I was quite excited to see the Masterchef finalists go to Thailand the other week. Obviously, this was mostly so that I could feel superior to their bungling attempts to make somtam, since the Chiang Mai market cooking challenge was one of the few I could reasonably imagine doing well on. For foreign readers who have not experienced the pleasure of watching Greg and John shout at hapless cooks, I should explain that many of their challenges involve cooking buckets of sponge pudding for soldiers or making high-end dinners for picky aristocrats. Even though some of my favourite past contestants have focused on Thai or Japanese food, the show does tend to emphasise knowledge of ‘honest’ aka British cuisine. Watching them battling with khao soi in Chiang Mai was a rare moment of ‘hey, I can make that!’.

Even better, though, was their trip into the mountains of Northern Thailand, where the food they cooked looked really delicious. One dish began with fermented fish in a curry paste – although I don’t have fermented fish to hand, I really liked the idea of a curry with fish as a base flavour rather than as a main ingredient. I loved the Northern-style curries we ate in Chiang Mai so the episode prompted me to experiment. What I came up with was a properly spicy vegetable curry infused with the umami richness of smoked fish and fermented soy. The recipe is pretty flexible: you could add meat or reduce the chilies. But it is meant to be spicy rather than sweet so don’t hold back too much…

Northern Thai curry

  • 5 garlic cloves
  • 2 tua nao (or substitute 2 tsps shrimp paste)
  • 1 tbsp palm sugar
  • 2 inches galangal
  • 2 inches ginger
  • 6 lime leaves
  • 4 stalks lemongrass
  • 4 shallots
  • 12 long green chilies (or to taste)
  • a good bunch of cilantro roots or stalks
  • 1 smoked mackerel fillet
  • 12 cherry tomatoes or 3-4 larger ones
  • pinch of salt
  • ¼ cup fish sauce
  • 2 cups water
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 2 generous handfuls of okra
  • a handful of long beans (or substitute green beans)
  • 1 red pepper
  • cilantro leaves

Start with the curry paste. If using tua nao, grill them on a dry skillet till bubbling on both sides, then grind to powder in a mini-prep. If using shrimp paste, flatten into a disk and wrap in tin foil, then grill till fragrant on both sides. Set aside.

Pound garlic in a large mortar and pestle, then add chopped galangal, ginger, lemongrass, cilantro roots and chilies. Add palm sugar and pound till softened. Next add chopped shallots and lime leaves and pound well. (You can also do this part in a food processor!) Add mackerel and tua nao/shrimp paste and pound in, then add tomatoes and a pinch of salt and pound till roughly broken up.

Heat about 3 tbsp oil in a wok till hot and then fry the paste, stirring constantly, till darkened and not raw smelling.

Add fish sauce and a cup of water to start with – you want the curry to be soupy at this stage but not thin. Add your vegetables and simmer for five minutes.

Finish with the juice of a lime and more salt if needed, then sprinkle some cilantro leaves on top.

Serves 4.

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