Phat Phrik Khing: Smash Your Way to a Spectacular Dry-Style Thai Curry

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A mortar and pestle is key to great flavor in this dry Thai curry. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Stroll by a curry vendor in a Thai food court and you'll likely see one curry that stands out from the rest: phat phrik khing. Unlike most other curries, which are served with plenty of liquid—be it coconut milk or broth—phat phrik khing is served dry, its intensely flavored curry paste coating each morsel of food. It can be made with any number of vegetables or meat, but I particularly love the common combination of long beans and tofu. The simplest recipes start with store-bought red curry paste. (Some, like the one just linked to, contain shrimp paste, but vegan red curry paste is easy to come by.) It's not a bad way to turn out a 10-minute meal, but, so long as you have access to fresh Southeast Asian ingredients, a few simple tools, and some elbow grease, you can make something much, much more spectacular.

Do you ever come up with a great response just a moment too late? People frequently ask me which under-appreciated kitchen tool deserves a more central place in their kitchen. I should have the answer rehearsed by now, but whenever I'm put on the spot, I wind up saying things like thermometer! or immersion blender!, or maybe a scale! Now, those are all great tools. Essential, even. But if I had to pick one tool that's severely underrated and overlooked, it's the humble mortar and pestle, a tool that's been used in cultures all over the world since close to the dawn of cooking.

As we've seen time and again, whether you're making pesto, guacamole, or anything in between, there's no better tool for coaxing (okay, pounding, crushing, and grinding) the flavor out of aromatic spices and herbs.

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I know that most modern recipes for Thai-style curry pastes call for the use of a blender or food processor, but when a curry paste made with that method is tasted side by side against a paste made the traditional way, there's simply no comparison. Food processors slice and chop. Mortar and pestles grind and pulverize, rupturing more cells and releasing more aromatics as they go.

For this curry paste, I start by pounding garlic, shallots, makrut lime leaves,* lemongrass (the tender bottom core only), fiery fresh Thai bird chilies, cilantro stems (my go-to stand-in for difficult-to-find cilantro root), and galangal in the mortar and pestle. I also add a large pinch of salt, which acts as an abrasive and also helps to draw out extra flavor from the aromatics through osmosis. Though khing is the Thai word for "ginger," this dish typically contains none.

* The new P.C. name for kaffir lime leaves that we should all adopt.

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Meanwhile, I trim, seed, and soak dried chilies in boiling water to rehydrate them. Phrik haeng is the Thai term for dried chilies, and the ones used in curry paste preparations vary greatly. My favorite locally available chilies to use in this recipe are puyas, which have a flavor that lies between fiery árbol chilies and fruity guajillos. Guajillo, California, or pasilla peppers will do just fine in their place.

After they've rehydrated (about 10 minutes), I chop them up and add them to the mortar.

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The next 10 to 15 minutes of my life are devoted to three things: pounding, pounding, and pounding. It takes a little effort, but you get paid back in incredible flavor. Sing a song to yourself. Memorize funny dinosaur names, like Elvisaurus and Bambiraptor (yes, those are real). Put in headphones and catch an episode of Star Wars Minute. Whatever gets you to keep on pounding, just do it. It doesn't need to be a completely smooth paste—Thai grandmothers may tell you that you need a paste so fine that you can rub it into the cracks in your skin,** but I typically take my curry paste to rough-purée territory and have yet to suffer any permanent disabilities.

** I think Thai grandmothers just wanted a good way to keep Thai grandchildren out of their hair for a while.

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No, this is not smooth enough.

You will be tempted to transfer everything to the food processor or mini-chopper and be done with it. Honestly, it's okay to give in to these temptations; so long as you've pulverized the bulk of the aromatics and it's all nice, moist, and pasty, the mortar and pestle has done its flavor-extracting job and you can rely on the food processor to smooth things out for you. The main reason I don't is because I find that pounding for an extra five minutes is less of a headache than pulling out the food processor and cleaning it when I'm finished.

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Once the curry paste is made, your work is almost done. You can do your stir-frying in regular vegetable oil, coconut oil, or the fat from the top of a can of coconut milk. Typically, phat phrik khing would be made by first searing the chili paste in hot oil, which helps to develop and deepen its flavor, then adding the tofu and beans and tossing everything together. I prefer to get a little more flavor and texture in the dish by first searing the tofu until it's crisp, removing it from the pan, blistering the green beans in more hot oil, removing them as well, then finally blooming the chili paste and tossing everything back together.

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Cooking the tofu and green beans separately ensures that we're able to maintain enough heat in our Western cooktops to fry the ingredients as we add them, instead of steaming them.

Some soy sauce adds umami depth to the mixture, while a touch of sugar helps balance out its heat. We could take it out of the pan right now and call it a day, but I like to punch things up right at the end with some fresh herbs. If you have fresh makrut lime, hair-thin slivers of the leaves are a nice addition, as is a handful of chopped fresh Thai basil.

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Gathering up all those aromatics may seem a little daunting at first, but once you have a good source for them, you'll discover that a meal like this takes only about 30 minutes to make. Curry paste can also be made in large batches, placed in plastic freezer bags with the air squeezed out, and frozen flat. That way, you can break off chunks of it as you need it; freezing bags flat means rapid thawing.

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I serve my phat phrik khing with some steamed jasmine rice and a fork and spoon, the way they do in Thailand, using the fork to mix the curry and rice and the spoon to deliver it to my mouth. If this isn't enough to convince you to finally get that mortar and pestle you've been eyeing, I don't know what is. Now, could somebody please remind me to write that down? I swear, if I hear myself say "thermometer" one more time, I'm going to stick my finger in an immersion blender.