If you’re looking for curry in a hurry, you can go-go-Gadget your arm to your spice rack and grab the bottle of golden ground goodness.
There’s nothing wrong with that. I promise. I do it often.
I’ve even used the tiny bottle of curry paste you can find at the grocery store. Again, that’s okay. It’s still cheaper than a trip to a restaurant, and it’s still home-cookin’.
The powder is really just a commercialized blend of spices, which leans more toward Indian curry.
The paste, which is often in red or green, leans toward Thai cooking, and slightly resembles Play-doh – in texture, not flavor.
Neither compare to a curry literally made from scratch.
Curry is really a blend of hot peppers, spices, and aromatics.
If you have a food processor, or even a blender, you can make your own paste. And if you have a mortar and pestle (and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s arms), you can grind your own the old-fashioned way.
Here’s the catch: Curries rely on some pretty native ingredients to make the mix sing.
I’m talking about lemongrass, Thai chiles, galangal (Thai ginger), kafir lime leaves, and shrimp paste.
At my local farmers’ market, an Asian family has a booth and offers the lemongrass, the chiles and the lime leaves. This is honestly my favorite booth. I feel like I learn something every time I go there. And the fact that everything is $2 makes it even better.
You can get ginger at the grocery store. Use a spoon to carve off the skin. Freeze what you don’t use. You can also freeze unused lemongrass, chiles, and kafir lime leaves (a sweeter, more fragrant lime).
Having all of these things in my freezer sent me on a mission to make my own curry paste. I had green Thai chiles, so that meant green curry.
I order curry all the time at my favorite Thai joints, but I’ve never had the green variety. To be honest, I usually pick my poison based on the veggies used. I love pineapple in curry, and potatoes never hurt anyone.
So, the figurative ticket was booked, my bags were packed, and I was off on a tongue-torching trip to Bangkok. The captain had just turned off the “seatbelts sign” and the flight attendant said it was okay to use my iPad. At that point, I had a Home Alone moment and realized I’d left something very valuable behind. I don’t have a blonde, big-lipped son, so that’s where my connection to that hilarious movie ends. Anyway, I was missing shrimp paste. So, the captain had to turn that plane around. The trip was delayed, not canceled.
Thinking I could get shrimp paste (a mixture of salted, fermented shrimp ground into a smooth mixture) at an Asian grocery store by my house, I went there. No dice.
Fact of the matter is, shrimp paste adds that “little something” to the dish. You can’t put your finger on it (and if you did, it would stink), but you know it’s there. It adds a salty, rich, depth of flavor. It’s often referred to as umami. That’s troubling to me. I went to the University of Miami, and umami looks like an abbreviation for the place I spent 4 crazy years. In reality, it’s a tongue-coating sensory overload that makes your mouth water.
Sure, I could’ve ordered the little jar of junk on the internet. But, I wanted my curry at that precise moment.
My search for satisfaction led me to anchovy paste.
Anchovies are often added to dishes to give it a salty flavor that well, salt, can’t provide.
I could’ve used the little filets, but there’s something freaky about them. And, with a tube of anchovy paste (filets ground with olive oil and salt) staring at me, I figured why not.
Look, I don’t know how the shrimp paste would’ve treated my curry, but I do know that the curry I concocted was tasty.
And while it wasn’t all that pretty to look at, it did smell and taste great.
Here you go:
2 stocks of lemon grass
4 kafir lime leaves
6 green Thai chiles
1 tbsp. cumin seed
1 tbsp. coriander seed
1 bunch of cilantro stems
6 garlic cloves
1 shallot, chopped
1 thumb of ginger, peeled and sliced
1 tbsp. anchovy paste
Remove the green leafy parts of the lemon grass to get to the white inner core. That’s what you want. Then cut it into chunks that resemble penne pasta.
In a pan set over medium heat, toast the cumin and coriander seeds until fragrant. Keep a close eye, or they’ll burn. Then grind the toasted seeds in a coffee grinder.
I know this sounds like a pain, but using the whole seeds and grinding them creates a true, fresh flavor, as opposed to the already ground dust that could’ve been sitting in that bottle long before Jeannie got inside hers.
Combine all ingredients in a food professor or blender and pulse until the mixture turns into paste.
Full disclosure: I hate cilantro. I think it tastes like it should be sold by Palmolive. But, it’s necessary here. It gives flavor and color. And in this mixture, it really didn’t bother me.
To complete the curry you’ll need:
Meat (I used shrimp)
1 can of coconut milk
1/4 cup unsalted chicken broth
2 tbsp. brown sugar
1/2 tsp. white pepper
1 tbsp. peanut butter
1 lime, juiced
1 bunch of green onions, chopped
In a large pan, or wok, add about a tablespoon of oil, and sautee your vegetables. I used zucchini, a red bell pepper, and Chinese long beans.
I got the long beans from a local farmers’ market. The woman selling them was eating them raw. She gave us a sample. When they’re raw, they have a slight peanut flavor. They’re crisp, and offer protein, vitamins (C & A), and minerals.
Let the paste cook for about 2 or 3 minutes, then stir everything together. Add your coconut milk, broth, and a pinch of salt. Don’t do too much. The paste is loaded with salt from the anchovy paste. Stir.
Add the brown sugar, white pepper, lime juice, and peanut butter. Stir.
Allow everything to get friendly with each other for about 5 minutes over medium heat. Bring the heat up to medium-high, and add the raw shrimp. Cook for 5-7 minutes or until the shrimp are pink on the edges and opaque in the middle. If you’re using chicken or beef, I’d precook it or use store-bought rotisserie chicken. Then just let the precooked meat warm through in the sauce.
Serve over rice with a sprinkle of green onion.
I’ve never been to Thailand, but I feel pretty confident in saying that this was as close to authentic as I could get it at home.
It’s spicy, bright from the lime, cilantro, and lemon grass, and it’s fragrant from the spices. They’re a hint of sweetness from the sugar, and a little smokiness from the cumin. The peanut butter and coconut milk make it creamy.
The red pepper and long beens catch your eye and give a nice crunch.
Between the long beans and the anchovy paste, you’re getting a two-for-one here.
Both have so much potential.
The long beans would be great on the grill or roasted in the oven. They hold up a little better than your average green bean. I think it would be really neat to serve the whole and cut them as you eat them. Look for them at your farmers’ market or at an Asian grocery store. The vendor I got them from offers them in purple, too!
My binge in Bankok is over, but yours is just beginning. Pack your pantry with these two ingredients, and you’re off!
Tip: When making curry, use coconut milk- not cream of coconut. The latter is filled with sugar. Yes, you’ll get a sweeter, creamier concoction, but I don’t think it’s worth the extra calories. This same rule applies to eating out. Choose a curry that includes the milk, not the cream.