Thursday, December 18, 2008

Thai Green Curry - Gaeng Kiew Waan

As one of the more distinctive dishes of international cuisine, Thai green curry is one of my favorites. Most of the Thai people I have met, in and outside of Thailand, have a thorough knowledge of balance in flavors. Foods must be sweet and sour, salty and bitter, fishy and floral, spicy and creamy, often over delicious Jasmine rice. If any dish represents the ultimate in Thai balance, it is green curry. The basis of this spicy curry is green chilies, then incorporates a fair representation of the Thai aromatics. Spicy curry paste and creamy coconut milk, sweet palm sugar and sour lime juice, salty fish sauce and bitter eggplants, floral Jasmine rice and aromatic holy basil. To make the best green curry, taste for the balance of all these flavors - not blended together so you can't tell they exist, but an equal balance of strong flavors.

This curry dish is quick, and the tricks to making really good green curry are simple. The ideal texture and flavoring of the coconut milk come from sauteing the curry paste first, then cooking the meat, and adding most of the coconut milk at the end, just long enough to heat it up. This is a quick process, and once the coconut milk is in the curry shouldn't be kept on the stove for long. Also, add Thai basil and lime juice only after it has come off the burner. I've made a number of green curries that were unbalanced and dimensionless, or separated, without these steps.

We made our own curry paste (recipe below), but most Thai green curry pastes will suffice if you follow the proper technique. The best flavor will come from a couple authentic Thai ingredients, even after the curry paste. Many of them are commonplace now in Asian markets, though: lime leaves, Thai basil, and Thai (green globe) eggplants. My personal favorites that make the dish especially authentic, if you can find them, are pea eggplants (the size of large green peas), and galingale, or krachai, a member of the ginger family. Galingale is similar in flavor to galangal, but differently shaped - while galangal looks like an overgrown, woody piece of ginger, galingale is a joined bunch of long, slim, smooth, finger-like rootlets. We found both of these (former pickled, the latter frozen) at Viet Wah, a large Vietnamese grocery store on 12th and Jackson in the International District of Seattle.

Thai Green Curry - Gaeng Kiew Waan
modified from Cooking Thai Food in American Kitchens, by Malulee Pinsuvana

Green curry paste

10 fresh green Thai chilies
2 Tbl chopped lemongrass
1 tsp chopped cilantro roots or 1 Tbl cilantro stems
1 Tbl chopped shallot
1 Tbl chopped garlic
1 tsp fresh or frozen galangal, chopped (kha)
1 tsp fresh or frozen galingale (krachai)
1 tsp pounded coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds (yirah)
7 black peppercorns
1 tsp salt

1 tsp Thai shrimp paste (kapi)

  1. Dry-fry all ingredients except shrimp paste in frying pan until aromatic (don't let this get brown - it will lose its texture and complexity).
  2. Transfer to a mortar and pestle or a small hand blender, adding a little water if necessary, and grind to a paste.
  3. Keep in a sealed jar in the refrigerator. This will make 16 servings or so.

Curry dish

1 Tbl vegetable oil
1 Tbl green curry paste
1 can coconut milk, preferably Chakoah, divided
1 Tbl Thai fish sauce
1/2 lb. sliced firm tofu or sliced raw chicken breast
1-2 tsp palm sugar, or 1 tsp granulated sugar
1 Tbl sliced lime leaf
1/2 c. fresh or pickled pea eggplants (makurd poong) (optional)
2 round Thai (green globe) eggplants (makurd ploud), cut into quarters, or sliced zucchini
1 green and 1 red hot Thai chile (cut lengthwise)

1 Tbl fresh squeezed lime juice, plus more to taste
1 stem holy basil (bai holapa), leaves removed
1 Tbl chopped cilantro
1 finger of galingale (krachai), sliced thin on the bias

  1. Preheat the vegetable oil in a wok over medium heat
  2. Stir-fry the curry paste for about 1 minute.
  3. Add two spoonfuls of coconut milk, then add tofu or chicken and the fish sauce.
  4. When the tofu or chicken is cooked, add the rest of the coconut milk and bring to a BRIEF boil.
  5. Add the sugar, lime leaf, and pea and Thai eggplants (or zucchini).
  6. Simmer for a couple of minutes.
  7. Remove from heat, and stir in garnish ingredients.
  8. Add more fish sauce, sugar, or lime juice according to taste.
  9. Serve immediately over steamed Jasmine rice.

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