Why It Works
- Fresh and dried chiles, as well as generous amount of black pepper, in the curry paste gives this curry layered heat that builds as you enjoy it.
- Extended braising produces tender, juicy ribs, and rich, saucy curry without any coconut milk.
Gaeng khua prik is a fiery, water-based curry with baby back pork ribs and makrut lime leaves that hails from the south of Thailand. Its intense heat comes from a combination of both dried and fresh Thai chiles and copious amounts of black pepper. That heat is intensified by the fact that the curry contains no coconut milk, which tames the spiciness of other curries with its relatively high fat content and its delicate sweetness.
This curry is made with a paste that's a southern variation of a khua-style curry paste, which is a curry paste made with red chiles but without any dried spices. What makes this paste more southern is the substitution of spicier Thai chiles (prik jinda), both dried and fresh, for spur chiles (prik cheefa) and the addition of a bracing amount of ground black pepper and fresh turmeric. For those who’ve been lucky enough to travel to the southern part of Thailand, the mouth-blistering spiciness combined with the notes of turmeric will bring you right back.
While there’s really no substitute for freshly made curry paste, it’s perfectly acceptable to buy a store-bought paste and use it in this recipe; however, if you would like the paste to more closely approximate my recipe for Southern Thai curry paste, you’ll have to spike it. You can purchase either red curry paste or khua red curry paste, and doctor it up by pounding together the quantities of fresh turmeric, ground dried red Thai chiles, and ground black peppercorns indicated in the curry paste recipe in a mortar and pestle, in that order, and then pounding one can of prepared paste into that mixture.
Khua-style curries are often coconut-based, which means the curry paste is either dissolved in coconut milk or bloomed in thick coconut milk that’s been reduced, and one of the hallmarks of these curries is there’s minimal oil separation in the final dish. But “khua prik” refers to a kind of khua curry, one that’s prepared with water instead of coconut milk, more black pepper, and a considerable amount of oil separation. (Some versions of this curry use Javanese long pepper instead of black pepper, an ingredient traditionally used in Southern Thailand for spice and heat.)
Water-based curries are prepared in the same way as coconut-based curries; the curry paste is either dissolved directly in water and boiled or it’s bloomed in vegetable oil or animal fat first, to bring out the flavor and aroma of oil-soluble ingredients, and then diluted with water. For this recipe, I’ve chosen to call for roasting the paste first in fat, as I like both the heightened aroma and the way the roasting step darkens the paste and the resulting curry. However, it’s quite common to see this curry prepared by simply boiling the paste.
Similarly, like other curries, the consistency of the final dish is highly variable; it can be very loose, quite thick, or quite dry. For this recipe, the sauce lies in the middle of the spectrum, as the pork ribs—one of the most common choices of proteins for this curry—infuse the cooking liquid with a lot of gelatin, which in turn helps to build a thicker final sauce. The ribs also exude a lot of fat, which gives the curry its characteristic sheen of fat on the surface; that fat both gives the curry a rich mouthfeel and helps to temper some of the combined spice attack of the different kinds of chiles and the black pepper.
This curry can be made with other proteins, and some of the ones you’ll commonly find in are chicken, wild boar, or freshwater fish such as catfish or snakehead fish, and while I encourage you to experiment with other meats and vegetables, there are a number of common practices that can help guide you. For example, if you’re using a quick-cooking meat, like fish, it’s common to roast the paste a little longer before diluting it, to compensate for the deeper flavor produced by long cooking times. Also, some cooks like to add dry spices, like coriander seeds or cumin, particularly when gamey meats like wild boar are used. In terms of vegetables, you can add things like julienned young galangal, holy basil, young green peppercorns, or stink beans; you can also make this dish entirely vegetarian if you omit the shrimp paste from the curry paste recipe and using a quick-cooking vegetable, such as eggplant, in the place of the pork (salt is also a perfectly acceptable seasoning to use in place of the fish sauce).
- 1 whole rack St. Louis-cut pork ribs (about 2 pounds; 900g), cut in half lengthwise (see note)
- 3 tablespoons (45ml) vegetable oil
- 4 ounces (1/2 cup; 115g) Southern Thai curry paste
- 3 tablespoons (45ml) fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon (10g) coarsely ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon (15g) sugar
- 10 fresh or frozen makrut lime leaves (see note)
- Kosher salt
- Cooked jasmine rice, for serving
Pat ribs dry with paper towels. Using a sharp knife, divide into single-rib pieces by cutting through meat between rib bones. Set aside.
In a small or medium Dutch oven, heat oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add curry paste, stir vigorously with a rubber spatula to incorporate with oil, and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 2 minutes.
Add pork ribs and 1 tablespoon (15ml) water to help loosen paste and stir to evenly coat ribs with curry paste mixture. Cook, stirring and turning ribs frequently, until meat turns pale grey and no longer looks raw on surface but is not browned, 3 to 5 minutes.
Add fish sauce, black pepper, sugar, and 6 cups (1.5L) water. Stir to combine, bring to a rapid simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until pork is barely tender and liquid is reduced and thickened, about 1 hour.
Add makrut lime leaves and more water as needed to keep ribs barely submerged (about 1 1/2 cups; 375ml), and continue to cook, adjusting heat as needed to maintain a steady simmer, until pork is completely tender and the curry is reduced to a thick, saucy consistency and fat just begins to separate around the edges of the pot, about 30 minutes longer.
Remove from heat, season with salt to taste, and transfer curry to a large serving bowl or divide between individual serving bowls. Serve with cooked jasmine rice.
When purchasing ribs, ask butcher to cut rack in half lengthwise (through the bones).
Makrut lime leaves can be found at Southeast Asian and South Asian markets. If you’re lucky you will find them fresh, but it is more common to find them frozen (note that they are often sold under a different name that we avoid using, as it is a derogatory term in some contexts).