Category Archives: Southeast Asian

Beginner’s Mind: Thai Green Curry with Chicken and Eggplant

Ingredients for Thai Green Curry Paste

While they say that the best way to learn to cook is at your mother’s elbow, I have learned as much from reading cookbooks cover to cover. I learned to cook Mexican food under the tutelage of Rick Bayless, who guided me through the intricacies of roasting, soaking, and blending dozens of varieties of chilies. For Moroccan food, my teacher was Paula Wolfert, whose 1973 Couscous and Other Good Foods from Morocco introduced me to the rich flavors of the land of olives and preserved lemons.

My introduction to Thai food, however, has been completely different, because now I am a food blogger, and have discovered the marvelous community of inventive, knowledgeable cooks who are so willing to share their recipes with the world. My culinary education in Thai food has been overseen by Pim, Barbara, and Karen. When it came time to expand my Thai repertoire beyond bottled curry pastes and beef salads, I turned to their blogs before any cookbooks.

Thai green curry, unlike it’s red counterpart, can never be a convenience food, because the fresh, fruity, herbacious flavor of the chile paste itself does not hold up in the freezer. And the only way to get that smooth, unctuous texture in the finished curry is by meticulously pounding the ingredients for the paste in a mortar and pestle: lemongrass, galangal, garlic, shallots, coriander root, chilies. While not convenient by any stretch of the imagination, it is deeply satisfying to watch the plant fibers smash under the weight of the pestle, release their fragrant oils, then come together again into a smooth,wet paste. And lest you missed your weekly trip to the gym, a solid hour of pounding has to be the equivalent of a good workout, right?

Chicken, pork, or fish usually form the backbone of this curry, to which is added the silky-crunchy texture of Thai eggplants. You can use these apple eggplants, but I used these, because that’s what was at the farmer’s market last Saturday.

In a pinch, you could use the long, slender Japanese eggplants, cut into bite-sized pieces, but you may miss the seedy crunch of the small eggplants in the finished curry. The curry is finished by a long simmer in rich coconut milk, the aromatics tamed by three sucessive reductions, the flavors rounded out by fish sauce and palm sugar.

This recipe comes, for the most part, from Chez Pim. I have only made a few changes to her recipe. While most Thai cooks simmer the raw meat in the curry, I prefer to quickly saute the chicken in hot oil, locking in the juiciness of the meat and deepening the flavor of the finished curry by scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. I also use boneless, skinless chicken thighs because they taste better.

Thai Green Curry with Chicken and Eggplant

Curry Paste:
10 Thai Bird’s Eye Chilies
12 Serrano Chilies (or 4 jalapenos)
3 stalks lemon grass, bottom part only
2 large shallots
2 heads garlic, peeled (that’s right, heads)
1 in piece of galangal
1 tsp shrimp paste
1/2 tsp white pepper
1 tsp coriander
1/2 tsp cumin
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cilantro root (You can also use the cilantro stems)

1 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs, chopped into bite sized pieces
1 14 oz can coconut milk
1/2 lb small Thai eggplant
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp palm sugar (I use brown sugar.)
A few branches of Thai basil

Drizzle chicken with a few teaspoons of fish sauce.

Make the curry paste: Finely slice all ingredients, then pound in a stone mortar and pestle. I only have a small m&p, so I had to do this in batches. I was at it for an hour. You can also whiz in the food processor to speed things up, but you must finish in the mortar and pestle, or the paste will be dry and fibrous.

Finish the curry: Heat 1 tbsp. peanut oil in a wok or medium saute pan until very hot. Add chicken in small amount, making sure not to crowd the pan. Cook for 2-3 minutes, then remove chicken from the pan.

Add another tablespoon of oil to pan. When hot, add the curry paste. Stir constantly, scraping the bottom of the pan, and fry until paste starts smelling fragrant. Add just the cream from that can of coconut milk, stir into paste, and cook again until oil begins to separate. Now add the remainder of the coconut milk, palm sugar, fish sauce, and any juice that the chicken has exuded, stir into paste, and let simmer 5 minutes.

Add chicken and eggplant, simmer 5-10 minutes, or until eggplant has cooked. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve garnished with Thai basil leaves, atop a steaming mound of jasmine rice.

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Laab, the raw way

Laab

Like most Americans, I first tasted Laab,* the Thai beef salad laced with shallots, herbs, fish sauce and lime in Thai restaurants in this country. I have never been to Thailand, but the best laab I have ever had was at a Thai restaurant in a little town in France, where they made the laab with raw beef. The raw beef was more tender than its cooked counterpart, and had a more delicate flavor, setting off the crunch and intensity of the shallots and herbs. At first I thought I was eating a French-Thai fusion—steak tartare meets Laab–but I learned that across Thailand and Laos, laab is made with both cooked and raw beef, pork and fish. Of course, I’ve never seen it raw on a menu here in the States. God bless the French for being so much less food-phobic than Americans!

When my friend Maria called and asked if I was available to keep her company during her three hour layover in Minneapolis, I knew I wanted to make a raw laab to share with her. I think I first had laab with her at a restaurant in Boston; it’s her favorite Thai dish and she orders it every time she has Thai, and secondly, of all my friends, she is the least likely to look askance at a piece of raw meat for dinner.

Although this post recommends beef tenderloin for raw laab, I couldn’t justify the expense. Unfortunately, committing to locally sourced, humanely-raised meat means that the best cuts of meat aren’t always available to me. In this article on steak tartare, the classic French raw beef preparation, Anthony Bourdain recommends sirloin steak for tartare, a relatively economical choice for the laab. Obviously, when serving raw meat, the very best quality of meat is absolutely essential. Meat wrapped in those plastic and Styrofoam packages tends to smell off, and feel slimy, so be sure to go to a butcher.

Since there’s no cooking involved, the laab preparation was a matter of chopping: first the meat into slices, then slivers, then tiny little bits (never, ever use a food processor). Handfuls of cilantro, mint, shallots, lime leaves, and chilies followed. I almost forgot the roasted rice flour, the ingredient that binds the texture and flavors. And then it was just a matter of seasoning “to taste,” that marvelously ambiguous directive. I placed the limes and fish sauce near the bowl and popped bits into my mouth, continuously adjusting. Not sour enough, not salty enough, maybe a pinch of sugar to lift the flavors? And then came the moment when the laab tasted just like I remembered; it was time to serve.

*Although usually spelled Larb, this is the British Romanization. Try saying larb with a British accent. See?

Laab

It is extremely difficult to give quantities for laab. Start with these and adjust to your taste. Use big bunches of herbs, err on the side of too much, and it will probably end up just right. I could have done with more herbs in mine.

1 tbsp. raw rice (I used Jasmine)
1 lb. sirloin steak
3-5 shallots
1 bunch cilantro
1 bunch mint
4-6 Thai bird chilies
3 Kaffir lime leaves
¾ tbsp fish sauce
½ lime
salt to taste, if necessary
pinch of sugar, optional

Lettuce leaves for serving

1. Toast the rice in a dry skillet, shaking occasionally, until golden and fragrant. Grind to a fine powder in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.

2. Finely chop sirloin, first into thin slices, the slice crosswise again, as finely as possible.

3. Mince the shallots, herbs, chilies and lime leaves.

4. Combine all and season with fish sauce and lime juice. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Sources: The Lao Cook, The Food Network: Canada

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Filed under gluten-free, Southeast Asian