Thursday, 10 March 2011


Even though Thai currys are well known and popular outside Thailand, not many people make them at home. But they are very easy and taste infinitely better than the bought versions. Trust me on this!

Curry comes in many forms, based on regional specialities and ethnic influences and available ingredients, and I'm going to start the curry recipes off with Masaman, a curry which grew out of the influence of Indian migrants in Thailand. I'm doing this one first because it is not spicy, making it a perfect family curry and a good intro to cooking them since you won't have to worry if you are making it too pet (chili hot).

Coconut milk based curry share much in the technique, as well as the serving principles in Thai cooking, so I'll refer back to this post when I cover other varieties.

Curry is designed to be eaten as part of a balanced banquet in the traditional Thai way. It tends to be quite rich and creamy and is often made with few or no vegetables - that's because curry is served with other dishes that provide the vegetable part of the diet. The Western habit of chucking all our food needs into a single bowl results in curry that is quite unlike the traditional Thai version. Personally I would rather a small serve of a delicious, intense, rich curry beside the larger serve of rice, wok tossed vegetables, crunchy salads and garnishes than the insipid mush I am often served here. But maybe that's just me.

When I first started cooking Thai curry I think the single biggest leap for me was to give up the fry off the garlic and onion and curry paste in oil step I had always used when making Indian style curry. In Thailand the aromatic paste is 'fried' (somewhat wetly) in heated coconut cream, and other ingredients are added to this liquid base, rather than browned off. While this may seem counter intuitive, it actually makes the whole process much quicker and adds to the delightfully piquant undertones of Thai curry.

A curry can be cooked in a wok or a good sized saucepan, depending on what else is happening on the stove top. It is important, particularly in the early stages of cooking, to keep stirring - coconut milk and cream burn easily and tastes yuk. And while I'm talking about coconut milk and cream let's share a few definitions.

First up there is something that comes out of the middle of a (young) coconut that you drink. It is not creamy or white and you don't cook with it. I'll call that coconut juice. Personally, I do not care for it.

The stuff you cook with is extracted from the white flesh of the mature coconut and is called cream or milk depending on the water content. The first pressing of the coconut flesh, in which no water or other agents have been added, yields coconut cream. It has a higher fat content, a lower water content and not surprisingly, the most flavour. In cooking it is often used early (where we might use a cooking oil) and then because heating changes the flavour of coconut cream and milk more may be added at the very end for flavour (where we might use butter to finish off a sauce or risotto). After the flesh has been pressed once, water is added to the fibre and a second pressing takes place, yielding coconut milk. The freshly extracted stuff sold in the markets all over Thailand (you can find the stall easy enough - there's a guy and a big machine and a pile of brown hairy coconut shells as big as a car) is as gloriously different from the tinned version as you can imagine, but realistically as unavailable to most of us as milk straight from the cow, and for pretty similar reasons.

In theory the distinction between cream and milk is clear (if the ingredients on the side of the can say 100% coconut, it's cream and if the ingredients say coconut and water, it's milk). In reality processing introduces other variables that make the distinction a bit fuzzy. My advice is to try different brands until you feel confident about the difference and then stick with one, and if you want milk when you have cream - just add water. My personal choice is ayam brand, although I think their milk is a little too creamy so I sometimes cut it down with water, or use another brand in concert.

Curry pastes can definitely be made at home if have the time to devote to this quite intensive task - I have done so many times. But for my money, it isn't worth the effort. Most things are better home made, but personally, I don't think I will eat enough curry in this lifetime to get really good at it, and when you can now very easily buy excellent quality ones for almost nothing, it seems foolhardy to bother. In terms of brands, I prefer Mae Ploy (and my Thai family agreed when they came to visit us and we shopped together). They sell small quantities too, with sachet versions, which are good for at least a couple of currys selling for less than a dollar at pretty much every Asian grocer around (and quite a few supermarkets too).

As with all Thai cooking, tasting and seasoning adjustments at the end are critical - start by adding less than the recommended amount and then taste, adjust, taste, adjust.

Also, on the topic of quantities, this curry would serve up to 8 people, as part of a banquet of dishes. If you are relying on the dish heavily (say just a curry, rice and a salad or veggies) it would feed more like 4 people. The balance between 'bits' (meat, veggies etc) and sauce is also variable - sometimes a curry is almost soup like with far more liquid and more milky than creamy, other times the flavour is more densely concentrated and the balance between liquid and solid more slanted to the solid. The latter form is more in keeping with my understanding what is traditional, the latter an adaptation for farang (foreigner) tastes, or possibly a way of keeping costs down and stretch meat and precious cream further.

Masaman Curry
300gms meat (chicken, beef, pork) sliced quite thinly
1 cup of coconut cream
1.5 cups of coconut milk
2 tbs masaman curry paste
1 small onion cut into large chunks
2 medium sized potatoes, cooked, skinned and cut into a large dice
1 tbs tamarind puree
2 tbs fish sauce
2.5 tbs palm sugar
1 cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
4 whole cardamon pods
2 tbs salted peanuts

Heat the coconut cream to a simmer over a medium low heat until the oil begins to separate and forms glistening puddles on the surface. Don't rush this step or underestimate its importance.

Tip in the curry paste, slightly increase the heat and mix through, stirring all the time. Heat for 2 minutes.

Add the meat and stir through until the meat is almost cooked through. Add onion, potato, peanuts, cardamon, bay, cinnamon and coconut milk, bring to a simmer and heat for 5 or 10 minutes, or until meat is tender.

Just prior to serving add the tamarind, fish sauce and sugar. Adjust seasonings as required to achieve a balanced palate. If you want to you can carefully find and remove the cinnamon, bay leaves and cardamon.


Melissa said...

I have always loved Thai food, but am scared of cooking it at home. This post has given me the confidence to give it a go. Thanks!

Ren said...

Yum yum yum

michelle said...

You're making me hungry Ms Suzie!
I am loving this little cookery lesson thing though.

Di said...

Massaman is my favorite! Looking forward to trying this out myself.
Can you also offer more info re fish sauce? When in Vietnam I recall they use light (pale) fish sauce. Does Thai cooking use the darker (brown) type?
Also re the coconut cream/milk, I recall an episode of poh's kitchen when she made fresh coconut milk- fairly simple and sounded worth it for a special dish.

sooz said...

I'm not sure about fish sauce Di, but I'll be paying more attention to the brands next time I go shopping! I do like the lighter kind less than the darker kind, I'd assumed it was more a foreigner market thing, but may be related to the kind of fish used to make it? I generally buy ingredients of Thai origin, the same brands you see and use in Thailand just because I figure it's more likely to taste like what I recall, but there is a stronger market here for some things from Vietnam, so they are more available.
And yes, you are right that fresh coconut milk isn't especially hard, but if you are already cooking 4 dishes, there's incentives to cut corners! I haven't cooked much Thai in the last few years because you either have to make a lot of dishes or eat an unbalanced meal, so now I'm trying to get faster at a bigger range of simpler dishes so it isn't so much work, but you still eat a proper Thai meal. Maybe when I'm a total whizz at it, I'll start making coconut milk too!