When I don’t understand a particular dish, I make it. How else would I figure out the flavors of something like Thai yellow curry? Like many cooks, I have mostly relied on tubs or cans of Thai curry paste. The yellow curry is one that I’ve avoided after trying it just once years ago. It was bland and insignificant seeming.
Last week, after reading an October 2013 Saveur magazine story on Thai curry by chef/restaurateur Andy Ricker, I decided to give Thai yellow curry another chance. I’d purchased a tub of fudgy Thai shrimp paste months earlier and the other ingredients were within reach. It wasn’t the Trachang brand that Ricker called for but I wasn’t about to drive 30 minutes to an Asian market for one ingredient.
Neither did I have the Tiparos brand of fish sauce that he prefers. I used what I had, which was MegaChef brown label, formulated for Thai kitchens. (Other premium fish sauces like Red Boat or IHA would work too.) If you don’t have Thai shrimp paste (kapi), use a smaller quantity of mam tom (fine shrimp sauce), a stronger cousin. Lemongrass, galangal, ginger, and curry powder were all sold at my local health food markets. What the heck, I gave it a try.
It took nearly 2 hours to produce about 2 cups of heady yellow curry paste – which can be refrigerated for weeks or frozen for months. The most time consuming tasks were roasting the aromatics. Traditionally, the roasting was done atop a brazier so the cast-iron skillet and foil sort of mimic that. Peeling galangal was no easy or fun task either. (The galangal I bought at Whole Foods was tough to deal with.) Prepping lemongrass for the food processor wasn’t a quick and easy thing either.
That said, good food requires an investment of time. I reminded myself that without the processor, the paste would be pounded with a heavy stone mortar and pestle. I couldn’t have bought a paste like this one made from Ricker’s recipe.
I could smell layer upon layer of fragrance and flavor. It was much more complex than the pastes I’d bought, which all suddenly seemed one-note. The Thai yellow curry paste had much promise. I started wondering how many Thai restaurants make their own curry pastes versus buy them. Thai markets and Costco-like retailers like LAX-C in Los Angeles sell large containers of curry pastes. Freshly made curry pastes certainly are superior to their purchased kin. I was sold as it was worth it.
When I proudly showed my husband the paste, he asked, “So are we having this for dinner tonight?”
“Are you kidding? I’m wiped out ,” I responded. “Tomorrow night I’ll make the curry.” Stay tuned for the Thai yellow curry with beef and potato recipe.
Thai Yellow Curry Paste
Yield: about 2 cups
- 2 medium regular shallots or 6 small red Asian shallots, unpeeled
- 2 small heads garlic, unpeeled
- 3-inch (7.5-cm) section galangal, peeled and thinly sliced (2 oz / 60 g net)
- 2-inch (5-cm) section ginger, peeled and thinly sliced (1.5 oz / 45 g)
- 1 generous teaspoon coriander seeds
- 20 dried red Thai chiles or Mexican chiles de arbol, stemmed and roughly chopped
- 5 large stalks lemongrass, trimmed, and cut into thin half-moons (about 6.5 oz / 195 g net)
- 2 tablespoons ground turmeric
- 1 tablespoon mild curry powder, unsalted preferred
- 2 tablespoons roughly chopped cilantro stems or roots
- 2 tablespoons Thai shrimp paste or 1 1/2 tablespoons fine shrimp sauce (mam tom)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt or 2 1/4 teaspoons regular salt
- Wrap the shallots and garlic in two separate foil packages. Heat a medium or large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Pan roast the shallots and garlic in the skillet for 25 to 30 minutes, turning 3 or 4 times, until soft; poke with a blunt object to test. Set aside to cool for 10 minutes, until easy to handle, then peel and roughly chop; cut the garlic in half and use a knife tip to dislodge the garlic. Set aside.
- Arrange the galangal and ginger in a flat layer on a piece of foil, wrap it up into a flat package. Cook until soft over medium-high heat, 5 to 7 minutes, flipping midway; set aside to cool. Meanwhile, toast the coriander seeds in the skillet over medium heat until fragrant and a few pop. Cool, then pound using a mortar and pestle.
- While the aromatics roast and toast, soak the chopped chiles in 2 cups hot water for 15 minutes, until soft. Save 2 tablespoons of the liquid before draining the chiles and discarding the remaining liquid. Put the chiles in the bowl of a food processor. Add the lemongrass, and roasted galangal and ginger. Run the machine to chop, pausing to scrape down the sides.
- Add the shallot, garlic, coriander, turmeric, curry, cilantro, shrimp paste, and salt. Run the machine until finely chopped. Add the reserved chile soaking liquid. Run the machine until relatively smooth and paste-like. Transfer to a jar and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks. Or, freeze for several months. Return to room temperature before using.
- Stinky but Stealthily Good: Fine Shrimp Sauce (mam tom) – a primer on this Viet pantry ingredient
- Thai Yellow Curry with Beef and Potatoes -- how to use this curry paste