The perfect Perfect Pantry would be as large as an airplane hangar, as beautiful as the food halls at Harrod's, and as well-stocked as my favorite book store.
It would have an aisle for chocolate, a wing for noodles, an enormous spice rack five feet tall, and a freezer filled with enough sugar-free ice pops (my shameful addiction) to last for months.
And, it would have an entire section just for Asian condiments — especially curry paste.
Unlike Indian curry powder, aromatic Thai curry paste combines dry spices with "wet", or fresh, ingredients like chile peppers, fish sauce, shrimp paste, herbs, garlic, shallots and lemongrass. Mixed with a bit of coconut milk, it's an almost-instant sauce base, making it one of the world's best convenience foods.
Curry paste is classified by color, ranging from deep red to yellow-orange to deep green, and often by the type of food with which it's traditionally used. The best and most enjoyable way to figure out which curry pastes you like is to taste your way through a few meals at a Thai restaurant. There you'll discover:
- Red curry paste, medium-hot, the most versatile, used with chicken, duck, beef, pork, shrimp and fish, and noodle curries.
- Green curry paste, the hottest, used in coconut sauces with beef, pork or chicken.
- Panang curry paste, medium-hot, smooth and mellow, popular in Thailand and Malaysia. Sometimes has crushed peanuts in it, so be sure to read the label. Most often used with beef, but also with seafood.
- Massaman, the mildest, named after the Muslim people of south Thailand and Malaysia. Very fragrant, with cinnamon, star anise and cardamom, used to make stew-like curries with beef, potatoes or egg noodles.
- Yellow curry paste, mild-medium, used with beef, chicken, potatoes and onions.
- Nam prik khing, mild, used in dry curries with long beans, pork, fish or chicken.
In my less-than-perfect pantry I keep jars of red and green curry paste, but that's just the tip of the flavorful iceberg. Temple of Thai, one of the best purveyors of authentic Thai food and cookware, sells no less than 18 different curry pastes. That's enough variety to try some new recipes for soup, noodles, chicken, shrimp, salmon or veggies.
Green chicken curry with eggplant
Another wonderful and simple recipe from Sandeep Chatterjee's The Spice Trail: One Hundred Hot Dishes from India to Indonesia. Note: if you cannot find coconut cream, let a can of coconut milk sit undisturbed for several hours, to allow the watery liquid to separate from the thicker milk. Pour off the liquid, and use the thick part of the milk in place of cream. Serves 4.
1 lb skinless, boneless chicken thighs
4 Tbsp coconut cream
3 Tbsp green curry paste
1/2 cup Thai eggplant or fresh green peas
2 Tbsp fish sauce (nam pla)
1 Tbsp brown sugar
Kosher salt, to taste
2-1/2 cups coconut milk
A few Kaffir lime leaves, torn (or a bit of lime zest)
A few sweet basil leaves
Cut each chicken thigh into four pieces. Heat the coconut cream in a large saucepan over medium heat until the oil starts to separate from the cream. Add the green curry paste and cook, stirring, 1-2 minutes. Add the chicken. Cook, stirring, 10-12 minutes, until the chicken is well coated with the paste and is about half cooked. Add the eggplant or peas, fish sauce, sugar and salt. Cook, still stirring, 5-7 minutes. Add the coconut milk, reduce the heat to low, and stir 8-10 minutes, until the chicken is cooked. Adjust seasoning with more salt, if necessary. Add lime and basil leaves. Serve over hot rice.
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