I love Thai and Vietnamese curries, but is it worth making the curry paste from scratch? And what’s the secret to a great one?
Adam, London SE10
When faced with a cooking conundrum, I often ask: “What would Nigel Slater do?” In this instance, he mixes his own green curry paste: “I like the vibrancy that comes from the freshly-blitzed lemongrass, ginger, garlic and coriander leaves,” to which he then adds shrimp paste, fish sauce and a pinch of sugar. For red curry paste, Slater turns to shop-bought, finding them hotter and the sourness “more pronounced” than his homemade efforts.
The beauty of making your own, however, says Thuy Diem Pham, chef/owner of The Little Viet Kitchen in London, is that you can tailor it to your own taste. “I’m from the south of Vietnam, and every household has their own recipe, using ingredients their family likes. If you buy it, you can’t do that.” For hers, she crushes lemongrass, galangal, red shallots, fresh ginger, chillies, shrimp paste, dried turmeric, coriander seeds and cumin,; it keeps for four weeks in an airtight jar in the fridge.
A granite pestle and mortar will make all the difference to the texture. As chef Sebby Holmes, author of new book Thai in 7, puts it: “A proper Thai curry is made with brute force.” Diem Pham agrees: “Don’t change tradition unnecessarily – you’ll see the colour and flavours alter as you crush more chillies and shallots.” Using a food processor isn’t the end of the world, though, she says – just don’t tell her mum.
Chillies are always the starting point, and the type of chilli depends on what you’re making: dried, long red ones for red-curry paste, fresh green bird’s eye chillies for green. Dried chillies, Holmes explains, should be soaked, then charred in a wok to “take the edge off”, before removing the seeds. He then adds one ingredient at a time: “Get the chillies to a paste, scoop out, and go through your hardy ingredients – galangal, lemongrass, krachai (wild ginger) – before adding fresh chilli, coriander root and, finally, the spices (cumin, coriander seeds, white peppercorns).” The key, he says, is to pound, pound, pound: “You want to keep going until you think it’s done, and then go some more.”
When it comes to cooking, Diem Pham scoops out two tablespoons of paste and adds coconut cream, followed by vegetables, tofu or chicken. For Holmes, it’s a tale of two halves: “Prepare your meat so it’s delicious on its own, then make the curry as good as you can, and stick them together at the end.” Cook it for too long, though, and the freshness from the paste will be lost.
If ingredients are hard to come by, chef Natalie Tangsakul, whose debut venture Talad is a tribute to her northern Thai upbringing, suggests buying a ready-made hung lay curry paste. “It uses spices that are easy to find – cardamom, coriander seeds, peppercorns, cumin.” She adds smoked, dried chillies to taste, then uses it to marinate chicken thighs (or chickpeas, if you’re veggie) overnight alongside garlic and ginger, before frying with tamarind paste, palm sugar and tamari.
For Holmes, leftover red curry paste should be seasoned with palm sugar and fish sauce, then rubbed into scored sea bass or bream. After resting for a few hours, deep-fry the fish whole in a wok filled with 180C-degree rapeseed oil for five to six minutes, until crisp, then serve in the middle of the table with salad and rice, “hacking at the fish with your fingers or, these days, a fork and mask”.
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