to know about it
It adds peppery sharpness but too much of it will become slightly astringent & overwhelm the back palate; too little will result in a curry with no depth whatsoever. Oldish galangal is the best (yes, it is) because it has concentrated flavour and not too much water – if it’s too old, just soak it in water for a few minutes to reduce the pepperiness but dry it well before you start chopping or grating it and adding to the paste.
Fermented fish and what you need to know about it
Known as pla raa is used in place of shrimp paste for some northern and north-eastern curries and it can be used raw or roasted. If you can’t get hold of some, the shrimp paste will do well.
Lemongrass and what you need to know about it
As far as I’m concerned this is the most important element, not only because I love it but because it adds a citrus quality and lightens the flavour – again, don’t add too much because it will make the curry sharp and too lemony. Peel off & discard the outer sheaths (they’re just too tough), the root and the top third – then slice it finely before you pound it (nd you need to pound it well) and blend with the rest of the curry.
Turmeric and what you need to know about it
It’s used mainly to colour curries: a teaspoon added to a green curry will give a verdant green curry; in the south where lemon grass, bird’s eyes chillies & shrimp paste predominate, it’s used with gusto. One warning though, if you use too much, it will make your curry taste like medicine.
Red shallots and what you need to know about it
These shallots are smaller & sweeter than the western ones but, despite that, too few of them will leave your curry without soul but too much will destroy your curry because you’ll taste nothing but shallots; peel and chop them very finely before you add them to the paste.
Coriander root and what you need to know about it
Be careful not to add too much because it’ll make the curry taste like a muddy lawn; clean it thoroughly before you use it but if you can’t get hold of any, just use coriander leaves & stems (even though Thai cooks would shudder at the suggestion).
Grachai and what you need to know about it
This is wild ginger and not always available in the west; it’s lightens a curry & prevents it tasting too oily or too rich; too much will make the curry taste both bitter and dirty; you need to soak it in water before you use it, then scrape it to remove the skin; it’s shredded & used as a garnish but sometimes used in green curries; if you can’t get hold of it, use ginger root instead.
STUFF YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT DRIED SPICES WHEN YOU COOK THAI CURRY
- These play a very small role in Thai curries because the Thai believe that they disguise the flavour of food – they’re even a tad suspicious of them. To each his own.
- When you use them in these curries, do so with extreme care; the amount used depends on personal taste so I’d suggest you err on the side of caution. With the exception of peppercorns, all spices are roasted individually for as long as a particular curry requires.
- To roast them, heat them very slowly in a heavy wok, tossing regularly to prevent scorching.
- When you’re roasting for a paste, don’t under roast or over roast so stick to the recipe at all times.
- As with Indian curries, the spices are ready when they begin to crackle, toast and colour and release their aroma.
- Cool them before grinding and grind them very finely.
- When you add the ground and roasted spices to a paste, do so very gradually and never over spice – a spice laden curry is not a Thai curry.
COMMONLY USED SPICES
- Peppercorns: these are so rarely roasted that I wouldn’t bother about it at this stage but they are, at times, used in Muslim and jungle curries.
- Coriander and cumin seeds: try to use Thai coriander seeds because they’re less herbaceous; roast them gently until they crack. Cumin seeds must always be roasted separately from coriander seeds and the standard proportion is 2 parts coriander seeds to 1 part cumin seeds – it would do you well to remember this; too much cumin gives a sharp and bitter taste.
- Nutmeg and mace: this is used in almost all beef curries, especially geng panaeng & mace should be coarsely pounded before being quickly roasted – too much will make your curry oily & sweet. I always add a small blade to red chicken curries but that’s just a personal thing.
- Cardamom, cassia and cloves: cardamom is almost always used in mussaman curries: the pods are roasted before being cracked open for the seeds; the seeds are then ground for use in the paste. Thai cardamom is preferred in most Thai curries because the taste is finer even though the perfume is much the same. If you only have Indian cardamom, reduce the quantity by a third. Cassia bark is roasted before grinding & cloves are mainly used in Muslim-style curries but sparingly.
IMPORTANT STUFF TO KNOW ABOUT THAI CURRY PASTES
- The paste must be pureed as finely as possible so do what you can to to get that paste smooth – you want to taste the ingredients, not the texture.
- Get into the habit of tasting your paste – even if you only put a tiny fleck on the tip of your tongue; in that way you can both taste it and check on the aroma.
- When you make a paste in a pestle and mortar, start with the hardest ingredient and progress towards the wettest; it will always yield a better paste than one made in a food processor or blender.
- When you make the paste in a blender or mincer, you save a lot of time but do make sure that you don’t overload the machine; if necessary split it up into two batches and don’t overwork the paste because you’ll heat it; if necessary, add a few drops of water to loosen the paste off the blades.
- There are many different curries and boiled, fried, jungle and Muslim curries are just the tip of the iceberg.
- Boiled curries are the simplest and most popular Thai curries – they’re less refined than the fried ones but there’s a massive number of recipes.
THAI CHICKEN AND VEGGIE CURRY
This is a mild, northern Thai curry can pretty much be made with any vegetables you have in your fridge & bear in mind this recipe is for 100 g of chicken, you could double or triple it easily. I was hesitant about adding this one because it seems so ordinary when compared with clams & pineapple or sour orange trout curry but this is something most of us have in the fridge most of the time so it’s practical.
- 100 g skinless chicken fillets (thigh or breast)
- 250 ml coconut milk
- 250 ml home made chicken stock (whatever you do, don’t use stock cubes)
- 50 g sliced wild or cultivated mushrooms of your choice
- a few Thai basil leaves
- a handful of long leaf fresh coriander
- 2 mini aubergines, cut into quarters
- a couple of baby tomatoes, left whole
- a handful of snap peas or French beans (literally what you want)
- 7 – 10 long red chillies, deseeded, soaked and drained
- A good pinch of salt
- 2 tbsp lemongrass (cleaned & chopped as above)
- 2 tbsp chopped red shallots
- 1 tbsp fresh garlic, pounded into a paste
- 1 tbsp fermented fish (pla raa) or 1 tsp shrimp paste (gapi)
- Make the paste as per my instructions above, then slice the chicken, combine with the paste in a heavy pot & simmer for a moment until fragrant.
- Pour in the stock and the coconut milk & the stock & bring to the boil, turn down the heat so that you have a gentle simmer and after 5 minutes, add the veggies.
- Once the chicken is fork tender, remove from the heat – check and correct the seasoning and serve.
Most curries from north are boiled and the few that are fried, are fried in rendered pork fat. As you move south, the curries are fried in coconut cream. Traditionally, a curry paste was cooked in an earthenware pot over coals. For coconut based curries, the paste is fried in coconut cream which needs to be simmered slowly until it separates & becomes oily – it must be done like this because it affects the taste directly. The oil fries the paste with the creamy solids giving the curry attitude. However, if you’re using tinned coconut cream, add a drop of oil when frying the paste because it has been homogenised during the tinning process.
HOW TO FRY THE PASTE
- Start with the shallots & the garlic and then the rehydrated chillies and remember to stir continuously because they burn, then add the paste and stir & fry until the fragrance is intense but not burning.
- Frying is quite a complex procedure but in time, you’ll learn and become quite proficient.
- My advice to you at this stage is to stick to the recipe at all times.
JUNGLE CURRY OF DUCK
A jungle curry is a hot curry because the heat of the chillies are not softened by the sweetness of the rich coconut cream. Jungle curries are favoured by people living out of town because they use easy-to-find ingredients; this curry takes no time at all to make. They’re normally fried with only a little oil & fish sauce is used to season them with, sometimes, a little sugar. A wet jungle curry is moistened with stock & not coconut milk) and the result is quite a hot & pungent curry.
- 150 g duck meat
- Bones from the duck
- 1 tbsp oil for frying
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 500 ml home made chicken or duck stock (filtered to remove oil)
- 250 ml pea eggplants
- 3 apple eggplants, cut into sixths & steeped in salted water
- 50 g snake beans cut into 2cm lengths
- 4 baby corn, cut into 2 cm lengths
- 125 ml bamboo shoots, sliced
- 5 stalks wild ginger, scraped & julienned (if you can’t get hold of this, use 5 decent slices of ginger root)
- 3 long green chillies, diagonally sliced
- 3 kaffir lime leaves, torn
- A handful of holy basil leaves
- 2 tbsp fresh green peppercorns
- Curry paste
- 10 bird’s eyes chillies
- large pinch salt
- 1 long green chilli, deseeded & chopped
- 1 tbsp galangal, grated
- 2 tbsp lemongrass, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp grachai (wild ginger)
- 4 tbsp red shallots, chopped
- 3 tbsp garlic, chopped
- 1 tsp shrimp paste (gapi)
- Garlic paste
- 1 garlic clove, peeled
- Pinch salt
- 2 stalks grachai, peeled
- 3 bird’s eye chillies
- Slice the duck into 2cm x ½ cm strips, skin on or off – it’s your choice but I remove it
- Make a stock from the bones, strain it and allow to cool before removing excess fat and make the curry paste as per my instructions above and the garlic paste by pounding everything together using a pestle and mortar
- Heat the oil in a wok & when very hot, add garlic paste and fry over high heat until golden; add 3 tbsp of the curry paste and continue to fry, stirring constantly to prevent it from burning until it’s so fragrant that it makes you sneeze; season with the fish sauce.
- Add the stock and bring to the boil, add the duck m eat & the egg plant and simmer until it’s cooked (about 3 minutes).
- Add the rest of the ingredients, stir then check and correct the seasoning and serve hot.