10 March, 2009

Curry, curry, curry!

I love curry. Whether it's one of the many Indian curries or a creamy, spicy Thai curry, I have yet to find one that I don't like. Maybe it's the variety of dishes that shelter under the name in common Western usage. Maybe it's the spicy, intense flavors that meld together in a murky sauce and turn even the most common ingredients into a dish fit for kings. Maybe I just like them because it's another excuse to eat really hot food. Like I need an excuse.

But curry is a somewhat misunderstood term in the West. A brief review of Wikipedia's article on curry will show how misunderstood it is. Curry is an easy way to classify a range of dishes from varied, ancient high cultures. It is a term that doesn't always respect the nuances of culture and place. It does however, respect the ingenuity of incorporating new tastes and techniques that marks many of these cultures and our Western experience of them. So, to me, it is a double-edged term. I try to use it respectfully.

Indian curry grabbed my attention first. But India is a large country with many diverse cultural nuances. The cuisine is no simpler. When I first started exploring Indian cuisine with Madhur Jaffrey ("Indian Cooking" and later "World Vegetarian"), I was appalled at the injunction to use only whole spices (which keep very well) and to grind them only in the quantities needed (for for freshness of flavor). What? Grinding spices is a real pain, but because I am who I am, I started seeking out whole spices. At one time a friend converted an unused coffee grinder into a very effective spice mill (which only just gave up the ghost a couple of years ago, after almost a decade of service). Eventually my spice rack of plastic jars of pre-ground spices turned into a chaotic collection of old jars brimming with the shapes and colors of whole spices. When my spice mill died, I pulled out the cast iron mortar and pestle I had received as a gift several years ago and got on with doing it by hand (which is just as easy now as the spice mill was when it was still working). Believe me, a freshly ground curry powder will blow your mind. I am still working on exploring Indian curries, but (even though I've already spent a lot of time on it here) that's not the curry I've been playing with lately.

Thai curry is very different. The curry is a creamy, somewhat soupy sauce made with coconut milk and one of a variety of color-coded curry pastes. It is also distinguished by the use of fish sauce or "nam pla" (Thailand). The curry is then filled with a variety of vegetables and meat of some kind (although there are many vegetarian Thai curries). A lot of fresh herbs (such as cilantro and basil) feature heavily in Thai curries and the dish is often quite easy and quick to prepare (for a certain value of "quick").

I had stayed away from these wonderful curries because I was a little leery of coconut milk in my spicy food but, I finally got around to trying it out and fell in love. My experience with coconut had so often been of the candied variety that appears commonly on cakes (which I don't particularly care for). I had also had unsweetened coconut fresh from the shell (which I did like), so I wasn't entirely surprised when the unsweetened coconut milk in the sauce really captured my imagination. It was a perfect counterpoint to the heat of the chilies of which the Thai are so fond. I could ask for it even hotter, I could sweat more. Alright!

Since my first introduction I have always kept a couple of cans of unsweetened coconut milk kicking around in my pantry - just in case.

A few weeks ago, I decided what I really needed was a nice Thai-style curry to keep me going. So after a trip down to the grocery for a few key ingredients, I was cooking. Following the directions on the jar of red curry paste, I sauteed the shallots and garlic, dropped the veggies in (except for the cilantro) for a quick sautee and then added the coconut milk, a couple of teaspoons of curry paste and about a half a cup of water. Stewed it for a while, added in the cilantro and spring onion at the last moment and had it over rice. It was good, but it wasn't quite right.

The next week, during a bout of high-spirited optimism over the arrival of Spring (temperatures dropped into the 20's the next week), I strolled down to the grocery. There I picked up some delicious looking collards (I felt the need for something green in my diet) and some of the other ingredients for a curry and headed home.

When I was getting started, I had the idea of cutting the collards into long, thin strips and serving them like "noodles". So I got started on cooking the collards in a pretty traditional fashion (steamed with a little pork side meat, vinegar and red pepper flakes). I didn't cook them for too long (about 30 minutes) because I wanted them to hold together and add texture.

Then I got to work on the curry. This is the result:

From Good Eats.

Hmmm. That sauce looks a little watery. Not to mention that I had used red curry paste. Something was definitely not right, but it was pretty good to eat. I liked the collard "noodles" and agree with my friend Mark who suggested that a bit of Southern cornbread alongside would have been a perfect accompaniment. But I was more worried about the sauce.

Back to researching curry. I finally discovered Simply Thai, which I have mentioned before. I was looking at the possibility of producing my own curry paste and had seen another commentator suggest that even most Thais bought a ready made paste. Simply Thai has several good recipes for curry pastes (and a wide variety of other delicious looking dishes), but they are *really* labor intensive. Plus lemongrass and galangal aren't commonly available (although I have found a source for both). For the time being, I decided that I would stick to the pastes. I will try out the "DIY" curry paste eventually - after all, I'm already crushing my own whole spices in a cast-iron mortar and pestle.

While I was there (looking for the "Crying Tiger" recipe), I came across the "Curry" section. There I discovered that I had been doing it wrong. Sauteeing the shallots and garlic was right, but then the curry paste went into the sautee. It didn't matter if it was green (which has a lot of fresh herbs in it) or red or yellow. Then the coconut milk went it - no water anywhere. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

While going over the recipes, I started to realize that it wasn't all that different from Indian curries in some respects. It was a process. Once that clicked, I had it. I don't often use recipes for dishes that I make frequently because I have internalized the process (which is often more important than the ingredients). Once you get that down, the rest is pretty easy.

This past weekend, I was feeling pretty ill due to the aforementioned change in the weather from cold to warm back to very cold again. I had decided, however, that I was going to make a big ole curry and nurse myself back to health with a liberal dose of hot peppers. So down to the Grand Asia Market to shop the produce I went. I came back with some lovely looking stuff. I had:

Chinese eggplant:

From Good Eats.

Eggplant is one of my favorite vegetables and I like it prepared in a variety of ways. These beautifully colored eggplants were creamy white and delicately fleshed on the inside. I admit, I got a little excited when I cut into them.

Thai Chilies:

From Good Eats.

Hot. I love these little guys and they come in a little baggie that has so many for just a dollar or so. This wasn't even half of the bag, but it's the amount that went into the curry.

Baby Bok Choy:

From Good Eats.

Oh boy. This is another favorite vegetable. These are a little larger than some of the other "baby" bok choy, but every bit as delicious.


So on Sunday, feeling pretty weak after working through my cold, I made my way into the kitchen to start cooking.

Here are some of the other things I had on hand that went into the curry:

Japones chilies (whole, dried, 5)
Canola oil (about 2 tablespoons)
Shallots (minced, 1 large shallot)
Garlic (minced, 5-6 cloves)
Green curry paste (4 teaspoons)
Coconut milk (1 can)
Fish Sauce (about 4 teaspoons or to taste - you could substitute a light-colored soy sauce if anchovy water bothers you)
Spring onion (sliced thinly on the bias, 2)
Fresh Lime (1 half, quartered)
Cilantro (chopped, half a bunch)
Basil (trimmed, washed, the last couple of whole sprigs I had left)

The process:

I started by chopping and mincing and generally getting everything ready to go into the pot. This is referred to "Mise-en-place" in French and is a very good idea for anything you cook. Once the process starts, it is very difficult to stop it and maintain the quality of the finished dish if you have to prep something you've forgotten. I still end up leaving things out on occasion, but I've been getting a lot better since I started doing it. It is especially important when you're dealing with a high-heat, quick-cooking method like stir-frying. Thai-style curries also happen pretty quickly and try to maintain a "just-cooked" crispness to many of the vegetables that appear in them. Again. The "mise" is invaluable.

Then I heated a large pot over medium-high heat (whatever it takes for sauteeing). I dry fried the Japones chilies until they started to blacken and smell like peanuts (I haven't figured out why, but they do). Heating the chilies in this fashion causes them to release more flavor and "hotness" when the rest of the stuff goes in.

From Good Eats.

Then I added the shallots and garlic and sauteed them until they just started to brown. In the west, we often avoid browning garlic because it goes from brown to burned and bitter in seconds. I have found that I enjoy the flavor it lends the finished dish. You do have to be careful though and ready to add the next ingredient to arrest the browning at the correct stage.

From Good Eats.

Now the curry paste goes in and gets stirred around until it stops clumping and becomes aromatic. If you are cooking with meat other than fish, you should add it with the curry paste. The meat will brown somewhat and the curry paste will give it a good coating. After you start to get a good amount of aroma rising from the pan, add the coconut milk and fish sauce and bring to a low boil stirring constantly. Ideally, the coconut milk will separate and a thin layer of oil will appear on top. I have yet to get this part of the technique down. I am used to trying to keep a sauce from breaking and it hurts to do it on purpose - I'll get there eventually though.

From Good Eats.

Next the eggplant went into the pot. I stirred it around well until it was coated, then covered the pot and let it stew on medium heat for about 10-15 minutes. The white flesh of the eggplant melted into the curry and thickened it beautifully.

From Good Eats.

After the eggplant began to break down, I added in the bok choy and Thai chilies and let them cook for a while. Unfortunately judging the precise moment for doneness escaped me this time and it was a little softer than I wanted. As I mentioned before, I feel that a good Thai curry should feature vegetables that have a little crispness or bite to them (and the best that I've had always do). I was also a little inattentive at this stage - not a good idea while currying. Let my mistake be a lesson.

The best timing for this stage is usually about 10 minutes before you want to eat. This is also a good time to add your uncooked fish (cut in bite-sized pieces) or shrimp to the pot (most seafood cooks very quickly).

About 5 minutes before I was ready to eat, I dropped in the spring onion, cilantro, basil and squeezed the lime slices into the pot. I dropped the slices in, but took them out before eating since they can lend a pithy bitterness if they are in too long. Finally, I poured a good amount over rice and dug in.

From Good Eats.

Maybe it was resting for a full day with little more than a trip to the bookstore and a little cooking, but the next day my cold was well on it's way out of my head. Personally, I like to think that the curry had more than a little to do with it. It really cleared out my head, but wasn't as forwardly spicy as you might have suspected. I think that the eggplant and the coconut milk thickened sauce probably took away a bit of the heat (although it was still plenty hot). It was even good cold when I finished off the last of it the next day.

So if you want a little something different that is easy to cook, the Thai-style Curry is your pal. Believe me after the first couple of tries, you'll be throwing together curries in no time. Head out to your local grocery and pick up the staples:

At least 1 can of coconut milk
A couple of jars of curry paste (red and green are most common)
A couple of shallots (you can mince them, put in a resealable freezer bag and freeze if you don't normally use shallots - I never keep mine longer than a week, but freezing is a good idea just in case)

Then grab the fresh veggies. I like bell peppers (red and yellow especially), green onions, bok choy, eggplant, broccoli, etc. Anything will do though. Tomatoes, mushrooms and potatoes make good additions as well. Thai-style curries are about freshness, so hit the market and buy the best looking, freshest stuff you can find. Meat is good too: beef, pork, chicken, fish, shrimp, you name it.

As far as the color of the paste goes: Red is pretty hot (often labeled as "Penang"). Green can be pretty mild. It's always a good idea to taste a little of a new paste before you put it in your dish so that you can judge the heat. I have not seen many yellow curry pastes out there, although I am sure it'll turn up at the Grand Asia Market or similar specialty grocery. The yellow is supposed to be quite mild and appropriate for everyone. While you can pick any color you like, the red is often used for beef or other strongly flavored meat. The green and yellow are often used for chicken, vegetable or seafood preparations. If you look around you'll see that, even in Thai restaurants, these aren't exactly rules.

Now get out there and make some curry!

1 comment:

  1. Well, one of the fellows I work with has a Thai wife. Well, half-Thai, but still. He gave me directions to the little Asian market she shops at, so I am going to make a trip there tomorrow and see what there is to see.

    I was very intrigued with the "crying tiger" dish you described so much so that I checked all the websites of the local Thai restaurants (and, surprisingly, we have quite a few in this high, cold place but I could not find one that served it, at least by either of those names.

    I'll let you know how the trip to the market goes tomorrow.
    I will keep looking.