Seriously Asian: Thai Curries, Part Two: Red and Green
I've been knee-deep in curries for the past month.
As Erin so aptly asked when I embarked on this project, "So you'll include all the colors of a stoplight?"
Oh, yes. All three and much more. Red curry paste spiked with dried red chilies. Green curry paste, herbaceous from generous additions of lemongrass and cilantro root. Penang curry paste with dabs of roasted peanuts and peanut butter. Mussaman curry paste, employing spices that are toasted prior to being ground. This week, I'll focus on the red and green curry pastes before moving on to the lesser-known Thai curries.
Acquiring the ingredients necessary to make these pastes may seem daunting, but once you've taken the plunge, an entire world of Thai curry opportunities awaits you. Since all the curry pastes use some permutation of lemongrass, galangal, cilantro root, and chilies, it's only logical to make more than one paste at a time, freezing what you don't use for a later date. Like a gardener reaping her harvest, I've been reaching into my refrigerator for a different pack of curry paste each night.
To begin, a primer on some of the ingredients needed. Last week, I discussed the method for making curry pastes, both traditional and modern. Regardless of whether you pound the curry paste down in a mortar and pestle or use a blender or food processor, these are the aromatics you'll need.
A hardy and cylindrical grass prized for its floral, citrusy aroma. The fibers in lemongrass are tough, so the stalk should be finely chopped before being pounded or ground. To prepare: Peel away the woodsy outer sheath to reveal a fragrant core, of which only the bottom six to eight inches should be used. If you bring the stem to your nose and inhale, you'll notice that only the bottom few inches are aromatic. Happily, lemongrass is becoming increasingly available in grocery stores like Whole Foods.
Belonging to the ginger family, the galangal root is the more complex counterpart to the common ginger root. An initial whiff of galangal yields a minty, medicinal aroma, but there's also a hint of licorice. Like lemongrass, galangal is hard and woody; chop it finely before adding it to the paste. If you have any galangal left over from your curry trials, it may be dried and re-hydrated for later use.
This is what it sounds like: the root of cilantro (also called coriander). While cilantro leaves are fragrant, its roots are just as pungent without carrying all the water content present in the frilly green tops and stalks. Nearly all grocery stores carry cilantro, but few shops will provide bunches of the herb with the roots still attached. Cilantro stalks are an adequate substitute for the roots.
Kaffir Lime and Leaves
Dark-green with a roughly textured rind, kaffir lime possesses a type of sweetness that regular limes lack. The rind, which is used in most curry pastes, has notes of peppermint. The leaves of the kaffir lime are highly prized for their aroma as well—a grassy, almost saccharine perfume that imparts a citrusy note when used as a garnish. The leaves may be tightly pressed in a plastic bag and frozen for long-term use.
Made from fermented shrimp, the paste can be found swimming in fragrant chili oil and garlic, or compacted in solid brown blocks. I prefer to use shrimp paste from a jar because it lends some much-needed moisture to the curry pastes when they are made in the blender or the food processor. Canned anchovies are a fine substitute, providing the same kind of umami-laden goodness.
Bird's Eye Chilies
Red or green, these small and slim chilies are deceptively powerful. The chilies are generally added whole or roughly chopped, seeds and all. Bird's eye chilies are widely available at Thai and Chinese grocery stores.
Persistence in tracking down these ingredients will pay handsomely in curry dividends. Whenever I make another batch of curry pastes, I set aside a few hours for the process. It's satisfying to lose oneself in the alchemy of the ingredients as they fuse together: the fragrance of the lemongrass and lime, the mysterious smells of galangal, the grinding of the spices.
Yellow curry paste is the simplest of the three, employing only lemongrass and shrimp paste. Red curry paste uses lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime, cilantro roots, and shrimp paste. Green curry paste employs the same ingredients as the red paste; the green paste differs mainly in its use of green bird's eye chilies rather than dried red chilies.
Regardless of whether you're using red, green, or yellow paste, the procedure for cooking the curries is essentially the same. First, heat a saucepan with some oil and if using, some aromatics like garlic and onion. When the onions have softened, add the coconut cream. The coconut cream will begin to spurt and sizzle as its water content boils off. Add the curry paste shortly after the coconut cream. Toast the paste in the coconut cream and oil until the paste is lightly browned. Finally, add the coconut milk to the pan. Simmer.
This method holds for your choice of meat, seafood, or vegetable with only slight variations in the procedure. Shrimp and pieces of fish may be added directly into the curry broth to be simmered gently. For scallops or chunks of meat, brown the items before you sweat the onions; then remove and reincorporate the protein only after the curry broth has been made. Likewise, vegetables like green beans will benefit from a preliminary sautéing, whereas potatoes can be added directly into the broth.
Scallops in green curry sauce is a classic combination; I used small but perfectly juicy bay scallops. A garnish of thinly sliced kaffir lime leaves infused the broth with a refreshing hint of citrus. For the red curry paste, one of my favorite pairings is eggplant sautéed briefly with garlic, then simmered in the curry sauce. The sauce incorporates fish sauce, soy sauce, and sugar rather than coconut milk, giving a spicy rather than cloying flavor to the slices of eggplant.