A friend commented the other day that I hadn’t cooked any Thai food yet – well, I say commented, but it was more of a complaint. But he made a good point. I cook a lot of Thai food and it’s overdue some representation on the blog. Unlike him, I haven’t just come back from a fantastic looking trip to Southeast Asia (sob), so I can’t draw on memories of the genuine article. But I have eaten some amazing Thai food over the years: the most flavourful green curry I can imagine in an Andalucian village of all places, sublime pork relish with crackling in David Thompson’s Michelin-starred Nahm in London, and, perhaps best of all, coconut and shrimp rice in Jitlada, an unassuming strip-mall restaurant I would cheerfully fly back to Los Angeles just to eat at again. We take popular Thai dishes for granted these days, but it’s easy to forget just how genuinely exciting a cuisine it can be.
My Thai cooking is nowhere near the level of complexity of those restaurants, but I did learn a thing or two from food shopping in New York. As I’ve mentioned, Chinese supermarket workers in Chinatown don’t tend to speak much English, but the Thai store people do and some kind shopkeepers were willing to help teach me what to cook with the things I brought to the counter. I got some great tips from the lovely Nong in Bangkok Center Grocery (whose homemade nam prik pow is delicious, by the way, if you’re in the area). She guided me in cooking with frozen coconut, Thai pea eggplant and pomelo, and in my first forays into homemade curry pastes. Thai curry pastes are an absolute breeze to make, with just the labour of peeling and chopping standing between you and fresh, brightly flavoured dishes a million times better than using a jar. This red curry paste can be used in lots of recipes, including the noodle dish below.
Thai red curry paste
- 15 dried red chilies (about 2 inches long)
- 5 fresh red chilies (the next size up from birds’ eye)
- 10 cloves of garlic
- 5 lemongrass stalks
- 1 knob of galangal
- 1 tbsp coriander seeds
- 11 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 tbsp cilantro leaves and stems
- the zest of a lime
- 1 tsp shrimp paste
- a glug of fish sauce
Soak the chilies in warm water for 10-15 minutes. Meanwhile, dry roast the coriander seeds and then the cumin (separately) in a frying pan, then pound them in a mortar and pestle. Transfer to a small food processor. Chop the fresh chilies. Peel and chop the galangal. Peel off the rough outer layers of the lemongrass and chop the tender insides. Chop the cilantro. (This should really be cilantro roots, if you can get them, but I never can so I use stems and leaves.) By now the dried chilies should have softened up a bit and you can chop them too. Pound the garlic cloves, lemongrass, galangal, both sets of chilies and cilantro. Add lime zest and shrimp paste and transfer to the processor. Pulse with a tablespoon of fish sauce if necessary to produce a paste that’s mostly smooth but with flecks of colour and texture remaining. Taste carefully for balance – eaten raw it is going to be quite hot. And remember you’ll be adding sugar and lime to whatever dish you put it in, so don’t worry if it seems a little salty.
Note: If you want a vegetarian version, just omit the shrimp paste and replace the fish sauce with light soy sauce. Similarly, you can make the noodles veggie by replacing the fish sauce with soy (half light, half dark) and using Thai eggplant, tofu, or zucchini instead of chicken.
Red curry chicken noodles
- 1 tsp oil
- 1 tbsp palm sugar
- 1 whole chicken leg
- 1 1/2 tbsp red curry paste
- bunch of kai lan, torn into large pieces
- a thick handful of flat rice or wheat noodles
- 3 spring onions, sliced
- 2 cups beansprouts
- 1 lime
- fish sauce to taste
- handful of cilantro, chopped
(I’ve separated out the curry paste from the noodle recipe since you might want to make the paste on its own, but if you plan to make the noodles, then begin with the chicken or vegetables and make the paste while you wait for them to cook.)
Place the chicken in an oven-safe dish, splash with fish sauce and sprinkle with black pepper. Cook at 190 C / 375 F / gas mark 5 for about 45 minutes or until the juices run clear. Cut the chicken into bite size chunks, including the crispy skin, and retain the fat and juices in the pan. Boil the noodles for 4 minutes (or just soak them if they are thin enough rice noodles). Drain and keep them in a colander.
Heat the oil to medium and fry the red curry paste until sizzling. Pour in some of the chicken fat and juices. (Be careful, the pan will spit a bit.) Add the palm sugar and mix well. Keep stirring and scraping the paste to prevent sticking for 2-3 minutes. Add spring onions, stir, and then add kai lan. Keep stirring.
Add a tbsp or so of water to loosen. Add chicken, noodles, and a glug of fish sauce and toss well for another couple of minutes. Turn off the heat. Add beansprouts and half the lime juice and mix. Taste and add more lime juice and/or fish sauce until the flavours balance. Top with cilantro leaves and serve immediately.