Thai Cooks Heat Up Things with Curry Paste

Sunset, November 1984 | Go to article overview

Thai Cooks Heat Up Things with Curry Paste


Staples of Thai cooking, curry pastes flavor spicy dishes, from mild to fiery hot. Good cooks first pound the chilies and seasonings with a mortar and pestle to make a smooth paste. This mixture can be stored for fairly long periods, becoming a conveience food that can be used in a variety of ways.

Although most good cooks in Thailand might cringe at the thought of using anything but their fresh homemade curry paste, many transplanted Thais in the West have found purchased curry pastes a very easy way to duplicate dishes from back home. Westerners are also discovering that curry pastes make excellent short-cuts for distinctive curries and a good way to season meat for grilling or to flavor stir-fried dishes.

You can purchase curry pastes and other special ingredients in markets that cater to Southeast Asians. The pastes are inexpensive, packed in small pckets, cans, and bags. If you can't find them, you can make pastes wit authentic ingredients from an Asian market or readily available alternatives found in most supermarkets. The homemade pastes are more aromatic and less hot than the purchased.

Here we give recipes for three popular Thai curry pastes, and for dishes prepared with each. The first is a mild, slightly sweet paste inspired by Muslims in Thailand; the second is a hot, spicy green mixture; and the third is a medium-hot red paste called panang. Use the smaller amount of curry paste suggested by the recipe if you're working with a purchased paste, since these are usually much hotter than the homemade versions.

Most cooks in Thailand pound the ingredients patiently with a heavy mortar and pestle until a smooth paste forms. If you don't have the time (it can take as long as 30 minutes), a food processor is a good alternative. It may take several minutes with the processor to achieve a really smooth paste. Muslim Curry Paste (Krung Gaeng Mussaman) 12 thin slices (about the size of a quarter) dry or fresh galangal (laos) or ginger Hot water 2 tablespoons salad oil 1 cup minced shallots or red onion 10 to 12 cloves garlic, pressed or minced 16 large dried mild red chilies such as California chilies 2 tablespoons ground coriander 2 teaspoons ground cumin 1 teaspoon ground mace 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves 10 cardamom pods, hulls removed 2 stalks fresh lemon grass or 2 teaspoons grated lemon peel 1 teaspoon shrimp or anchovy paste 1 teaspoon salt

If galangal is dry, soak in hot water to cover until soft, about 30 minutes. Drain and finely chop; set aside.

In a 10- to 12-inch frying pan, combine oil, shallots, and garlic. Cook over low heat, stirring, until limp. Rinse chilies and remove stems and seeds. Tear chilies into 1-inch pieces. Add to shallot mixture and stir to coat in oil. Add coriander, cumin, mace, cloves, and cardamom. Stir just until chilies begin to brown (do not burn), about 1 minute. Remove from heat.

Trim off root end and tough stalk end of lemon grass. Remove tough outer leaves, then finely chops the rest.

Ina mortar or food processor, combine galangal, chili mixture, chopped lemon grass, shrimp paste, and salt. Pound or whirl until finely ground, partially covering mortar as you pound to prevent splashing. Use, or cover tightly and chill up to 1 month. Makes about 1-1/3 cups. Green Curry Paste (Krung Gaeng Keo Wan) 6 thin slices (about the size of a quarter) dry or fresh galangal (laos) or ginger Hot water 8 to 12 fresh small hot green chilies, each about 4 inches long 3 stalks fresh lemon grass or 3 teaspoons grated lemon peel 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh coriander (cilantro), including washed roots 20 to 22 cloves garlic, pressed or minced 1/2 cup minced shallots or red onion 4 teaspoons ground coriander 2 teaspoons each ground cumin and pepper 2 teaspoons each grated lime peel and salt 2 teaspoons shrimp or anchovy paste 2 tablespoons salad oil

If galangal is dry, soak in hot water until soft, about 30 minutes. …

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