Unlike Indian curries, which rely on dried spices toasted in oil or clarified butter for flavor, curries from Thailand use wet pastes simmered in coconut milk. Panang is an orange-red Thai curry paste. It's milder than most other Thai curries, but its flavors are more similar to Thai red curry paste (which is spicier than the yellow and green varieties).
Other than that, it proceeds like most Thai curries: by heating coconut milk until its fat begins to separate, adding the curry paste, then simmering the desired meat, vegetables, and/or garnishes to finish the dish. The result, if you have all the ingredients on hand, is ready in less than ten minutes—one of the quickest ways to make a very flavorful dinner.
The secret lies in the curry paste, a mixture of chiles, garlic, lemongrass, and lots of spices; it packs a ton of complex flavor. Balanced with palm sugar (or brown sugar works, too) and a splash of fish sauce, the resulting sauce is sweet, spicy, rich, and funky. Though this recipe calls for beef (the traditional pairing with Panang curry), pretty much any protein works, like pork or chicken. I found this recipe for Panang Curry Beef on ImportFood.com, probably the best source for authentic Thai ingredients. They also have a video demonstrating how to cook the dish with pork.
- 1 pound beef steak, such as sirloin, cut into 1/2-inch strips (about 2 cups)
- 1 large red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch dice (about 1 cup)
- 1 (15-ounce) can coconut milk
- 2 tablespoons Panang or other Thai red curry paste
- 1-2 tablespoons fish sauce, to taste
- 2 tablespoons palm sugar (or substitute brown sugar)
- 2 tablespoons roasted peanuts, lightly crushed
- 3-4 fresh kaffir lime leaves, slivered (substitute basil leaves if unavailable for a different flavor)
- 1 fresh Thai or other red chile pepper, seeded and slivered (optional)
- Cooked jasmine rice
Set aside about 3 tablespoons coconut milk. Heat the rest in a medium saucepan or wok until small pools of oil appear on the surface. Add the curry paste and stir well to incorporate. Cook until aromatic, 4-5 minutes.
Add the beef and simmer until nearly cooked through, about 2 minutes. Add bell pepper, fish sauce, and sugar. Let simmer for a few minutes, then taste, adding fish sauce or sugar as needed. Add kaffir lime (if using basil, do not add until step 3) and simmer until aromatic, 1 to 2 minutes longer.
Remove from heat and top with peanuts, chile pepper, and fresh basil leaves if using. Spoon the reserved coconut milk over top and serve with rice.