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Thai Curry

2006-01-23 03:24:54.427654+00 by Dan Lyke 8 comments

I'd mentioned that we were playing with curries. Charlene has fallen for Thai "curries", so yesterday and today we tried to recreate some of the flavor that we've experienced recently, notably at Bangkok Thai Express.

We didn't come up with something good. I mean, it was edible, but only after we used yoghurt for the proteins to bind to some of the tannins in the spices, and it wasn't the flavor we were searching for.

Yeah, sure, we could go out and buy a curry paste, but I'm the sort of person who wants to figure out what goes into food from first principles. So here's what I'd like: I want a book on herbs and spices that starts with the table on page 392-393 of the second edition of On Food and Cooking[Wiki]. I want a reference that talks about curries not just as "curry", but as "we can break up the things commonly referred to in the U.S. as 'curries' into these geographic and ethnic sources", and then goes on to talk about the differences in flavor between where the various component herbs and spices are grown, and how different components substitute, and so forth.

And this was going to turn into a rant about online resources and search engines, but we'll save that one for tomorrow.

[ related topics: Books Food ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2006-01-23 06:39:57.933018+00 by: dws

The few times I've stumbled on recipes that approximate a good curry, they've all involved roasting mustard seeds. Friends from India claim that there are more discernable "curries" than there are regional cuisines.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-01-23 17:01:10.779482+00 by: other_todd

There are indeed about fifty million curries, but it's partly a definitional thing. The idea of having one "curry powder" you use on a variety of foods is an idea that strikes Indian, Thai, Sri Lankan cooks (etc) as ridiculous. Their custom is to custom-make the mix of spices to be used for that particular dish, by eye, every time. This comes easily to people who have been doing this their whole life. To us it's a tad intimidating.

The US has historically been curry impaired, at least as far as home cooking is concerned. You will learn more from the average Penzey's spice catalog (which lists nine different currylike blends, and that's what they consider a MINIMAL selection) than you will from the average American-written cookbook, at least ones older than the last decade or so. We're getting wiser. Slowly.

A good place to start is Madhur Jaffrey. She has her eccentricities, but she taught me to precook spices in the oil (that includes popping the mustard seeds). As McGee will tell you, this is not just a matter of using heat to change flavor chemistry - some of the essentials in the spices are more fat- than water-soluble. In the case of the mustard seeds, popping them by frying in hot oil first makes them much milder. A Taste of India is the book you want if you don't already have it - it has as much explanatory text of "the way we do things" as it does recipes, and will give you plenty of concrete examples of matching the spice blend to the individual recipe.

I warn you, though, that cooking this way is labor intensive, which is why we don't personally do it very often. Jaffrey, quite properly, has very little use for preground spices. On the other hand, if you know you're going to be cooking, say, eggplant a lot, there's no reason you can't pregrind a quantity of a blend suitable for that. She'd probably say it won't be nearly as good as making it on the spot. Probably right. But the spice preparation period for some of these recipes is a third to one half of the total recipe time!

Now, that's the Indian approach. Although I don't have any books which speak to Thai flavors directly, I highly recommend The Elephant Walk Cookbook by Longteine de Monteiro. She is Cambodian, and her food is primarily Cambodian although she has cooked, and learned, all over the world. I think you will find that Cambodian food more closely approaches Thai. Cambodian food likes bright flavors on top, like lime or lemongrass, and strong flavors underneath, like fish sauce. I much prefer it to "Indian" food myself (I put that in quotes because it is almost a useless generic). I also eat at the actual Elephant Walk just about every chance I get, so this is a strong endorsement ....

Her cookbook does not use the word "curry" very often; however, there are some dishes she doesn't CALL curries which to my mind are very currylike. The few she does call curries tend to have Thai-style thin curry sauces. The book also has a lot of explanatory text and comments, which is nice.

I know every time I post something here it seems like I am recommending another book!

#Comment Re: made: 2006-01-23 17:17:44.588474+00 by: Dan Lyke

Cool! I'll go look at those.

The Thai "curries" appear to be more like a thin molé than what I've come to think of as a curry, and I think that some of the issues I have with trying to match flavors come from not having the right stash of dried peppers on my shelf (and, much like fish sauce, being slightly reluctant to use 'em in the quantities necessary because Charlene doesn't like those flavors too strong).

Interesting about doing the seeds in oil: Most of the sources I've run across specifically say "dry toast". I may have to revamp my grinding techniques if I start toasting in oil.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-01-23 18:16:39.647237+00 by: other_todd

I apologize - I unintentionally misled you. When Jaffrey grinds spices (which she generally does just before cooking), she may toast those dry before grinding, but she doesn't cook them in oil. When she cooks them in oil, either the seeds are left in the dish whole, or the seeds are strained out and the oil is used in the dish. Grinding something after it had been cooked in oil would indeed be problematic.

I have an example here beside me, Potatoes and Peas in a Yoghurt Sauce, which begins with about an inch of fresh ginger peeled and finely diced, half a teaspoon of black mustard seeds, and half a teaspoon of cumin seeds. She pops the mustard seeds in hot vegetable oil, then adds the cumin to the oil and lets it cook for a few seconds, then adds the ginger and some green chiles. This cooks a little longer. This is her flavor base - a sofrito, in other cultures - and the potatoes and peas will be cooked in that without it being strained or further altered.

I'm with you on the description of Thai curries - I think of them as thin sauces. I don't know how crucial having the right kind of pepper is, but we generally keep two or three kinds of dried around as a general rule, just because.

By the by, fish sauce tolerance does build up. I used to be able to not go near it with an eleven-foot pole. I still don't care for the smell much (I have a real problem with fermented and vinegar smells), but now I just tell my nose to be quiet and dive on in. My wife actually uses it as a condiment from time to time ... but then, she's always been more daring about strong stinky foods than I am.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-01-23 20:07:19.291309+00 by: radix

I'll throw in my $0.02.. I've made both Thai and Indian curry from scratch and they are very different animals.

Thai: curry paste: dry roast cumin and caraway, set aside dry roast thai white peppercorns and coriander seeds, set aside once cool, grind all of these into powder

add to mortar and pestle and make into paste: sea salt and garlic, then one at time, cilantro roots and stems, chiles, the spices from above, nutmeg, galangal. lemongrass, kaffir lime zest, then shallots.

stir in fermented shrimp paste (careful! very pungent, use sparingly)

WEAR GLOVES. pounding peppers without them leads to extended burning.

You thin the paste with coconut milk, then cook your food, add fish sauce, basil, onion, peppers to finish. I highly recommend milking your own coconuts (grind fresh coconut into flakes, soak in hot water and squeeze, repeat, you're basically extracting coconut oil/fat.. this is very hedonistic stuff, you have to try it at least once).

Indian curry: much easier: grind onion, garlic, ginger, peppers (mostly onion) in food processor or blender until a paste, brown in skillet with oil, then thin with water and reduce. This is basic curry gravy, cook food in it (or cook then add to it) then add spices. I've got a recipe for Garam Masala around here somewhere that is good...

As you can see, very different critters. If you want more info, ask, I've barely scratched my library to put this together. (I just removed exact quantities in fairness to the author)

Credit for Thai curry goes to Su-Mei Yu "Cracking the Coconut"


#Comment Re: made: 2006-01-24 01:16:41.047368+00 by: DaveP

You might like to try Cambodian Curry Chicken Soup, too. It's one of my favoritest curries in the whole world.

#Comment Re: Curry favor made: 2006-01-29 09:56:54.746188+00 by: ascott

The "Tigers and Strawberries" weblog (http://www.tigersandstrawberries.com/) is written by a foodie of my acquaintance; one of her more recent posts (http://www.tigersandstrawberri...-pad-prik-king-a-thai-dry-curry/) is about Mu Pad Prik King: A Thai Dry Curry - might be just the sort of thing you're looking for!

APS (http://www.pacifier.com/~ascott/apshome.htm)

#Comment Re: made: 2006-01-29 21:32:11.851045+00 by: Dan Lyke

Thanks, that's exactly the sort of weblog I like to keep my eyes out for!