Su-Mei Yu is right–fresh coconut milk wins hands down over the canned stuff. It is sweet and light and makes you want to lick your fingers after squeezing the milk out of the shredded coconut meat. It also makes you want to cook something really good, like curry.
A pot of Thai curry is aromatic, salty-spicy, slightly sweet, fresh, and bright. The curry begins with a simple combination of curry paste cooked in coconut cream–the most important step, according to Su-Mei. Meat, chicken, seafood, or tofu is matched with the freshest seasonal vegetables or fruit and simmered in a flavorful broth. The dish is finished with fresh herbs and garnishes of lime wedges, chiles, and thin strips of raw vegetables. Ahhh…a whole world of flavor in a bowl.
Thai curry is a culinary journey, which is why it is so fascinating to me. Traditionally, curries were cooked slowly in clay pots over small fires (hot fires would break the pots). The method was economical and practical: slow-cooking used little fuel, tenderized tough cuts of meat and poultry, and allowed the cook to accomplish other chores as the food simmered. The practice of making curry with coconut milk may have come from the Ceylonese in the 7th century, and it was Arab traders and missionaries that introduced the use of aromatic dried spices. But it was the Thai Royal Court, Su-Mei says, that perfected the making of Thai curry and prescribed the assortment of seasonal accompaniments that provide complementary and contrasting tastes.
Su-Mei Yu has researched the history and making of Thai curry with passion, or in her words, obsession. The word keang (curry) describes the technique of making stew-like dishes by adding ingredients to a pot of liquid simmered over fire. Keang also describes the practice of using coconut cream for cooking. Though the concept is simple, the process has been perfected over many generations of cooks, and it is the understanding of the nature of fresh and dried herbs and spices and how to prepare and combine them correctly that is the genius of delicious Thai curry. Still, it is the slow-cooking that is the secret of keang.
I love reading Su-Mei’s descriptions of traditional Thai cooking, and try to imagine the forest-dwelling villagers who gathered twigs and dried leaves for their fires, foraged for wild herbs, roots,and tubers, harvested coconuts, and combined them to make the wonderful dish we call Thai curry. Su-Mei doesn’t promise that we can have dinner in 30 minutes (though with canned coconut milk and prepared curry paste, we can). She promises that if we take the time to prepare ingredients carefully and cook them slowly, the results will be well worth the effort.
Thai curry pastes– a blend of fresh aromatics and dried spices–are made with a mortar and pestle. Ingredients include spices, chiles, lemongrass, galangal, ginger, garlic, shallots, wild lime leaves, and shrimp paste…all pounded together to make an intense flavor base ready to explode when stirred into hot coconut cream at the start of a Thai-style curry. Even a simple curry paste recipe has a dozen ingredients, some of them not so easy to find. Luckily, you can buy good curry paste (I like Mae-Ploy brand) at an Asian market. Here are the most common varieties to choose from:
*Yellow: Often fiery hot, this curry paste gets its dominant flavor and color from lemongrass and turmeric. Paired with fish and seafood; great with vegetables and tofu.
*Red: Colored and highly spiced with hot red chiles. A versatile curry paste commonly used with chicken, duck, and beef. Equally good with tofu and vegetables.
*Panang: similar to red curry paste, with the addition of peanuts or cashews. Panang beef curry is renowned.
*Green: Made with fresh green chiles, and very hot. Used in recipes for duck and chicken or pork and eggplant. Serve with fresh basil leaves and a drizzle of coconut cream.
*Masmun or Massaman: Highly aromatic, this curry paste includes more dried spices than other types and is reminiscent of Indian curry.
Notes on ingredients: Su-Mei Yu is very helpful about explaining the role of various ingredients as well as suggesting substitutions. Thai curry recipes often call for wild (Kaffir) limes or bitter orange. Substitute unripe orange, kumquat, or regular lime juice for a sour-bitter flavor, and lime zest in place of lime leaves. Palm sugar is fruity, sweet, and floral. It contributes more flavor than refined sugar. You can substitute maple syrup, light brown sugar, or Mexican cane sugar for palm sugar. Tamarind supplies a sweet-sour-fruity flavor, with a musty undertone like sumac berries. Su-Mei suggests making a puree of tart dried apricots soaked in unsweetened sour cherry juice to duplicate the flavor. Asian markets sell tamarind concentrate as well as blocks of compressed tamarind. To make thick tamarind juice, soak a chunk of compressed tamarind in hot water (1:4 ratio). When it has softened, mash the pulp to help it dissolve. Remove any seeds, and stir until the liquid looks like thin applesauce. Store in the refrigerator.
Meat and Poultry: Su-Mei explains that Thais prefer bone-in meat and poultry, and use a heavy Chinese cleaver to whack it into small portions before cooking (keep one hand behind your back). If you opt for more convenient and quicker-cooking boneless cuts, she suggests slicing across the grain into 1 to 1 1/2-inch strips, and cutting into bite-size pieces for use in curries. Adjust cooking times for thinner or thicker pieces.
Quick Red Chicken Curry
When I first started to make Thai curry, I used directions found in Alford and Duguid’s collection of Southeast Asian recipes, Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, for Quick Red Chicken Curry, which they call a “shortcut with culinary traditions.” Using freshly prepared or canned coconut milk, store-bought chile paste, and boneless chicken, this curry is easy to prepare and adaptable. Once you are familiar with the process, you can mix and match ingredients to create many curry variations. If you make your own fresh coconut milk, you will have enough cream and milk to supply all the liquid needed. If you use canned coconut milk, you can use chicken or vegetable broth for the extra liquid.
Ingredients: 1 14-oz can coconut milk (or 1 cup freshly made thick coconut cream and 1 cup thinner coconut milk), 1 to 4 Tbs red curry paste (how much spice do you like?), 1 lb boneless chicken thighs cut into 1-inch bite-size pieces, 1 to 1 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable broth (or more fresh coconut milk), 1 Tbs fish sauce, 1 to 3 tsp palm or brown sugar, 1 onion cut in thin wedges, 3 cups vegetables cut in 1/2-inch dice or wedges (choose one or two: Thai or Asian eggplant, winter squash, potato, mushrooms…), 2 Tbs thick tamarind juice, zest of one lime (unless you have 3 or 4 wild lime leaves on hand…)
In a wok or heavy saucepan, heat 1/2 cup coconut cream (thick part at the top of the can) over medium heat. When it bubbles, whisk in the red curry paste and stir 1 to 2 minutes. Add another 1/2 cup coconut cream and cook 3 to 5 minutes, until the oil begins to separate and tiny bubbles the color of the chile paste cover the surface.
Add the chicken, stirring to coat the pieces, and cook over high heat until the chicken changes color, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the coconut milk and broth (2 cups total), fish sauce, and sugar; taste and add more fish sauce or sea salt as needed (saltiness of curry pastes and chicken broth are variable!). Bring to a simmer and stir in the onion and other vegetables. Adjust the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until the chicken is cooked and the vegetables are tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the tamarind and lime zest. Lower the heat and cook 1 minute. Serve with jasmine or basmati rice.
Garnish with fresh cilantro, fresh Thai or Italian basil, coconut cream or toasted coconut flakes, thinly sliced hot chiles, thinly sliced cucumber, arugula leaves
Red Curry with Roasted Pork
Su-Mei Yu says that roasted meats and chicken are a treat in Thai curries, and her book includes a recipe for a roasted pork and green banana curry. I improvised with some leftover roasted pork tenderloin and sweet potatoes, to delicious results.
Ingredients: 1 lb pork tenderloin, 4 cups sweet potato or winter squash, 1 14-oz can coconut milk (or 1 cup freshly made coconut cream and 1 cup thinner coconut milk), 1 to 4 Tbs red curry paste (or more, to taste), 1 cup chicken broth or more fresh coconut milk, 1 yellow onion, 1 to 2 Tbs fish sauce, sea salt, 1 or 2 tsp palm sugar, 3 or 4 wild lime leaves or grated zest of one lime, 1 or more lightly crushed fresh hot chiles, 1/2 cup Thai or Italian basil leaves
Su-Mei’s marinade for pork: 3 lightly crushed garlic cloves, 1 Tbs minced ginger, 1/4 cup pineapple juice, 1/4 cup soy sauce
My marinade: 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup mirin, 1/3 cup orange juice, 2 minced garlic cloves, 1 Tbs minced ginger, 2 tsp toasted sesame oil
Combine the pork and marinade and refrigerate 1 to 4 hours (turn over a few times while marinating). Heat the oven to 350 degrees, F. Remove the pork from the marinade and roast 25to 30 minutes, until the meat registers 155 degrees F. Cool and cut into 1-inch cubes.
Peel and cut the sweet potato or winter squash 1/4-inch thick slices. Cut each slice into 1/2-inch wide bite-size strips. Peel and cut the onion into 1/2-inch wedges.
In a wok or heavy saucepan, heat 1/2 cup thick coconut cream (scoop from the top of the unshaken can or use fresh coconut cream) over medium-high heat. Whisk in the red curry paste, lower the heat to medium and cook, continuing to whisk, 1 to 2 minutes. Add another 1/2 cup coconut cream and cook, stirring occasionally, 3 to 6 minutes, until the oil rises to the surface. Stir in the pork and onion. Add an additional 2 cups thinner coconut milk (or coconut milk combined with chicken broth to make 2 cups). Raise the heat to medium-high and bring the liquid to a simmer. Season with fish sauce and sugar to taste. Add the sweet potato and simmer, uncovered, until the sweet potato is tender and the broth thickens, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the lime zest, crushed chile, and basil. Serve with jasmine or basmati rice.
Garnish with thinly sliced fresh chiles, thinly sliced cucumber, and lime wedges.
Something else to make with your fresh coconut milk! This is quick and easy, using prepared curry paste and your stash of tamarind juice.
Ingredients: 1/2 cup thick coconut milk or cream, 1 Tbs Thai curry paste, 5 Tbs peanut butter, 1 Tbs palm sugar, 2 Tbs fish sauce, 1/2 tsp cayenne (optional), 1/2 cup water, 2 to 4 Tbs thick tamarind juice, fresh lime juice
Heat the coconut milk in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the curry paste and cook 1to 2 minutes. Add the peanut butter, sugar, fish sauce, cayenne, and water. Stir and cook until the sauce is bubbling and well blended. Remove from the heat and stir in the tamarind juice. Add 1 or 2 tsp lime juice, to suit your taste.