When I want to convince people that I spent a year living rootless and free in the mystical cities and villages of Thailand this is the dish I triumphantly throw down as proof. This rich and heavily perfumed curry has the old world taste of a recipe smuggled out of the kingdom of Siam centuries ago and only recently rediscovered. It made a good friend exclaim that it was the most authentic Thai dish he had ever eaten, and left a table of astounded guests in an increasingly heated verbal battle over the shrouded origins of the intense flavours that most had never before encountered.
Well, I have never been to Asia in my life, but that hasn’t stopped me from creating a wonderful dish so unique and exotic that you would check its passport before you would ever believe it set foot outside the Far East. The key is far less my cooking ability and much more my shopping list. No corners are cut in the crafting of this red curry, so prepare yourself for a stroll to the nearest Asian market if you are intent on pulling this off.
The most prominent flavour on display is perhaps the makrut (kaffir) lime leaf. Admittedly not the most politically correct of flavours, either, as its most common moniker is a disturbingly pejorative and discriminatory term that has unfortunately carried over from older times. There is actually quite a movement about to drop the k-word and use the less ambiguous and insulting “lime leaf”. I have included the descriptive “makrut”, since it is another, and as far as I know inoffensive, term for this species of Southeast Asian citrus tree. It’s name be scandalous, but the aromas it is capable of producing are incomparable. The waxy leaves contain a large amount of chemicals called terpenes that are highly fragrant and range from sweet smelling to woody. Makrut lime leaves in particular contain large amounts of citronellal which you may recognise if you have ever spent a summer evening defending yourself from bitey, winged picnic invaders. While many commercial insect repellants include concentrated citronellal, Thai people reach for a lime leaf before a can of OFF!, simultaneously driving away the pests and popping together lunch. The combination of citronellal, the lemon-scented limonene, and small amounts of nerol and other terpenes compose a deep citrus melody that is impossible to find otherwise. They can be found in many Asian markets as dark, fresh green leaves, or sold in specialty markets as khaki coloured dried leaves.
The curry paste can be prepared in advance and stores well in the fridge for up to two weeks. Once you are ready to make the final dish simply spoon out the required amount and save the rest for a soup or marinade. In our house it never goes to waste!
1 stalk of lemongrass
1 inch piece galangal (optional)
1 inch piece ginger
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 piece tamarind fruit pulp (or use 2 tsp paste)
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp shrimp paste (optional)
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cumin
4 makrut (kaffir) lime leaves (or substitute for 2 tsp grated lime rind)
3 tbsp coconut cream
1-2 red chilis (as hot as you can stand)
1 tbsp palm sugar (or substitute for light muscovado sugar)
1/2 tsp rice vinegar
1 green onion
3 cloves garlic
2 tbsp water
Remove the skin and seeds from the tamarind. Chop the lemon grass, galangal, ginger, and garlic into medium sized pieces and combine them in a blender with the rest of the ingredients. Blend for a good minute or more, adding water if needed, until a thick, highly aromatic paste is obtained. Store in the fridge.
For the final dish
500 g of beef (as good a quality cut as you want to use)
2 tbsp peanut butter
a large handful of Thai (spicy) basil
2 tbsp ground nut oil
1 tbsp palm sugar
5 tbsp red curry paste
4 tbsp water
6 tbsp coconut cream
Cut the beef into thin, 2-4 centimetre slices and heat the ground nut oil (peanut oil is fine) in a large, deep frying pan. Cook the beef on high heat to brown both sides with a flavourful Maillard reaction – about five minutes. Remove the beef with tongs or a slotted spoon and set aside.
Add the curry paste to the hot pan and fry for 30 seconds. Now throw in the palm sugar and continue heating for another minute before adding the beef and the rest of the ingredients to the curry. Cover and cook on low to medium heat for 2 hours or until the beef is tender and the flavours have mellowed. Salt to taste and top with extra basil and hot pepper (for the bravest of you).
Is it as authentic as promised?