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Darienne

A Thai cooking virgin...needs help please

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Thanks to eGullet friend, Deryn, I now am equipped to cook my first Thai curry (I hope.)  Yesterday I stopped at our go-to Asian grocery store and stocked up on Thai specialities.

 

I have pretty much all the ingredients I need such as: lemongrass, kaffir leaves, turmeric root, palm sugar, coconut cream, seeds of a variety of spices, rice noodles, tamarind, long skinny eggplant, etc, etc, and etc.  I already cook some Indian, Arabic, Mexican and Chinese so I have a good variety of ingredients for these on hand.

 

I could spend three hours now googling Thai curry recipes and come away confused about where to start.  :wacko:

 

Please, someone take pity on me and supply me with a starter's type of curry.  (No seafood please and thank you.) My thanks for any and all help.

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Try this, written by a non-farang, for home-cooked Thai food, who has written her book with an eye towards North American audiences too.  OTOH there is something to be said about a Westerner interpreting Thai tastes for a Western audience and sensibilities, with the associated resistances to various tastes and flavors that might be appreciated in native Thai audiences but not in non-Thai audiences.  Andy Rickert has talked about this aspect of distilling "Thai flavors" to suit a generalized North American palate, which in turn earns him much appreciation from USAmericans who approach such tastes (speaking generally) in the manner he talks about.

 

Did you get any galangal or tamarind?

(Just a note...ginger is not an equivalent replacement for galangal, even if many Western authors declare it to be so.  It is perhaps best to think of it as a substitute, something that is better than nothing)


Edited by huiray (log)

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Try this, written by a non-farang, for home-cooked Thai food.

 

Did you get any galangal or tamarind?

(Just a note...ginger is not an equivalent replacement for galangal, even if many Western authors declare it to be so.  It is perhaps best to think of it as a substitute, something that is better than nothing)

She has a website too click.

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Thanks to all so far.  Next time we are in the city I'll look up those books.  I did find a section on Thai food in one of my cookbooks.

 

No, I didn't get galangal.  I forgot to ask.  And yes I do know about galangal and have used it before in a candying process which was not a wild success.  and also I have tamarind.  Of course I have ginger in the freezer for easy grating.

 

I am heading to this Thai dish for Saturday noontime meal so I still do have some time. 


Edited by Darienne (log)

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Well, I am gobsmacked.  Looked again through my stuff for another all-Asian type cookbook and found a very small Thai cookbook.  Tucked way back in my Chinese section.  Obviously bought it second-hand.  Probably in Moab, Utah.  Your Favourite Thai Dishes by Wandee Na Songkhla.  1999.  Printed and published in Thailand.  No memory of it at all.  I'll have to look at it carefully. 

 

Half-hour later:  Quick look through.  Doesn't look like what I am looking for in terms of curries. 


Edited by Darienne (log)

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Maybe someone else has mentioned it, but check out Kasma's site at thaifoodandtravel.com. Covers the basics. And gives the best brand recommendations for people living in North America.

 

Getting the right ingredients is key, of course, but also remember to taste constantly. Many Thai dishes emphasize strong flavors but the key to success is balance - hot, salty, sour, sweet. The adjusting of seasonings is critical to getting each dish right.

 

Don't buy pre-prepared pastes. Pound your own. It's time-consuming and a lot of work, but the work is worth it. And as you pound each ingredient into the paste, the taste and aroma teach you how Thai flavors are built. If you want to save time, a southern Indian wet grinder will work too. Or if you don't have that, you can use a food processor. But a real granite Thai mortar and pestle is like nothing else (and versatile for many other cuisines). Btw - a "Lao" style clay mortar with a wooden pestle is also worth investing in for salads. Cheap and also useful for other cuisines. Plus both implements look great!

 

As a general rule, add half the fish sauce in the recipe, and then adjust the flavor at the end. The salty is the easiest thing to tweak but only if you've undersalted.

 

I'm a big fan of both Su Mei-Yu and David Thompson's books for general approach, even if both get a bit wordy and philosophical. I learned a tremendous amount from each of them. Plus the photography in the Thompson book is the most mouth-watering food photography in the world. 

 

And finally, cracking coconut cream is never easy. Just learn to accept that part!

 

And because I can't resist adding more… try to avoid canned coconut milk. Go the extra mile and learn how to squeeze it out from fresh coconuts. Or if that's too much work (which is understandable), then get frozen grated coconut and make your coconut milk and cream out of that. The difference from canned is remarkable.

 

Also: always useful to coconut oil and rendered pork fat (good lard) on hand.

 

Enjoy!!! 

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Beginners to Thai food--the ones I've known--always like Panang (or Panaeng) Beef Curry. It's a red Thai curry with coconut milk. Maybe that's the place to start. 

 

Some online recipes that look promising, though I haven't cooked them:




 

I've liked the recipes in Nancie McDermott's Quick and Easy Thai cookbook. The recipes are streamlined, so the food doesn't have the same complex flavors as a traditional recipe. BUT the recipes are very cookable--a big plus. McDermott has this recipe for a red curry online. Here:


 

Pls let us know how it goes.

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Patrickamory, I second everything you said but since Darienne now has her ingredients and intends to try her first Thai curry on Saturday, I doubt she will be able to acquire a south Indian wet grinder in the next day. She could pound her own in a mortar and pestle but that may be a bit much for a first timer. My recommendation (and I know it is not perfect or authentic) for this first time is that she use a food processor or coffee grinder but make sure she does not over process and make it all smooth.

 

I gave her a brief overview of ingredients to get and a general 'how to' primer (with the same balance is key cautionary) but since I am so used to just tossing things together without really thinking to make whatever type of curry I feel in the mood for, I was not able to provide her with a specific recipe I have used (and therefore can vouch that it works and describe exactly how it tastes, etc.) to get her started.


Edited by Deryn (log)
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So, the curry actually gets made tomorrow, Tuesday, for lunch.  I was missing galangal and shrimp paste and I went into the city to get them. 

 

In the meantime, I made some coconut rice and it was delicious. 

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It's nice to make everything from scratch as always but for a rote beginner using canned paste and coconut milk is perfectly acceptable. Look for maesri brand curry pastes and aroy-d coconut (or any coconut milk with no sodium metabisulfite preservatives)

You can take 3 hours or 30 minutes to make a Thai curry and the results just aren't that far apart.

Since you've got all the raw ingredients already let me give you this piece of advice: toast the shrimp paste OUTSIDE.

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I may be in the minority here, but I think the best curry pastes cannot be done here in N. America, if you pound yourself. The problem is that the ingredients that you need are not grown locally, and by the time your store gets them, they are old, somewhat desiccated and do not have the flavor profile they did originally when very fresh. Not only that, but some ingredients are just impossible to find. Sure, we can get thai bird chilis here, but typically, curry pastes are made with chilis that are not available here fresh, and reconstituting dried ones is definitely not the same.

Personally, I think I get a flavor much closer to what I got in Thailand when I use the refrigerated or frozen prepackaged pastes - specifically Nittaya brand. I find Mae Ploy to be too salty.

I also have a slight issue with grating your own coconut - since most of the ones I find are not as juicy as they should be and it's a ridiculous amount of work. Again, I like to use frozen coconut milk that is 100% coconut milk (product of Thailand or Phillipines) with no additives. In a pinch, the canned cream works ok too, but just don't expect it to crack easily if ever.

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It's nice to make everything from scratch as always but for a rote beginner using canned paste and coconut milk is perfectly acceptable. Look for maesri brand curry pastes and aroy-d coconut (or any coconut milk with no sodium metabisulfite preservatives)

You can take 3 hours or 30 minutes to make a Thai curry and the results just aren't that far apart.

Since you've got all the raw ingredients already let me give you this piece of advice: toast the shrimp paste OUTSIDE.

 

I'd suggest Mae Ploy paste and Chaokoh coconut milk, but yeah - they make great results in no time.

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Thanks for the further advice.  Alas, in our small (and very provincial local) city, I cannot buy Chaokoh or Mae Ploy coconut milk, but can buy Aroy-D.  The owner (Chinese who escaped from Vietnam during that war) suggests Savoy and that's what I buy.    Maesri brand also unavailable.  Curry pastes are by Aroy-D only.

 

Curry postponed until Wednesday.  Sorry.  We had to go into town this morning...40 minutes each way...which does not allow for first time dishes.   Promises, promises.  :raz:

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Darienne,

 

Thanks for posting this topic!  I have been interested in cooking good thai food lately so I am following this topic with great interest.  Looking forward to seeing the results of your experiments :-)

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I will add to my previous post that you can make a very respectable curry by using practically any prepackaged curry paste and canned coconut milk. While every cookbook says to "crack" the coconut milk, I find it's almost impossible using canned milk, so instead, I buy cans and try not to move them very much before opening. I'm trying to get the contents to settle as much as possible so that the thick coconut fat rises to the top. I spoon off the thick fat (you should be able to cut it with a knife, ideally) and fry a tablespoon or two of the paste in that - be careful as it will sputter... Once it smells nicely aromatic, I dump in the rest of the can of coconut milk and whisk it in until smooth... simmer until it has the consistency you like, then add a squeeze of fish sauce and lime juice until it tastes right...

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I will add to my previous post that you can make a very respectable curry by using practically any prepackaged curry paste and canned coconut milk. While every cookbook says to "crack" the coconut milk, I find it's almost impossible using canned milk, so instead, I buy cans and try not to move them very much before opening. I'm trying to get the contents to settle as much as possible so that the thick coconut fat rises to the top. I spoon off the thick fat (you should be able to cut it with a knife, ideally) and fry a tablespoon or two of the paste in that - be careful as it will sputter... Once it smells nicely aromatic, I dump in the rest of the can of coconut milk and whisk it in until smooth... simmer until it has the consistency you like, then add a squeeze of fish sauce and lime juice until it tastes right...

Thanks for this Kenneth T. I think we sometimes try to be more Thai than the Thais forgetting that they too hold down full-time jobs, raise families and have little time to grate coconuts and grind curry pastes. Those of us who have never been to Thailand and never expect to go can still enjoy the flavours by taking advantage of the same convenience foods as the Thais.

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All grist to the mill, so to speak.

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Very true Anna... I can still picture being in a market outside of Chiang Mai seeing a vendor surrounded by several HUGE mounds of curry paste. Her customers would come to her, she'd scoop out what looked like a good pint or so, put it in a plastic bag, and off they'd go. I was there with my cooking teacher/market guide who explained how most people do not make their own paste or make their own coconut milk - it's just too time consuming... plus, there are usually several vendors in each market that supply that stuff freshly made.

When I get home tonight, I'll try to see if I can find a photo of that vendor... truly a sight for a westerner!

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My paste is made and ready for tomorrow.  Yep.  Not likely to be repeated too often.  As noted above...Considering that I cannot pound anything anymore in a pestle and it ended up being finished in a Bullet.  I wonder how many Bullets have been used for Thai curry paste? :rolleyes:

 

So we is ready....

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I don't use a mortar and pestle either for my pastes - nor do I have an Indian wet grinder ... no Bullet either .. I use my Thermomix or my Vitamix or a food processor (big or little) depending on what is closest.

 

The reason I make my own curry pastes is just because I found the jarred ones flat somehow (not sure how to describe it but they were not 'fresh') so I was always adding more of the same ingredients they contained anyway. I am not trying to be authentic. Just trying to get to the taste/balance of flavours I like. And I have never grated my own coconut - not 'that' ambitious.

 

Good luck with the curry tomorrow, Darienne. I am sure it will be wonderful.


Edited by Deryn (log)
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Thanks for all the encouragement, Deryn.  I do hope it will be fine.  Of course, given the fact that I have no idea of what it should taste like.... :smile: :smile:

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A good middle ground for people having trouble finding all the ingredients for a Thai curry is to spike a pre-made curry paste with fresh ingredients. Almost everyone can get a hold of shallots, garlic and lemongrass and galangal and kaffir lime leaves are becoming increasingly common. Just a few fresh notes perks up a curry paste immensely and it's still pretty low effort.

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