The green curry paste that got me seeing red!
Monday, August 6, 2007
I was just innocently channel-surfing, minding my own business the other day when something green got me all fuming and seeing red. It was on Ming Tsai’s show, something about Thai green curry paste. The problem is, that paste is just as Thai as Yul Brynner huffing and hopping his way around the room in a simian imitation of King Mongkut. I don’t have anything against Ming Tsai, mind you. I found him entertaining enough when I saw him in Aspen last year. I even think the format of his show made a lot of sense: teach one master recipe and how to adapt it into multiple recipes involving different ingredients. That’s how most of us cook anyway. But I must take exception of this one recipe.
The master recipe I am talking about is a ‘Thai’ green curry paste. It was such an abomination that it ruined the otherwise innocent recipes that follow. It even entangled the cutesy Aaron Sanchez of Centrico into making a hybrid Latino-Thai version of a Mole. I am serious.
The recipe I found so distasteful has – amongst its many ingredients - a substantial amount of mint, basil, and cilantro leafs. A whole cup each, which is – let me put it gracefully – YUCK.
I don’t know where this weird trend really began, but the first time I encountered a green curry paste recipe like this was a recipe
by Jean-Georges. He spent quite a bit of time in Thailand, right? You’d think he knew how to make a proper curry paste. Well, I’m sure he knows how to make very many proper things, but Thai green curry paste is not one of them. His recipe called for cupfuls of cilantro leafs. Cups of them! Do you know what kind of curry that paste would make? A Dr.Brenner’s special green soap curry, that’s what! And, as though JGV’s recipe isn’t bad enough, Ming Tsai took the concept and ran with it, adding not just the offensive cilantro leafs but also the incongruous basil and mint. And he is hardly alone.
Now before you jump on me for being an insufferable purist, I must say that I do not mind people taking a classic recipe and putting their own spin on it, or substituting hard to find ingredients for something closer to hand, or even skipping a few altogether. I do that myself when I cook, all the time. But it must be within reason. Otherwise, it’s like Jack Nicholson ordering the chicken sandwich in Five Easy Pieces: hold the mayo, hold the lettuce, hold the tomatoes, and hold the chicken, just bring me the bread. Frankly, I hardly care if people make up whatever paste they fancy, but just do me a favor and don’t call it
chicken sandwich Thai green curry paste when it isn’t.
No, I’m not going to argue that there is one true way to make green curry paste. I’m sure there are as many versions of the recipe as there are grandmothers and kitchen-mothers* in Thailand. But there’s a master recipe that serves as the backbone of the true green curry, that which made it authentically Gang Kiew-wan or Thai Green Curry. And, let me tell you, there aint no cilantro leafs, let alone mint and basil.
The basic ingredients that are always present in Thai curry paste of all forms – green, red, yellow, Massaman, Panang, etc – are garlic, shallots, cilantro roots (or stems, but never leafs), lemongrass, galangal, Kaffir lime zest, and Kapi shrimp paste. Other ingredients – chillies, dried spices, and more aromatics like Krachai (Wild Ginger) or Kamin (fresh Turmeric roots) – and the combination and proportion of them are specific to particular types of curry or meat.
Green curry or Gang Kiew-wan is the only kind of curry paste that uses green, fresh chillies. In Thailand, we use a combination of Prik Kee-noo (the killer ‘Bird’s Eye’ variety) or Prik Chee-fah (milder and larger.) Both Prik kee-noo and Prik Chee-fah come in a variety of colors, but only green ones are used for green curry paste, for obvious reasons.
The dry and fresh aromatics used in the master recipe also vary depending on which kind of protein the paste is intended for. At my grandfather’s house, my aunt Chawiwan and our old Kitchen-mother Pah Biab always put a bit of Krachai, Wild Ginger, into green curry paste intended for catfish or fish dumplings. The Krachai is said to prevent excessive fishiness in the final dish. For meat, Gang Kiew-wan Neua, they would add a bit more cumin seeds and less coriandar seeds, and vice versa for chicken.
It’s all confusing, I supposed, for these fancy chefs, whose big brains are occupied with far more important recipes like….oh, I don’t know, Ratatouille maybe? Whatever.
Just in case you need help figuring out which green curry recipe is good to use, let me give you two clues.
If it calls for cilantro leafs – not roots or stems, but leafs – drop it.
If it says you can substitute ginger for galangal, run the other way and don’t look back!
Galangal and ginger may look alike, but they don’t taste anything like each other at all. Saying that you can substitute ginger for galangal is like saying – oh, yeah, if you didn’t have any Italain flat leaf parsley, go ahead and use cilantro instead.
If you want to try a proper Thai curry paste, I have a recipe right here. If you didn’t believe me, Khun Kasma, the famous author and Thai cookery teacher, has a recipe over at her site Thai Food and Travel. If you have the exhaustive Thai Food by David Thompson, he’s got a great recipe in there as well. Also, when I went home to Thailand last year, I took a series of photographs of my kitchen-mother* making Gang Kiew-wan Pla-grai, green curry with fish dumplings. You can check it out here.
*A household servant in charge of the cooking and the kitchen is referred to as Mae-krua - roughly translated as kitchen-mother.