Serious Eats: Recipes

Seriously Asian: Thai Curries, Part One: Lobster in Yellow Curry Sauce

[Photographs: Chichi Wang]

Taking a hiatus from my usual spoilsport-y self, I caved into the pressure of Halloween and served a menu built around orange foodstuffs. To start, a persimmon and daikon salad. To end, a kabocha cheesecake. The entrée was considerably more difficult to settle. What meat or fish, besides the obvious choice of salmon, comes in hues of orange? Deliberative indecision turned to panic—the persimmons had been peeled, the cheesecake was biding its time in the fridge, and still no orange entrée of which to speak! Sometimes the best ideas are right under one's nose.

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I reached into the freezer and grabbed a few packs of my Thai yellow curry paste, the mildest of the curry pastes stored in my refrigerator. Traditionally, curry paste is made by pounding together aromatics like garlic, shallots, chiles, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, and kaffir lime, with ground spices like coriander and cumin. With fewer chilies and more garlic than either the red or green variety, yellow curry paste is gentler on the tongue. In place of the assertive galangal root, ginger is used. And, unlike the red and green, yellow curry paste takes a sizeable dose of ground cinnamon.

Turmeric is responsible for the color of the resulting curry sauce. (While the paste is called yellow, the color actually corresponds to the resulting broth rather than the paste itself, which is ruddy in tone.) We generally find the plant in its ground form, yet turmeric is a root. The interior of the turmeric root is a brilliant shade of orange; the outside looks remarkably similar to the more commonly found ginger. (This comes as no surprise given that turmeric is a member of the ginger family.) Coriander, also known as cilantro, produces the round, beige-colored seeds that are ground and used in many Thai curry pastes. Yellow curry paste happens to employ ground coriander in greater proportions.

Breaking the Coconut

20091106-seasian-pot.jpgElementary school sensibilities suggested that mixing my yellow curry paste with enough coconut milk and a touch of red paprika, would produce the Halloween-ready hue. Prior to adding the paste, I performed the all-important act of "cracking the coconut," a process so integral to Thai curries and cuisine in general, that a book by that name has been penned by Thai cooking authority Su-mei Yu.

Coconut milk, made by the repeated boiling and straining of fresh coconut meat with water, serves as both fuel and liquid when cooking Thai curries. The fatty coconut cream that rises to the top of the milk is used along with oil to sauté the curry paste. This process of boiling off the water content in the coconut cream, thereby isolating the fat, is known as "breaking" or "cracking" the coconut. When the curry paste has been sufficiently toasted in the oil and fatty coconut cream, the thinner, more uniform coconut milk is poured into the pot.

More Curry-Making Tips

While curry pastes are traditionally pounded out in a mortar and pestle, using a blender yields a stellar version. The number and kind of ingredients required may seem daunting at first sight, but be flexible in your approach. For instance, if shrimp paste made from fermented shrimp or small fish is not available, use anchovies.

Make the paste in large batches and freeze what you don't use in cubes or little plastic bags. I can toss the chunks of curry paste straight from the freezer into the pot, which makes a Thai curry dish executable in well under half an hour. In fact, Madhur Jaffrey describes having Thai curry paste on hand like storing money in the culinary bank—probably one of the truer observations of kitchen life, next to the "fat is flavor" mantra. (If I've not made my point adequately, consider this: In the time that it takes you to travel to and wait in a Thai restaurant, you could be eating your own curry dish if you have the paste on hand!)

Just Add Lobster

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20091106-seasian-finished.jpgAfter toasting my yellow curry paste in vegetable oil and coconut cream, I thinned out the sauce with coconut milk and water. Preparing the lobsters was simply a matter of twisting off the tails to quickly dispense with the crustaceans, then removing the gills and chopping each part into smaller sections. As the sections of lobster simmered in the pot of curry broth, I added the tomalley to further enrich the sauce.

The lobster meat, just cooked through with the gentle heat of the liquid, was succulent and tender. Still, it was the powerful flavor of the curry broth that bewitched my senses. The tomalley, along with the shells left intact on the meat, had infused the sauce with the heady perfume of lobster. Sipping the broth, my guests and I groaned audibly for the sheer pleasure of it all.

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