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On my recent trip to Southeast Asia I took a cooking class in Bangkok. Among other delicious dishes, I made curry paste from scratch for the first time ever.
I love a good Thai curry and I've tasted a fair share, so I was pleasantly surprised when the one I made in Bangkok was the best I've ever had. I know it sounds biased, but it's really true.
When you start with fresh, local ingredients, it's hard to go wrong, But it was more than that. It was the recipe itself. It called for all of the usual suspects, like green chilis, kaffir lime, lemongrass, garlic, shallot, galangal, and shrimp paste. But it also called for cilantro and fresh turmeric root, which was a refreshing surprise.
In the United States, some of the ingredients in this recipe will be easier to locate than others. You may be able to find green Thai chili peppers (also called bird chilis), lemongrass, and fresh turmeric root at markets that carry specialty ingredients like Whole Foods. You may need to head to Chinatown or shop online for other ingredients like galangal, shrimp paste, and kaffir lime.
It's likely that substitutions will need to be made. While galangal and ginger resemble each other in appearance, they don't taste anything alike. Ginger is spicy and relatively tender, but galangal is tough and tastes like pine. If you don't have galangal and you don't want to substitute ginger, then simply omit it. Once I bought dried, ground galangal and it didn't have much flavor, so I wouldn't recommend it.
If you can't find kaffir lime in the form of a fruit (of which only the peel is used), you can substitute kaffir lime leaves, which are easier to find. (Freezing leftover leaves will preserve their flavor better than drying them.)
This recipe calls for 2 types of chili peppers - Thai chilis and serrano chilis - but you can substitute other green chili peppers. For a milder flavor, discard the seeds and membranes before you chop the chilis.
If you can't find fresh turmeric root, you can substitute dried ground turmeric, although I urge you to look for it fresh because the flavor is unique.
This recipe makes enough for one serving, so increase the amounts of ingredients as needed.
1 Thai green chili pepper
1 serrano chili pepper
3 to 4 inches of tender lemongrass
stalk (tough outer leaves removed)
1 shallot bulb
2 garlic cloves
1-cm slice fresh galangal root
1-cm piece fresh turmeric root
1 handful fresh cilantro leaves and stems
1-1/2-inch by 3/4-inch piece of kaffir lime peel
1/2 teaspoon shrimp paste
Equipment: Mortar and pestle
Use a sharp knife to finely mince the chili peppers, lemongrass, shallot, garlic, galangal, and kaffir lime peel. Add them to a mortar with the shrimp paste. Roughly chop the cilantro and add that as well.
Use a pestle to grind all of the ingredients into a paste, which will take at least 20 minutes. (This is a labor of love.)
To turn your curry paste into a finished dish:
Warm a tablespoon of coconut oil in a stainless steel wok or deep skillet. Add the curry paste and sauté until fragrant, stirring constantly.
Add any protein you like (I used about a half cup of thinly sliced pork) and cook for two minutes.
Add 1 cup of coconut milk and bring it to a boil. Add 2 kaffir lime leaves and a cup of vegetables (I used chopped Thai eggplants and pea eggplants). Cook until the vegetables are tender and the pork is fully cooked.
Stir in 2 tablespoons of fish sauce, 1 teaspoon of palm sugar (or raw sugar), several basil leaves, and a thinly sliced red chili pepper.
Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Serve immediately with (brown) rice.
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