Curries, the seasoned, sauce-based dishes featuring meat, seafood or vegetables that feature prominently in Indian meals, are also important in other Asian cuisines.
As Thai restaurants appear in Canadian cities, many of us have had a chance to try Thai curries and know that they differ from Indian ones. For one thing, flavours are quite different. Although both Thai and Indian curries have complex flavours created by the blending of ingredients, the ingredients are different. Thai curries are flavoured with a number of herbs and aromatic leaves, rather than the mix of spices that combine to create the taste of Indian curries.
Thai curries are categorized by colour, with the most prevalent ones being red curries and green ones. The chief difference between them is that red curries are flavoured with tiny red chili peppers, and Thai green curries contain green chilies. It's a little counterintuitive for those of us who associate the colour red with heat, but when it comes to Thai chilies, it's the green ones that are hottest. I find that the spicy heat in Thai curries is balanced by the sweetness of coconut milk.
When ordering curries in a Thai restaurant, it is helpful to know that green curries are likely to be hotter than red ones. In many cases, you will be asked, also, whether you prefer mild, medium or hot. The "hotness scale" depends on the restaurant, but my taste often fits in at about a medium red curry.
Besides Thai chili peppers, either red or green, Thai curries contain sereh or lemon grass, which is sometimes available at the bigger grocery stores. It has long, thin leaves and a woody base, and the oil citral gives it a lemony flour and odour. It is the white base, found up to where the leaves begin to branch, that are used to flavour foods; the rest of the leaves are discarded.
Another ingredient is Southeast Asian shrimp paste. It is a sundried paste, often a purply-gray colour, made from finely ground shrimp mixed with sea salt. The strong odour of shrimp paste is not apparent when it is used in small amounts to flavour curry pastes and other mixtures.
This might be a good time to mention fish sauce, the salty brown sauce made from fermented fish, that is used widely in Southeast Asia. Like shrimp paste, it has a pungent smell that is neither offensive nor even noticeable when combined with other ingredients in a Thai curry.
Galangal is a rhizome (thick, horizontal, underground stem) with a ginger-pepper flavour.
It is often used in a powdered from, called Laos, as an ingredient in Thai curry pastes.
It is the leaves of the kaffir lime, grown in SouthesAsia and Hawaii, that are used to flavour Thai curries. They are glossy and dark green, with a double shape that makes it look like two leaves joined end to end. I understand that these can sometimes be purchased frozen, and sometimes dried, in Canadian stores, though I have never bought them.
The ingredients used in Thai curries can be difficult to come by in our part of the world, and curry pastes are widely used as the base for these dishes.
Some are bottled, some canned and some are sold in sealed plastic pouches packaged in plastic tubs.
As always, purists prefer to prepare their own curry pastes, but some experts in Thai cooking believe that you will get a more authentic Thai flavour by using a commercial curry paste than you would by using a homemade curry paste made with some of the common ingredient substitutions, such as grated lemon rind for lemon grass.
Generally, when making Thai curries, the cook fries the curry paste in coconut cream, heating it until the coconut fat separates; then stock, the protein (meat, seafood or chicken), coconut milk and seasoning are added and the mixture is further cooked until the sauce thickens and oil rises to the top of the mixture. If you see droplets of coconut oil floating on your curry, you can relax and know it is not a mistake; that's the way it should be.
Here is a recipe for a versatile sauce, based on Thai red curry paste, that can be used with any piece of grilled chicken or fish. Though not an authentic Thai red curry, it is easy to make and tasty.
Red Curry Sauce
Adapted from Chavich, Cinda: The Girl Can't Cook, Whitecap Books, Vancouver, 2004.
25 mL (2 tbsp) Thai red curry paste
250 mL (1 cup) coconut milk
5 mL (1 tsp) fish sauce
5 mL (1 tsp) brown sugar
250 mL (1 cup) chicken broth
25 mL (2 tbsp) lime juice
25 ml (2 tbsp) chopped cilantro
Combine all the ingredients, except the cilantro, in a saucepan and simmer over medium heat for 15 minutes until slightly thick.
Stir in cilantro just before serving. Drizzle over grilled salmon, halibut or chicken.
Makes 375 mL (1 1/2 cups)
Margaret Prouse, a home economist, can be reached by writing her at RR#2, North Wiltshire, P.E.I., C0A 1Y0, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.