Thai Red Curry

Or, “Gaeng Warfare”.

I make no pretensions to be a master of Thai food.  Of the Asian cuisines that I’m conversant in, I know perhaps the least about Thai food.  Then again, I’m only ‘conversant’ (by which I mean, I’ve only cooked dishes from) the cuisines of China, Japan, and maybe once-or-twice of Vietnam.

So, y’know, take this recipe with a grain of salt and a dash of fish sauce.  Thai home cooks?  Speak up!  Teach me your ways.

Like most of the recipes you’ll see on the blog, this will be mostly an approximate recipe.  Believe me, I’m certainly not anti-recipe, but I think that once you cook for long enough, you handle the larger issues (cans of coconut milk, pounds of pork), and the smaller measurements – that is, the seasonings – will take care of themselves.  This is because I follow Kitchen Axiom Number 7.

David’s Kitchen Axiom No. 7: Taste, taste, and taste again.

There is really no way to know whether or not a sauce or a dish or a batter is really truly right and proper without tasting it.  There’s no shame in this, and to me, there’s nothing gross about it.  Ask a real chef; they definitely taste your food before it goes out.  I’m not saying they stick their fingers in it, and they probably use new spoons each time, but if your business is to supply consistent product (as it is the business of a line chef at a restaurant), you have to make sure you’re making everything the same way.

Recipes are a guide for the home cook, but by no means a religious text that cannot be contravened.  Yes, of course follow it verbatim the first time, because otherwise you have no right to complain about it not tasting right.

So, keep all of this in mind as I give you this recipe, and a little of what I know about Thai curries.

I’ve been treating curries sort of like stews, which means I’ve been applying the western/French mindset toward ‘em.  Probably I’m supposed to treat the meat more like a stir-fry, and cook it separately and add it in later, but here’s how I make it, and I’m sure someone will come along and tell me it’s not authentic.  So, with any hope of True Authenticity evanescing like dew at noon, let’s get to it, shall we?

The Set-Up

You will need:

  • a tablespoon or less of red curry paste (maybe 2 teaspoons)
  • oil or fat
  • an onion, sliced
  • a jalapeño pepper, chopped fine (or, if you’ve got ‘em, I suppose 1 or 2 little birds’-eye chiles, also chopped fine)
  • two cans of coconut milk
  • some pork shoulder, maybe 1-2 lbs
  • vegetables (in this case, green peppers, though they should’ve been red), perhaps a cup or two, thinly sliced (such as thin coins of carrot, thin slices of zucchini, mushrooms, whole baby corn, whatever)
  • Fish sauce
  • and a cast iron dutch oven, or a large 5-6 quart pot of some kind.

Inasmuch as I’ve read, the first thing you want to do with a curry (and indeed, pretty much the first thing you want to do in almost any recipe) is activate the aromatics.  This is what I’m talking about with the purpose of recipes: look beyond the numbers and identify the qualitative patterns.  Cooking is a series of chemical processes, but it is not baking; you can handily afford to be a little less imprecise if you have a handle on the core mechanics of a recipe.  Now, if you decided to throw in an extra teaspoon of baking soda to your Irish soda bread batter, you would no longer have Irish soda bread; you’d have a low-grade oven explosive.  If you decided to throw in another teaspoon of thyme into your beef bourguignon, you’ve still got beef bourguignon (and even if you decide to use white wine instead of red burgundy, you’ll still have a stew, even if it’s not beef bourguignon).

But I’ve been rambling for much too long, and there haven’t even been any pictures yet!

The Heist

1. Sauté the aromatics: heat your pot over a medium-low flame, and heat the oil (and perhaps some salt) in the pan, until the oil starts to shimmer.  Then add your curry paste.

Some people make their own curry paste.  I don’t make enough Thai food to really merit it, and I’ve still got so many cans of the stuff that I haven’t yet deemed it necessary.

Don't let it burn.

Sauté this, stirring frequently, for about a minute or two, until it gets really fragrant and lovely.  Then add in the onions and the jalapeño, and cook until the onion is translucent, and everything is coated in the curry paste.

See, it's getting a little translucent.

2. Now, I remembered something at this point (this was before I had unpacked my books, so I was doing a recipe from memory): it’s customary to sauté the aromatics in a little coconut cream (that is, not coco lopez or sweetened coconut – that’s cream of coconut.  It is easy to get confused.  Coconut cream is a more concentrated coconut milk), to cook the coconut cream until its fat had rendered and was serving as more of the oil, really.

Well, I didn’t have coconut cream, I just had coconut milk, so I cracked one of the cans and poured in … probably less than 1/2 cup of the coconut milk, right on top of the aromatics.

You want to add just enough so that you're not boiling your aromatics, but still sauteing them in the coconut fat, dispersing the chile heat throughout the fat.  Capsaicin is really fat-soluble.

Reduce this until it’s hardly anything, just a slight film of coconut-fat covering the bottom of the pan, along with the oil and the curry paste.

3. Add the pork (or, if you’re not a pork person, chicken thighs or beef chuck).  Mine was frozen, so I defrosted it just enough to turn it from ice-cube to pliable.  Stir-fry the pork for a bit, until the outsides are no longer pink; you should not be concerned about cooking it through at all.  Just cook the outsides so that the pieces don’t stick to one another, or the bottom of the pan.  That’ll be five to ten minutes.

I get antsy putting up these in-process photos, because I don't think I photograph raw or semi-raw meat very attractively.4. Add the remaining can of coconut milk, plus another (so this recipe takes around 30 oz, or 880 mL of coconut milk.  Two 14.5 oz standard cans of coconut milk is, admittedly, a lot, but I see nothing wrong with using low-fat coconut milk.  Using one can of coconut milk, and a can’s-worth of chicken stock (about a cup and two thirds) would also probably work, but you won’t end up with the dish at the proper viscosity; it’ll be a lot soupier.  If that’s how you like it, that’s fine!  I’m sure it’d work.

I like taking pictures like this, where there's no visible can, and it just looks like it's raining coconut milk.  Well, it does to me.

5. Bring to a boil, then simmer on low for about an hour to an hour-and-a-half.  it should get to looking like this.

To me, that looks attractive.  I can understand how someone else might feel differently.  It is nothing without the smell; the smell is GLORIOUS.

At some point, you’re going to want to put in a teaspoon or so (maybe more; I used many healthy dashes) of fish sauce.  I have an enormous bottle, shown here next to the standard Clean Platter Comparison Lemon™:

Phú quôć, man!  I'm gonna start using that as an exclamation.  Yeah, I know it's a place.There is no way I am likely to go through a 24-ounce bottle of fish sauce in … I mean, that bottle should last me four or five years, at least.

Some of you are probably not familiar with nam pla, or as it’s called in vietnamese, nước mắm.  It’s fermented anchovy extract, and exceedingly salty.  It also smells, well, some would say, “terrible.”  I would say, “musky”.  But the difference that fish sauce makes in pretty much anything you add it to is absolutely incredible.  When you’re making this curry, smell what you’ve got going on in the pot.  Take a deep breath and remember the scent.  Then add the fish sauce.  Then smell the dish again.  It won’t smell musky or terrible or fishy, but it will smell a lot deeper, a lot more compelling.  Fish sauce doesn’t bring its own flavor so much as it supports other flavors (we call this glutamic, savory power umami. By we I mean Japanese people.  I am not Japanese.).  What I’m saying is, if you think fish sauce is too gross to use in your kitchen, you are sorely missing out.  I’m going to start using it in non-asian applications (chicken stock, hamburgers), and seeing what happens.  After all, I live alone.  Nobody’s going to complain about it but me.

6. Slice your vegetables; you’re going to throw them in about ten to fifteen minutes before you kill the heat and stop cooking.  The harder the vegetable (carrot, parsnip, broccoli), the thinner you ought to slice it, to go along with the less firm veg, so that it all cooks at the same time.

I think this was about two peppers.  Maybe two and a half.

Throw in your vegetables, and stir briefly.  If you extract a piece of meat from the stew at this point (because, remember, you should be tasting the stew once every hour or so, or whenever you season it.  Not a lot!  just a little), it should be fall-apart soft; this meal should probably be eaten with a spoon.

If you’re eating this with rice (which you absolutely should), I would start it around the time you prep your vegetables, or a little before.

7. When your vegetables are softened, you can add the cilantro.  Now, me, I like a lot of cilantro.

That's not enough.Kill the heat, chop your cilantro roughly, and add it in to the curry; the cilantro will pretty much liquefy; the stalks will turn limp, the leaves will shred like wet tissue paper. To me, that sounds heavenly.

Now, I left this on the stove a little too long, so it started to lose its vibrant color, and turned a little green.  But it’s still delicious!  Serve with rice, sliced radishes, maybe a squeeze of lime juice, and, of course, more cilantro.


Now, I adapted this (very broadly, don’t blame her) from a Thai cookbook – Nancie McDermott’s Real Thai: The Best of Thailand’s Regional Cooking, which, for my money, is an excellent cookbook.  I’m still teaching myself about Thai and Chinese food, really.  I’m still trying to get my head around the patterns and systems of these cuisines.  So bear with me.  If you know anything about thai home cooking, I’d love to have feedback!  All I want to do is learn, and have you lot learn with me.


2 thoughts on “Thai Red Curry

  1. I used to make Thai curry all the time! Red and green, but then I basically gave up on green because I like red so much better. For awhile I made this every week. The recipes I based my standard procedure on have lots of fresh basil added with the vegetables, and I think two tablespoons of brown sugar if I remember right, and a tablespoon of fish sauce (per can of coconut milk) – but little or no cilantro. I feel very strongly about the basil and sugar. I have done a before-and-after taste test, and an I-don’t-have-fresh-basil one. And I usually add bell peppers toward the end because otherwise they lose their color like happened to you.

    But I’ll try it your way next time if you try mine!

    1. I shall do this! I know from research that palm sugar is a big part of thai cooking, and that we’re supposed to use brown sugar to compensate. When do you add it? What’s your procedure?

      And does the basil go in when I would put in my cilantro, towards the end of cooking?


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