Once upon a time, if you mentioned curry in the kitchen in this country, it was a reference to a turmeric-based powder with origins based in India.
Turns out that curry, which ultimately is a generic term for sauces made from diluted paste or seasoned with a variety spices, is produced in myriad countries in Southeast Asia and points north to the shadows of the Himalayas.
Next to Indian cuisine, Thai cuisine has helped carry curry to new heights in popularity in this country. And in Oklahoma City, thanks to a fortified and bona fide Asian populace, all that one needs to make Thai curry is available in one stop. (The same can be said of the Indian populace and its brand of curry, but that's another column.)
Both Chinatown Supermarket and Super Cao Nguyen Market have everything one needs to make Thai curry from scratch, so I summoned the knowledge of Cao Nguyen co-owner Ba Luong to find and clarify what I needed to make a nice Massaman Curry.
First, a word about Massaman. This yellow curry dappled with cashews and/or peanuts is the only Thai curry that has much relationship with the Indian version. And that binding ingredient is turmeric.
Cao Nguyen offers turmeric in the standard powder form but also in root form.
“My father-in-law likes to eat the root for medicinal purposes,” Luong said.
He also explained that whether you choose fresh or powdered turmeric, you need gloves and something to protect your clothes unless you want yellow streaks on your hands and duds. When folks like me think of Indian curry flavor, the flavor we're thinking of is turmeric. In Massaman, the amount of turmeric is small enough that it lends more color than flavor.
That's probably because of the coconut milk, which is to Thai curry what turmeric is to Indian curry — pervasive.
Coconut milk is the silky, soothing element that makes a mouthful of fire into a mouthful of “gimme some more.” It is the great statesman that calms fiery Thai chilies into stars that shine rather than burn.
For this curry, you'll also need basics like garlic, shallots, potatoes, chicken and stock. But then there's the lemon grass, fish sauce, shrimp paste that you either don't understand or don't want to understand.
But understand you must if you are to muster mastery over Massaman or any other Thai curry because they are just as common to the technique as coconut milk.
Lemon grass is like bamboo that never got out of adolescence.
It's a long stalk with woody qualities, but not stout enough to skewer beef or use as a torture device. It imparts a fragrant, faintly sour flavor that attained it a name associated with lemons.
The ultrasharp chef's knife I acquired at Culinary Kitchen seemed better equipped to mince a metatarsal bone than a stalk of lemon grass.
“You need to use the handle-end of your knife to pound the lemon grass down before you mince it,” Luong said. “Or you can find frozen minced lemon grass in our freezer section.”
Fish sauce, Ba taught me, is processed similarly to olive oil — that is, in pressings.
“The first pressing is the most flavorful, the most nuanced,” Luong said. “It's also the most expensive. The least expensive fish sauces come from the bottom of the barrel, and are very salty. They're good; they just don't offer nuanced flavor.”
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1 pound chicken — thigh, breast or a combination of the two — cut in 1-inch cubes
2 to 3 russet potatoes or 5 to 6 new potatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 14-ounce can coconut milk
4 cloves garlic mashed with 2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons coconut oil
2 shallot bulbs, skinned and minced
2 to 4 fresh Thai chilies, sliced thin
1 stalk lemon grass, minced
3 Kaffir lime leaves
½ cup chicken stock
½ cup starchy water (see below)
¼ cup chopped dry-roasted cashews
¼ cup dry-roasted peanuts
2 cardamom pods, toast seeds and grind, discard shells
2 tablespoons fish sauce, preferably Red Boat
2 teaspoons turmeric
1½ teaspoons fresh grated ginger
1 tablespoon palm sugar
1 teaspoon tamarind paste
1 teaspoon toasted, ground coriander seeds
1 teaspoon toasted, ground cumin seed
1 teaspoon shrimp paste
1 medium tomato, sliced
• Fill a medium pot halfway with water and bring to a boil. Add potatoes and boil for 5 to 10 minutes, until partially softened. Remove pot from heat, and preserve ½ cup of starchy liquid.
• Heat a large wok or skillet with high sides over medium-high heat. Add coconut oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan.
• Add the onion, ginger and garlic. Stir often for 1 to 2 minutes, long enough for the mixture to become fragrant and the onions to become translucent.
• Add the stock and starchy water then stir in lemon grass, Kaffir leaves, turmeric, ground coriander, whole cumin seed, cardamom, tamarind, shrimp paste, fish sauce and palm sugar.
• Add coconut milk, chicken and cooked potatoes. Stir until low boil is retained then reduce heat to medium-low.
• Simmer until chicken and potatoes are cooked through, about 30 minutes. You can lower temperature and continue to simmer up to an hour. Be sure to add more stock or starchy water if the curry becomes too thick.
• Add Thai chilies and tomato slices during last 10 minutes of cooking.
• Serve over jasmine rice infused with coconut oil and fresh cashews and peanuts.
Green Chile Curry
1 pound tri-tip roast cut in 1-inch cubes
2 potatoes, skinned and cut in 1-inch cubes, optional
1 cup chicken stock
1 14-ounce can coconut milk
1 cup green chile sauce, recipe below
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, skinned and grated
2 teaspoons coconut oil
½ teaspoon shrimp paste
½ teaspoon fish sauce, preferably Red Boat
• In a large skillet over medium-high heat, brown the beef on all sides. Drain and reserve.
• Rinse and wipe the skillet clean, reheat over medium-high and combine all remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer curry until beef is tender, about 40 minutes. If curry gets too thin, add chicken stock.
• Serve with steamed rice with naan or warm flour tortillas.
Green Chile Sauce
8 to 10 Hatch green chiles, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 small white onion fine diced
4 cloves garlic, mashed in 2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup olive oil or bacon grease
1 cup chicken stock
Salt and pepper to taste
• Heat oil or bacon grease in a skillet over medium heat.
• Add diced onions and let sweat over medium to medium-low heat at least 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook another 10 minutes, lowering heat if the onions and garlic appear to get too dark. Add green chiles and residual liquid and sweat another 10 minutes.
• Increase heat to high and add chicken stock, simmer at least 20 minutes over medium-low flame.
• Season with salt and pepper and serve.