While frequently showing an interest in food gardening, this blog rarely ventures into the kitchen. A conversation over dinner is my excuse this time: four of us sitting around a table talking about curries had such a wide variety of preferences and sensitivities that I rashly said, “You can work around all of these, but only if you make your curry pastes yourself,” and then found myself having to back up my claim with details. Additional research was necessary (at times like these I love the internet) but it turned out that the extra information mostly amplified and consolidated what I already had in mind.
The basic curry paste
After looking at some dozens of curry paste recipes, a common pattern for all of them was apparent:
- Something pungent: usually garlic, often with shallots as well or instead
- Something hot: chili, sometimes with white or black pepper as well
- Something salty: fish sauce, shrimp paste and/or salt
- Something citrussy: lemongrass and/or Kaffir lime (peel or zest or leaves)
- Ginger or galangal
- Other herbs and spices: sometimes part of the paste, sometimes part of the recipe for the dish it is used in.
This basic pattern is amazingly widespread. The fact that Thai and Indian cuisines shared it was no great surprise, but it actually carries as far West as one can travel without a boat, all the way to Morocco where it becomes harissa. The preparation method is essentially the same, too: crush the dry spices, then add and crush the wet ones.
Variations and elaborations of the basic pattern are endless. Some are regional, as we would expect; others arise from a simple wish to have a range of flavours in any one cuisine; others again are religious; and so on. The immediate context of my dinner-table conversation, however, was that all of us had different ideas of what is “too hot”, while one of us was garlic-intolerant and we know someone else who is allergic to onions and shallots as well as garlic – “all the alliums,” as she says sadly. Since all the recipes begin with garlic and chili, avoiding either of them is impossible in a restaurant curry or in a commercially prepared curry paste (sorry!). At home, though, there are (almost) no limits.
Avoiding too much heat: Some of us like the heat of chili for its own sake but if it is used sparingly it also has the function of bringing out the other flavours in the curry. Try cooking with a tiny amount of it and encouraging those who like the heat to scatter chili flakes on their food at the table.
Avoiding garlic: If garlic is the only problem, its cousins onion, shallot or spring onion are reasonably good substitutes. I mentioned religious reasons for variations in the basic recipe, and they centre on the alliums: the Jains, some Hindus and some Buddhists avoid them, so there is a vast repertoire of curries and other foods that don’t use any of them. Hing (asafoetida) is a standard substitute for garlic and onion in South Indian cuisine. If hing is also off limits, we have run out of options – but you may like to add more of the aromatic spices to compensate.
After all that, a recipe … Fish Amok, a mild curry I encountered on my first visit to Cambodia. It was love at first bite, and I now cook it fairly often. My recipe is a composite based on one from a Cambodian cook-book which has unfortunately vanished from its former site.
Fish Amok (Cambodian Yellow Curry)
Serves 3 – 4
- Yellow kroeung paste
- 350g firm white fish fillets
- 2 tsp ghee, coconut oil (or other veg. oil)
- sea salt and black pepper
- 1 handful of coriander, Thai basil, basil and/or mint, roughly chopped
- 400ml / 2 cups full-fat coconut milk or coconut cream
- green vegetables to serve
Yellow kroeung paste
- Lemongrass, around 4 sticks – remove outer leaves and mince or roughly chop the white part
- 2 – 4 kaffir lime leaves – or use 1 tsp juice and ½ tsp zest from an unwaxed lime
- 1 tbs of fresh galangal or ginger, chopped or minced
- 1 tsp of turmeric (fresh or dried)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced, plus 3 shallots or 1 medium onion, roughly chopped (or 4 cloves garlic, minced, but no onion or shallots; or hing)
- 2 tsp fish sauce plus (optionally) 1 tsp shrimp paste
- 1 tsp palm sugar or cane sugar
- 2 tsp red curry paste, or some fresh chilli (or chilli flakes as a condiment)
Blend all these together until smooth – you might need to pulse a few times first depending on its strength of your blender – and set to one side.
- Dice the fish into large cubes about 2cm x 2cm and sprinkle with a little salt and pepper.
- Heat the oil or ghee in a medium saucepan, add the kroeung paste and cook on a medium heat for 30 seconds, stirring regularly to stop the bottom from catching.
- Add the coconut milk and bring to a medium simmer for 10 minutes.
- Add the fish cubes to the sauce and gently poach for about 4 mins with lid on, until cooked through.
- Sprinkle the bottom of 2 bowls with most of the herbs and then gently ladle the Fish Amok over them. Garnish with the remaining herbs and serve.
- Serve with: sauteed bok choy, or snow peas, etc.
Making up the kroeung paste is labour-intensive enough that I generally make a double quantity and put half in the fridge for next time; it keeps for a couple of weeks.
I have used the same method for pork and chicken, increasing the cooking time as necessary, with good results.