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. She is also one of the individuals in the culinary world whom I highly respect.
Kasma’s books are well written and devoid of any obvious ambition to appear the encyclopedic, “last word” Thai cooking resources. They’re smart in a humble way, authentic, and written from a place any Thai can relate to. Her recipes work beautifully. Her knowledge of the Thai culture and cuisine is first-hand and impressive. The Thai-English transliteration system used in her books, though different from what some of us 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.
How can any works on Thai cuisine earn our respect unless they have the aforementioned qualities?
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. And, oh, what a fun conversation that was to me.
A friend once said to me that if someone you don’t like or respect disagrees with what you do or the way you think of things, it should make you feel good about yourself instead of being aggravated by it. How true. I guess the flip side of it is that if someone you respect feels the same way you do about certain things, perhaps your opinions on those things aren’t as whacked out as you may fear. The conversation which Kasma and I had wasn’t particularly lengthy, yet it was long enough for me to punctuate it with the enthusiastic and vindicated, “Yes!” multiple times which, I’m sure, must have scared her a little bit.
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. 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 (or lime leaves, lime zest, etc.). And every time a Thai green curry paste recipe calls for 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.
Kasma learned how to cook from her mother. Growing up in a typical urban Thai home with a year-round herb garden, the love for cooking developed early for her. Most middle- to middle-upper class city-dwelling families have live-in helpers who cook and clean for them, but when these helpers decide to quit, the only way to guard against being forced to eat out all the time is to learn how to cook. And that was the case with Kasma as she was growing up in the Southeast side of Bangkok. Her experience as a home cook while living in Thailand provided a good foundation on which further culinary skills continued to be built after she’d moved to the United States.
That’s the story of many Thais who live overseas even though, clearly, not all of them have risen to great culinary heights as Kasma has. These are the people who realize that being resourceful is the only way to keep from being deprived of their favorite Thai dishes until their next visit to the motherland. If you have a mental image of a typical modern Bangkokian making Pad Thai or pounding Som Tam (green papaya salad) every other night in their kitchen after returning home from work, I’m afraid that’s more of an illusion.
We’re so blessed with great street vendors all over the city who can masterfully whip up a one-dish meal comprising 20-plus ingredients in 5 minutes while you wait, and most people who live in Thailand (at least the crowd I’m related to or hang with) hardly ever make something like Pad Thai or other street noodle dishes at home. It’s not cost-effective, and — let’s face it — an occasional Pad Thai maker is hardly a match for a Pad Thai street vendor who devotes his/her life mastering the skill. But what do Thai expats like me do when they crave the kind of Pad Thai we have back home and are sick and tired of weeping bitter tears over soggy or ketchup-flavored Pad Thai some restaurants serve? What do these people do when they crave the dishes that aren’t found in the most secretive of the secret menus of the most Thai of all Thai restaurants overseas? They get resourceful.
They figure out ways to make the most of locally available ingredients. And they practice and practice and practice. Deprivation is a great motivation. Your experience may vary. But based solely on my experience, when I have questions along the lines of, “What kind of flour is best for Khanom Thong Muan?” or “How do I get Khanom Chan to be chewier?,” I’ve always had better luck getting answers from overseas Thais than folks back home who rarely, if ever, make these things at home. This is not due to a lack of skill or ability, but the absence of need.
But I digress.
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.