How should Thai curries taste?
October 17, 2006 11:21 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying to make Thai curry, but I don't have any reliable points of reference - is it supposed to taste like this?

I've read a few Thai cook books and have tried to make the lowest-common denominator curry. It doesn't taste bad, but I can't help feeling that I'm missing something. I am assuming that my local Thai takeout places aren't the real deal. Here's what I made last night - a fish curry - does this sound right?

Paste : in this order, I ground up four small green chilis (deseeded and chopped), about a tablespoon of chopped galangal, two inches of chopped lemongrass, 20 or so coriander leaves, and a teaspoon of shrimp paste. I used a stone mortar and pestle and ground it like you would a pesto. At the end it looked like darkish green wet cut grass (fibres from the galangal and the chili skin I guess).

I heated some peanut oil in a small saute pan and fried the paste for about three or four minutes, then added some fish (lemon sole). I turned the fish to coat it in the paste, then added some hot water and a couple of torn kaffir lime leaves. I bought it to the boil, added some fish sauce (probably a couple teaspoons) then cooked until the fish was done. It was very liquid so I added a little flour and water paste to thicken it a bit, then served it on top of rice.

It tasted pretty good - spicy, salty and a little sweet/sour - but nothing transcendental. Is there some technique I'm missing? Any ingredients I should be using (or not using)?
posted by ny_scotsman to Food & Drink (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Garlics/shallots? I'm not sure how traditional this is but you seem to be missing this taste.
posted by shownomercy at 11:42 AM on October 17, 2006

yeah, shallots are the missing ingredient.

you probably won't end up with something transcendental if you're just making a lowest common denominator curry - you should try a few different recipes exactly to figure out what you like, then personalize from there.
posted by soma lkzx at 11:52 AM on October 17, 2006

Best answer: You don't say how much fish you used, but I think you went a little overboard on the fish sauce. It's strong stuff, and you've already got the shrimp paste in there. I'd cut the fish sauce down to 1 teaspoon, and halve the shrimp paste, too. Adding the fish sauce earlier, before the boil will help it blend into the dish better.

You were on the right track with the flour and water, but I use corn starch and water. Flour takes some time to cook out, whereas cornstarch thickens instantly. You want to minimize the overall cooking time, so that you're serving the instant the fish is ready, and the cornstarch helps with this, but if you're adding more than an ounce(20 mL) or so, you're adding to much and should decrease the water.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 11:53 AM on October 17, 2006

Using water as your base isn't going to make a very flavorful curry. Most Thai curries have a coconut milk base, although some "country curries" use broth or stock (chicken, vegetable, fish, etc.)

I also second the addition of garlic or shallots to the paste. You may further consider adding some vegetables with the fish or meat-- onions, peppers, Thai eggplants, and pineapple all hold up well in a curry.
posted by chickletworks at 11:57 AM on October 17, 2006

This is my favorite curry recipe. Go easy on the curry paste - I use about 2 tablespoons and it's still plenty spicy.

Have you checked out egullet? They have very active forums on Thai cooking and I've learned a lot from the participants there.

I agree about adding some shallots, and perhaps trying a coconut milk base.
posted by Ostara at 12:03 PM on October 17, 2006

Normally when you cook with curry paste, you add coconut, sugar and fish sauce.

Also, it usually isnt worth making your own paste, I buy Thai brand curry paste in little 4oz tins (good for 2x use) that cost around a dollar from the asian supermarket.
posted by mphuie at 12:28 PM on October 17, 2006

I am not a curry expert, but you say you lack a reliable point of reference, so...
any good Thai restaurants in your area that could provide said point?
posted by Merlyn at 12:54 PM on October 17, 2006

This sounds really good to me. I'd add shallots too.
BTW, lots of folks prefer to say "Makrut" lime leaves, since kaffir is a racial slur.
posted by Mngo at 12:56 PM on October 17, 2006

Coconut milk has been mentioned a couple of times, and I'll add my vote for that.
posted by Neiltupper at 1:05 PM on October 17, 2006

Another vote for coconut milk. Perhaps a tiny bit of palm sugar too.

(and personally, I'd say don't de-seed the chillis, but that depends on your personal chilli tolerance)
posted by pompomtom at 2:30 PM on October 17, 2006

this sounds like a green curry paste. As stated, you are going to want to use coconut milk, not water. Also, the shallots and/or garlic, and some brown sugar. When you add the coconut milk (full fat version, please!) keep a little bit back, especially the very solid stuff that collects at the top of the can. At the end of cooking, add this in. Very lean protein can cause a curdling effect and adding some milk in at the end will sort of bind it together again. Don't be afraid of the sugar, it will really make it. And, yeah, I by the green curry paste premade. I have never noticed a difference.
posted by Foam Pants at 3:34 PM on October 17, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. I wonder if the fat and sugar in the coconut milk will give it more body. I'll try it again with that and the shallots.
posted by ny_scotsman at 3:36 PM on October 17, 2006

i like a green curry, i buy the paste from an asian supermarket and i am careful to compare the ingedients between brands.

prep the ingredients

put a tin of coconut milk on to simmer gently in a small saucepan and give it about 10 to 15 minutes, trust me on this one. as it simmers:

get the wok hot. fry the curry paste in sesame oil for a minute, perhaps with some of the chilli in soybean oil stuff. throw in the meat and stirfry to seal it, then add onion, garlic and a little ginger. stirfry, but you don't want to cook the meat through here.

add the coconut milk, get it simmering, then throw in the vegetables and the lime leaf. let it simmer for 5 or 10 minutes, when it is nearly ready add:
a tablespoon of fish sauce
juice of half a lime
a tablespoon or so of brown or palm sugar. experience will help at this stage. garnish with fresh coriander.

it should be quite liquid, slurpingly so.

i'm sure that there is room in there somewhere for lemongrass and shallots, and i'll repeat: full fat coconut cream or milk. you should omit processed sugars from your diet before you worry about fat.

good luck and enjoy...
posted by Tixylix at 6:06 PM on October 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

Thai food is all about balancing contrasting flavours. An authentic taste is going to be very hard to achieve from a recipe, as the variables are not consistent (eg different amounts of juice / degree of acidity in a lime, different size of garlic cloves, shallots etc.) I'd suggest you try to eat something authentic (high end local thai will probably be okay), and adjust seasonings to taste to try to replicate the balance.

Having said that, you definitely don't want to be using flour to thicken - it would usually be coconut milk, as others have stated. Holy basil is also a very common (and distinctive) flavour.

Lemon sole might be a bit of a delicate textured fish for something like this. I'd imagine monkfish or any firm textured white fish (cod, haddock) would work better.
posted by bifter at 2:11 AM on October 18, 2006

Best answer: Agree re lemon sole. Trout works better for this kind of curry. Also, in the curry paste you want more lemon grass than that, as well as shallots, garlic, white pepper, lime zest if you can be fucked, salt, and some toasted-and-ground coriander seeds. You could always try cracking some coconut cream (heating it gently until it separates into oil and solids) and frying your curry paste in the resulting oil. But that's a complete nightmare to do. I'd do it as follows:

Blitz up all your curry paste ingredients in a food processor. Heat up a bit of groundnut oil in a wok. Fry the paste in it over a medium heat for a surprisingly long time, stirring to prevent burning - say 5 minutes or so. Add a few shakes of fish sauce - not too much, not more than a teaspoonful. Now mix in some coconut cream or milk and bring it to a decent simmer, stirring occasionally. Add lime leaves. Throw in some chopped vegetables (green beans, Thai aubergines or whatever) and let them cook for a bit. You might want to turn the heat up when you've put them in. When you think they're nearly done, add the fish - it shouldn't take too long to cook. Mix in some Thai basil (or normal basil if you prefer) and take it off the heat for a minutes while you dole out the rice. Serve.

(This is the crude version I use of a recipe from David Thompson.)
posted by Mocata at 7:25 AM on October 18, 2006

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