Late last year, I got an email from a reader who, in a very kind and polite manner, expressed her “disappointment” with the fact that all of the curry recipes on my blog call for commercial curry pastes as opposed to ones made from scratch. She also included in her note a recipe for green curry paste (“… in case you don’t know how to make your own …”). Shortly after, a gentleman wrote me saying that he followed the instructions for my pork and kabocha squash panang curry and ended up with, “a curry that has orange fat floating on the surface.” All the Thai curries he’d had at his favorite Thai restaurant on the East Coast, said he, never came with that, “disgusting fatty film on top.”
To my amusement, both of them were also deeply puzzled by the fact that, at the time they were composing their email messages, there had not yet been a post on Pad Thai on this blog (update: my Pad Thai recipe was published on November 26th, 2011).
I’ve since explained my reasons to both individuals. And now, with permission from them, I thought I would also set the record straight.
For several weeks, I carried on my existence with a mental draft of a post addressing these issues in the back of my mind. I mentally wrote that post, rewrote it, and revised it for weeks with no signs of its imminent materialization. I have a tendency to over-analyze things like that, and conveniently use the time it takes to think things through to justify my procrastination. Then one day, I had the opportunity to speak with Kasma Loha-unchit, Thai cooking teacher and author of It Rains Fishes (winner of the 1995 International Association of Culinary Professionals award for Best International Cookbook) and Dancing Shrimp.
Kasma’s books are well written and devoid of any obvious ambition to appear the encyclopedic, “last word” Thai cooking resources. They’re written from a place any Thai can relate to. Her recipes work. Her knowledge of the Thai culture and cuisine is first-hand. The Thai-English transliteration system used in her books, though different from what I would employ, is consistent and evident of her Thai language competency.
For once the Thai language is treasured instead of horrendously butchered, as it almost always is, in English-language books on Thai cooking.
A bonus for me from having that conversation with Kasma is that, after having a good talk with her, the post which I had not been able to bring myself to write (i.e. this one), all of a sudden, up and wrote itself. It was quite amusing as my initial intention was to get from Kasma some helpful tips on Khao Chae, a favorite Thai New Year dish, about which I was in the process of writing at that time. As it turned out, Kasma isn’t a fan of Khao Chae and, therefore, has never made it. We then proceeded to talk about other things.
Though Kasma and I disagree on some minor points, we share the same sentiments on pretty much all of the major things one of which is that unless you have all of the fresh herbs and spices required to make authentic and traditional Thai curry pastes, you’re better off using commercial curry pastes than trying to make do with ill-advised substitutes.
It’s true. I’ve been wanting to say that out loud for a long time. Fresh galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime zest, shrimp paste, cilantro roots, and other essentials of proper Thai curry pastes are not always readily available in all areas of the world. If you’re blessed enough to have all of the necessary fresh ingredients at your disposal, by all means, make your Thai curry pastes from scratch. They are fresher, more fragrant, and will undoubtedly result in curries of greater quality than even the best brand of commercial curry paste can ever produce.
But if you happen to live where these ingredients aren’t always available fresh, I strongly encourage the use of commercial curry pastes. In this situation, using commercial curry pastes should not be considered a stigma or a threat to one’s ego, but a deliberate choice wisely made in the face of not-so-promising alternate routes.
Kasma feels the same. In fact, in the basic level of her Thai cooking classes, Kasma suggests her students use commercial curry pastes. The goal, she insists, is to get people acquainted with how the different curries are supposed to taste and how to season them as you go until the desired flavors are achieved. “We don’t teach people how to make curry pastes from scratch until they reach the intermediate level,” said Kasma. “They need to know first what good curries taste like.”
I wholeheartedly agree. Knowing — really knowing — how things are supposed to taste is prerequisite to creating those things.
Without that knowledge, one is shooting at an invisible bull’s eye.
Without that knowledge, one is also likely to fall prey to Thai curry paste recipes out there that call for lime juice and lime leaves for reasons that are a complete mystery to some of us. Without that knowledge, one can be led into thinking that lime zest is a perfect substitute forkaffir lime zest or lemon juice for lemongrass or — worse — ginger for galangal. I have countless times come across such Thai curry paste recipes by well-meaning yet, in my opinion, misguided recipe authors.*
For the record, Thai green curry paste is green because of the color of the fresh green chillies in the paste. An angel loses his/her wings every time a Thai green curry paste recipe calls for fresh green leafy herbs (which will only oxidize and turn your curry brown). And every time a Thai green curry paste recipe calls for fresh red chillies, a wingless angel jumps off a cliff.
One quick Google search will reveal that these misguided recipes exist in abundance. I can’t help but deeply feel for the end users who invest money, time, and effort into those recipes just to find that their curries don’t turn out like the Thai curries they’ve had in Thailand or at their favorite Thai restaurants. And it saddens me to think that when this happens, people often blame themselves instead of the recipes.
Bottom line: If you don’t have each and every fresh ingredient required to make traditional Thai curry paste, don’t go for inferior substitutes; use commercial curry paste.
Commercial curry paste? This from Kasma Loha-unchit, who recently made the 2010 Saveur 100 list, who most people would assume would go, “tsk, tsk, tsk,” at those who use ready-made Thai curry pastes? Surprising, isn’t it? For reasons stated above, no, not really.
This kind of answers the question raised by the previously-mentioned readers who asked why I had not included instructions on how to make Thai curry pastes from scratch. Unless you live in a major metropolitan area where fresh herbs and spices used in Thai cooking are grown or flown to, or are willing to pay extra money to have those fresh ingredients shipped overnight to you from online merchants, chances are making authentic/traditional Thai curry pastes from scratch is nigh impossible.
One day I will blog about it, though. (Added Nov 26, 2011: I finally added my Pad Thai recipe!) I just don’t consider it a top priority. For me, it’s a heck of a lot more fun to introduce to you the vast array of Thai curries — far beyond green and red — and how you can make all of them at home easily. All that with commercial curry pastes and no guilt. The one minor point which I differ from Kasma is on which kind of commercial paste to use. She prefers the type that comes in a plastic vacuum-sealed bag and deposited in a plastic tub. “The flavor is fresher and cleaner,” Kasma said, comparing it to the type that comes in a (usually 4-ounce) can. The curry paste that comes in a can has been processed at much higher heat and its flavor, as a result, is muted.
I, however, am a fan of canned curry pastes. I always have at least 8-9 types of curry pastes in my pantry, ready to use any time a craving hits. I usually use the whole 4-ounce can at once with nothing left to store either in the freezer or refrigerator. The type that comes in a plastic tub is definitely fresher tasting, but I find that I don’t use one type of curry paste extensively enough to go through an entire (14-ounce or more) tub before it becomes dried, hardened, and tasteless in the refrigerator in less than two weeks. The canned type also comes in more varieties. And I like variety.
You choose what works best for you.
One minor difference aside, Kasma and I discussed how Thai coconut-based curries are supposed to have a layer of glistening coconut fat on top. “That makes the curry more appetizing,” Kasma said and I responded with a thunderous yes.
I was immediately reminded of that reader of mine who asked why following my curry procedure had resulted in his curry “splitting.” You see, when you make the curry base by “frying” curry paste in coconut cream, you want to see the separation of coconut fat and curry paste. The cooking term, “กะทิแตกมัน,” is used by the Thai to refer to the stage at which the coconut cream is broken down by heat and the fat separates.
While many curry vendors — even some hotel chefs — cheat by frying the curry paste in vegetable oil and pouring vegetable oil on top of the finished curry to achieve the same effect (visually), that wasn’t done in the old days. The fat from the first extraction of coconut milk is what creates a good curry base, not vegetable oil.
This is the standard curry procedure. While emulsification is generally a desirable quality in western cream soups or sauces, a good Thai coconut-based curry is not supposed to look like a colloidal suspension of coconut fat globules. And the orange or green fatty film on top of your curry is not an ugly thing; it’s a sign that your curry is done correctly.
Back to the question posed to me by a reader about Pad Thai, I guess my thinking is that I’ve never considered Pad Thai a symbolic Thai dish. Just because it’s one of the dishes which every Thai restaurant overseas must have on its menu doesn’t mean it’s the quintessential Thai dish. Pad Thai is just one of the many, many dishes in the incredibly vast repertoire of the Thai cuisine, and, personally for me, doesn’t even make the top 50 most favorite dishes. In fact, although I did not have one bite of it during my last visit to Bangkok, it didn’t occur to me for one second that I’d missed out on something. I chuckled when I read what Kasma had written about Pad Thai:
I don’t really know how Pad Thai became the most famous of Thai foods in America. To me, it is but one of many quick fast foods, with the best served by noodle carts, inexpensive sidewalk eateries, and small, nondescript mom-and-pop noodle shops, rather than fine restaurants, in the cities and towns of Thailand. I always find it amusing when restaurant reviewers judge the quality of a Thai restaurant by the quality of its Pad Thai, as noodles can hardly take claim as lying at the heart of my country’s cuisine. - Kasma Loha-unchit, Pad Thai recipe
Yet, I am still planning on inching my way towards sharing my own Pad Thai recipe and my Pad Thai sauce formula. There are just a few more individual ingredients to introduce to you before that can happen. Also, as I mentioned above, I’ll eventually get to a post on how to make Thai curry paste from scratch.
However, for now, let’s start with making a good — really good — curry based on Kasma Loha-unchit’s Easy Green Curry recipe. Instead of pork, I made shrimp dumplings by blitzing one pound of shelled and deveinedshrimp, one egg white, a couple of teaspoons of fish sauce, a tablespoon of corn or tapioca starch, in a food processor. The mixture is then brutally stirred to achieve elasticity (per instructions on how to make Thai fish cakes), formed into either quenelles or bite-sized balls (or both!), and gently dropped into the curry base. The shrimp dumplings take less than a minute to cook. The result is a pot of delicious Green Curry with Shrimp Dumplings (แกงเขียวหวานลูกชิ้นกุ้ง), albeit sans krachai, which is terrific over rice or rice noodles. Yes, it’s made with commercial curry paste. And if any uppity gourmand gives you a hard time because you use the curry paste which you didn’t make from scratch, show them this post.
*While there’s room for creativity and interpretive freedom in the Thai cuisine, certain things seem to be written in stone. Using wrong ingredients in Thai curries, for example, may result in curry-esque dishes that are vaguely Thai, but the natives would detect the odd flavors. Those results may be pleasing to many people and actually great dishes on their own merit. But when one uses cilantro leaves and lime juice to make one’s “Thai” green curry paste, one is certainly not going to end up with the traditional version of Thai green curry as the natives know it.