I credit my father for introducing me to Thai cuisine. As a young child, my first taste of Thai food was from this restaurant called Flavors of Thai. It was the 80’s and Thai cuisine was all the rage in Manila! From my first sip of tom yum gung (hot-and-sour soup), to the stringy mess of my phad Thai (Thai classic noodles), to the last bite of kluay kaeg tod (banana fritters), I was addicted!
When I was starting my cookbook collection back in 1995, I bought a book called True Thai by Victor Sodsook, Theresa Volpe Laursen, and Byron Laursen (published by William Morrow and Company, 1995). I found the recipes contained therein to be a no-shortcut way to authentic Thai food. It became my window into that exciting and colourful cuisine! You should know that there are no delicious coloured photos in that cookbook, but boy-oh-boy, when you follow the recipes, you will be rewarded with the most phenomenal dishes! That book is my Thai food bible, and if I ever lose it...ahh, I don’t even want to think about that!
So, follow me to today’s recipe: Thai Red Curry Chicken. The chicken can be replaced with shrimp, beef, or just veggies – it’s the Thai red curry paste that is the hero of this recipe, which I lifted from True Thai cookbook. I didn’t change a thing from the original (please endeavour to remain faithful to the ingredients when you make this), because it’s been tried and tested…and it has been found worthy!
On that note, there’s nothing wrong with using store-bought curry pastes for busy home cooks like you and me. But once in a while I like – and maybe you like it also – to make something special from scratch. So if you find yourself with an afternoon free, why not try to make this?
Homemade and handcrafted curry pastes are far more superior than store-bought ones because of the deep, complex, and enriched layers of flavour they produce. When you take the time to dry-roast, toast, and grind your own fresh spices and herbs, the result is a profoundly robust paste that none of the pre-made ones can live up to. I promise.
- ~~ For the red curry paste ~~
- 3 oz (85 g) dried red New Mexico or Guajillo chilies
- 12 small dried Japanese red chilies
- 1 tablespoon whole coriander seed
- 1½ tablespoons shrimp paste (kapi), wrapped neatly in a layer of thick aluminum foil
- ¾ cup (230 g) shallots, roughly chopped
- ½ cup (155 g) peeled whole garlic
- ½ tablespoon fresh or frozen Kaffir lime peel or domestic lime peel
- 2 large stalks lemongrass, tough outer leaves discarded, lower stalks trimmed, and finely sliced
- ⅓ cup (100 g) finely chopped peeled fresh Siamese ginger (galanga or kha) or common ginger
- ~~ For the chicken ~~
- 1 large can (19 oz / 560 ml) unsweetened coconut milk
- 1 cup (8 oz / 235 ml) Thai red curry paste (above)
- 1 pound (454 g) boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut crosswise into ¼-inch thick slices
- 10 pieces (5 pairs) fresh or frozen Kaffir lime leaves (bai magroot) or strips of peel from 1 small lime
- 1 red bell pepper, julienned
- 3 tablespoons coconut-palm sugar or golden brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce (nam pla)
- 1 cup loosely packed Thai basil (bai horapha) or purple basil or Italian basil
- 1 cup loosely packed Thai basil
- cilantro sprigs
- To make the red curry paste, first use kitchen shears or a knife to remove the seeds and the tough, dry ribs of the chilies. Wear gloves to protect your fingers.
- Put all the chilies in a bowl and soak in lukewarm water for 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, dry-roast the coriander seed in a small skillet over medium heat for 3 to 5 minutes, until toasty and aromatic, shaking the pan often to prevent burning. Set aside the coriander seed.
- Set the skillet back over medium heat. Place the foil-wrapped shrimp paste in the skillet and cook for about 5 minutes, until aromatic, turning the packet once or twice. Remove packet from skillet and set aside to cool.
- Combine the shallots and garlic in the skillet and dry-roast over medium heat until tender and slightly browned, about 5 minutes, stirring often. Remove from pan and set aside to cool.
- Put the coriander seed in a large, heavy mortar and smash to a coarse powder. Transfer the ground coriander to the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade.
- Combine the minced lime peel, lemongrass, ginger in the mortar and pound for a minute or so to break down the fibers. Transfer the crushed mixture to the food processor.
- Transfer the shallots and garlic to the food processor.
- Unwrap the shrimp paste and add it to the food processor.
- Drain the chilies, reserving about ½ cup of the soaking liquid. Add the chilies to the food processor.
- Process the ingredients until a rich, moist paste forms. Stop occasionally to scrape down the sides of the work bowl. Add a few tablespoons of the chili-soaking liquid now and then, if needed, to ease the grinding.
- The paste can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 1 month, or in the freezer for up to 3 months. Makes about 2 cups of paste.
- To make the chicken, skim the thick cream from the top of the canned coconut milk into a soup pot, reserving the thin milk. Set the pot over medium heat.
- Stir in the red curry paste until blended with the coconut cream, and bring to a low boil. Cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes.
- Increase the heat to medium-high and add the chicken. Cook for 1 minute, stirring occasionally.
- Add the reserved coconut milk, and cook for 1 minute, stirring often.
- Tear each kafffir lime leaf in half and add to the pot. Or if using lime peel, simply add it to the pot at this point. Lower heat to medium.
- Add the red bell pepper and cook for 1 minute, stirring occasionally.
- Add the sugar and fish sauce, stirring until dissolved and blended.
- Simmer, covered, for 3 minutes. Turn heat off and stir in the basil and cook for a few seconds.
- Garnish with snipped cilantro sprigs. Serve hot.