Being of Indonesian-Dutch descent, I grew up with our family going to asian restaurants a lot: Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, the rare Indonesian spot. My mom seemed to like Thai restaurants the best because, according to her, the spice palate used is most similar to an Indonesian one, at least when compared to other asian cuisines.
Thus said, since Indonesian food is so hard to come by in the States, I’ve learned to love Thai food. Adore it. I’d be willing to travel to Thailand just to eat street food with a small handful of Cipro in my back pocket. (Just in case!)
Before I finally found out what pad thai was really supposed to taste like, I enjoyed Thai curries the most. I thought making the paste by hand from scratch was the key–though after talking to Thai friends, they always asked, “Why? The store-bought kind is just as good–that’s what I use.” Though even after buying paste, my curry attempts never seemed to have the right flavor: too spicy, not spicy enough, under flavored, I’d even add lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves to no avail, etc.
Finally years and years later after my first curry trial, I decided to actually read the paste label for once. It said something about adding brown sugar.
Whaddaya know, I tried adding a little brown sugar, and…it finally tasted amazing.
I don’t have a recipe for Thai curry, really. My method is more like a bunch of guidelines. We bought one of those huge containers of yellow curry paste recently. I’m also a fan of red and green curry. Well, all Thai curries. If I have several pastes on hand, I pick whichever one that seems to call out to me that day.
Also, I’m rather untraditional about my curry ingredients. I think it’s a great weekday dish because it helps me clean out the fridge. Is that broccoli/cauliflower/[insert vegetable] I see back there? Let’s throw it in! or I only have a couple handfuls or spinach left, might as well use it up!
What is most important to me is getting the flavor right (ahem–brown sugar). Oh, well, and as long as you don’t use a vegetable that really does not belong in curry like okra or beets.
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- I usually like to use potatoes, mushrooms, and/or tofu as the base ingredients. In the curry in made last night, I just had potatoes. As for the vegetables to be added later? Use your imagination!
- I’ve been steering away from sautéing with oil; rather, I pour a small glass or so of water in the pan, cover it, and bring it up to a vigorous boil to cook the base ingredients. Keep your eye on the pan, though–add more water when you need it!
- I tend to cook the base ingredients with water and a little curry paste to begin with. When they’re done, I add in coconut milk and start to season the curry before adding the rest of the vegetables to be cooked.
- For my usual huge batch of curry, I use a whole can of (not low-fat) coconut milk. If I need more “broth”? Then I just add more water instead of opening up another can of milk.
- When I’m seasoning the curry, I have the following on hand: curry paste, salt (or mushroom seasoning, my usual salt replacement), and brown sugar. I add curry paste until I feel like the spices are enough. Then, the salt to taste. Lastly, since I make a large batch of curry, I start with 1-2 spoons of brown sugar. Taste the curry and add more if you need–you’ll know when it’s just right! Sometimes I go back and forth and add more paste or salt as needed. If the curry spice is too much, you can thin it out with more coconut milk or water.
- I’m sure you could use something other than brown sugar as a sweetener. Even regular sugar or agave nectar should work.
- Make sure to add your ingredients to the pot according to how long it will take for them to cook, otherwise you’ll end up with some as mushy and others too firm. Last night, for example, I had potatoes, green beans, bell peppers, onion, cabbage, and kale. I cooked the potatoes with water and curry paste first, then added the green beans when the former was almost done. The bell pepper and onion just needs to sit in the warmth for a few minutes, so those went in after the coconut milk and initial seasoning was done. Since the cabbage and kale don’t take much heat to be cooked, I threw them in last and folded them in under low heat for a minute or two.
- If you like garnishings, I’ve used green onions, cilantro, or even fried shallots/onions before.
When I think back upon my early curry attempts, I now can easily see my mistake. Thai flavors always come in pairs or more: if a dish is salty, it is balanced out by something sweet; if it’s spicy, then sour is usually involved; when making pad Thai, all four flavors surprisingly come together.
Though in the case of making good curry, don’t forget to add the brown sugar.