Thailand’s famous curries are amongst our all-time favourites. Kaeng khiao wan is a sweet green curry, kaeng phet is a hot red curry. It’s generally the chillies that determine the colour of the curry, although the milder yellow curry, kaeng kari, uses turmeric. Other popular curries include Massaman (which has Indian and Malay influences in its spicing), Panang (another Malay influence with peanuts as a key ingredient) and sour curry, kaeng som, (which has a more soupy consistency with lime and turmeric being important flavourings). Another, less well known, dish that uses both coconut milk and coconut cream is tom kah gai – chicken and galangal in a coconut milk soup.
Thai green curry is probably the dish we cook and eat most often at home. It’s easy to make and utterly delicious. Its translation means ‘curry green sweet’ – the green chillies comprise a significant part of the paste, which forms the base of the flavour, but this curry is slightly sweeter than other types of Thai curry. Some recipes call for a small amount of sugar to be added, others rely on the natural sweetness of the coconut milk. The flavour components revolve around green chillies, galangal, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, kaffir lime zest and coriander all blended together to form a thick, fragrant paste.
The curries are also remarkably easy to make. One thing that’s worth noting is that it is not at all shameful if you don’t make your curry paste. Even though you can get the ingredients and a blender and produce a paste that suits your particular taste, you will often see huge mounds of curry paste in Thai markets ready made for the locals to buy and use. This was an enormous pile of red paste in a market on the outskirts of Bangkok.
Many supermarkets stock good quality paste these days (as opposed to weaker versions aimed at western markets).
We’ve been using Mae Ploy for years as you can get it in industrial sized tubs which will give you several portions and it lasts for ages (store it in the fridge once opened). Although, to be fair, it doesn’t usually last very long in our household.
There are approximately three million recipes for Thai curry on the internet. Here’s ours:
500g chicken thighs, chopped into pieces (thigh meat is definitely recommended over breast meat as it has so much more flavour). Beef and pork also work well with this curry.
Handful of julienned vegetables – e.g. bell peppers, chillies, bamboo shoots, baby aubergine (vegetarians can use these in greater quantities instead of the meat).
A good dollop of green curry paste to suit your preferred level of spicy heat.
1 can of coconut milk.
Splash of fish sauce (probably around a tablespoon).
Bunch of Thai basil (Thai basil is very different to Mediterranean basil), chopped.
Put a small amount of oil into a pan and add the curry paste. It’s really up to you how much paste to add – if you like more spice, then add more, if you prefer a milder curry, add less. Fry it off to a couple of minutes then add the coconut milk.
Add the raw chicken and bring to the boil.
Then turn the heat down and let the chicken simmer for around 15 minutes.
Add the vegetables and allow them to cook. Add the fish sauce and Thai basil. Allow to simmer for a few more minutes.
We often add a spritz of lime juice at the end (always at the end) to add some zing.
Serve with jasmine rice.
Scoff. Serves four.
Variations: One of the marvellous things about Thai cuisine is that it has a wonderful combination of sweet, sour, salt and hot flavours. Some Thai green curry recipes incorporate a couple of tablespoons of palm sugar (brown sugar can be substituted if palm sugar isn’t available) to the sauce. If you have a sweet tooth you can add it in as an option, although we don’t as we tend to prefer the sour flavours that the lime offers. This recipe is very flexible in terms of you being able to tailor it to your own palette: the coconut milk gives you sweetness (but you can add sugar if you want more), the curry paste gives heat, the fish sauce provides salt and the lime gives the sour flavours – perfect seasoning.
Moo Larb is the perfect dish for a hot summer’s day. It’s incredibly easy to make and really refreshing. It’s kind of a meat salad which hails from South East Asia; we first tried it in Lao but have also eaten it in Thailand, and quickly became hooked. Even better, all the ingredients are really easy to find in our home country. There’s a tiny bit of preparation needed prior to assembling the dish, so worth thinking about making it ahead of time. The following recipe will easily feed four as a starter or two hungry people.
300g pork mince. Chicken mince also works really well and quorn mince provides a nice vegetarian alternative. Lamb isn’t recommended as it’s quite fatty and the fat tends to congeal a little which doesn’t provide a very nice texture.
1 large red onion (or 2 small)
Generous handful of fresh mint
Generous handful of fresh coriander
Freshly milled black pepper
Generous splash of fish sauce (vegetarians can use veggie fish sauce or a combination of soy sauce and vinegar) – around half a tablespoon
Optional: chilli flakes, toasted rice, teaspoon of sugar, Thai basil leaves for garnish
You need to allow enough time for the mince to cook and cool before assembling the dish. Its’ the perfect ‘make in advance’ dish.
Cook the mince. Pour a little oil into a pan and fry until the meat is cooked through. Allow it to cool.
Finely chop the onion, coriander and mint.
Add the fish sauce, lime juice and black pepper to taste. We really like coarsely ground black pepper so grind ours in a pestle and mortar. This is really where you can adapt the flavour to your personal taste.
Mix well. Serve with steamed rice and a salad garnish.
There are some variations. If you like heat, add chilli flakes (flakes are better than fresh chilli). This was one of the dishes we had in Lao that wasn’t searingly hot, the spice coming from the pepper rather than chilli, but it’s fine to add more heat if you like it. If you’d like to add some sweetness, sprinkle in a little sugar and mix in. There is also a variation where you can add roasted ground rice powder for an additional nutty complexity to the flavour and texture. It’s very simple: place a handful of uncooked Thai rice in a dry frying pan and roast the rice for 10 minutes or so, until the rice is brown. Then transfer to a pestle and mortar or a spice grinder and grind to a powder.
(You can actually toast more rice to make a greater quantity of this powder; it will keep for a couple of months in an airtight container.)
Coconut is one of the fundamental ingredients in Thai cookery. Coconut milk adds a luscious silkiness to curries and can also be used as a base ingredient in desserts; the flesh can be used in sweets and salads and the juice from a green coconut can be drunk straight from the pod for a really refreshing thirst-quencher. There is a difference between coconut cream and coconut milk.
At the Bai Pai Cookery School in Bangkok we learned how to extract coconut cream and coconut milk from an mature coconut, you know, the sort you get at coconut shies. This isn’t the same as the water you get from a green coconut (which is utterly delicious and wonderful to drink on a hot, humid day) but the liquid is extracted from the freshly grated flesh of an ordinary coconut.
After splitting the coconut in half (with a machete or something equally sharp and brutal) you need to use what’s known as a ‘rabbit’ to obtain the white flesh. The rabbit is a serrated grater often located on the end of a wooden bench (sometimes it’s even a cute rabbit shape!) which is used to shave the inside of the coconut to produce wisps of flesh.
There’s definitely a technique to using the rabbit. You sit on the bench and use a reciprocal back and forward motion to shave away the coconut flesh. You need to make sure that the brown, hard shell of the coconut protects your hands as you really don’t want your fingers to come into contact with the sharp grater. Also, blood does have a tendency to turn the pure white coconut cream a startling shade of pink and you really don’t want that.
Once you have a lovely pile of freshly grated coconut it gets put in a bowl and water is added. The shavings are mixed with the water, rubbing them together. Then they are sieved through muslin. A squeeze will release the coconut cream – this is the first press and it is rich, silky and smooth.
Adding a further amount of water with another mix and squeeze releases a more dilute liquid – this is the second press which produces the coconut milk.
Coconuts are quite easy to find in the UK, rabbits less so. Knives are not recommended for grating coconut, you really need an implement that will extract – and shred – the flesh safely from the inside of a hemisphere without shredding your hands. It’s probably safer to buy coconut milk in tins. If you want milk, shake the tin. If you want cream you may well find that – on opening – it has solidified and a rich, luscious blob will simply plop out of the tin.
Coconut milk is a fundamental ingredient in Thailand’s famous curries. Kaeng khiao wan is a sweet green curry, kaeng phet is a hot red curry. Both are easy to make (recipes another time). Another, less well known, dish that uses both coconut milk and coconut cream is tom kah gai – chicken and galangal in a coconut milk soup. Galangal is similar to ginger in that it is a rhizome – but they are quite different, notably in the textures and flavours. Ginger is lively, sweet and warming. Galangal is sharper with citrusy overtones. Whereas you can easily grate ginger and incorporate it into dishes, galangal is more woody. As a result it’s difficult to substitute one for the other. Where we live, ginger is easy to buy, but we have to search for galangal.
Tom kah gai is a subtle dish. Chicken pieces are cooked in a coconut milk soup that is infused with galangal, lemongrass and kafir lime leaves. Then coconut cream is added to provide a richness to the soup. Finally, as with many Thai dishes, sweet, sour, salt and heat flavourings in the form of sugar, lime juice, fish sauce and chilli are added – at the last moment,just before serving. This ensures that the flavourings are at their freshest; lime, particularly, can taste bitter if cooked for too long. The result is a wonderful, warming, creamy soup which has a touch of spice and zing.
Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand and has a very laid back vibe, particularly in the old city which is surrounded by a walled canal with four gates.
Wandering through this area reveals many beautiful temples and wats.
There are loads of places to see in and around the city as well as trips to take in the surrounding area:
You can visit orchid farms…
The gorgeous Mae Sae waterfalls are a series of ten waterfalls spaced a few hundred metres apart. You can follow the pathway alongside the falls and plunge into the pools if you do desire. There are picnic spots along the way. It gets quite crowded at the start of the trail but as you hike towards the further falls the crowds melt away and you can enjoy the beauty of the lovely surroundings….
You can visit elephant sanctuaries – even become a mahout for a day – but do check which are responsible and ethical and make sure that they do not exploit the elephants.
And there are many temples to visit including the Wiang Kum Kam complex
Back in the city, Chiang Mai has a number of bustling markets for exploration, notably the night market which is a short walk away from the old city. On some nights of the week other streets are closed to traffic and stalls pop up. These are really popular so expect crowds. Of course, markets wouldn’t be markets without food stalls and Thai street food is amazing. The market stalls often have plastic tables and chairs nearby – they are not necessarily associated with any particular stall – so that you can order your food and then take it to any table to enjoy at leisure.
One of the best street food dishes is som tam – green papaya salad. Green papaya is shredded into a large wooden bowl and then pounded with beans, carrots and tomatoes. Sometimes little shrimp are added although you can ask for them to be excluded if you are vegetarian. Chillies, lime juice, palm sugar and fish sauce are added to the mix and pounded to release the flavours giving that characteristic Thai combination of sweet, sour, salt and spice. Be warned though, those teeny Thai chillies are hot! The dish is then adorned with crushed toasted peanuts for added crunch. But on a warm, humid evening, it’s the perfect dish for a refreshing snack, preferably accompanied with a nice cold beer.
If you like sour flavours tamarind is amongst the best. Actually, it’s not just sour, it has an element of sweetness to it – two intense flavours in one delicious pod. It is almost reminiscent of sour apples, like the Granny Smith variety.
Tamarind grows in pods on trees – this beauty was in the ancient city complex of Wiang Kum Kam, near Chiang Mai in Thailand.
The Wiang Kum Kam site is spread across a wide area. It was originally the capital of the Lanna in the 13th century but was abandoned as a city due to flooding. Much of the area has been excavated and it’s possible to explore the ruins.
It’s quite an extensive area and you can ride around the site in a horse drawn cart or walk, although you’d end up walking a fair distance. Our last stop was Wat Chedi Liam.
You can pick a pod and eat the raw tamarind fruit inside. It has a distinctively sour flavour and feels quite refreshing, particularly in the humid heat.
Tamarind is also great to cook with. You can buy blocks of tamarind at Asian supermarkets and even some conventional supermarkets in the UK. Just soak a portion in warm water for 10-15 minutes. You want a ratio of about 10% tamarind to water volume.
Pick up the pulp and squeeze it to extract maximum flavour. You don’t use the pulp – that can be thrown away. Keep the liquid and use that as an ingredient to flavour sauces and stir fries to give a distinctive sour tang to the dish.