Forget all you have ever heard about scallops having a fragile taste or being easily spoilt by strong and hot seasoning. This fiery dish, bursting with bold flavours – like every Thai curry – proves exactly the opposite. After years of eating my beloved mollusc prepared in various ways, I can say without hesitation this is by far my favourite scallop dish.
I have found this jewel of a recipe in David Thompson’s Thai Food, a beautifully edited, high-quality cookery book I have been reading and testing for the last few months. Until now, I have only posted Squid Salad (a dream treat for squid lovers), but all the other dishes I tried proved also fantastic and highly superior to what I have ever had in any Thai restaurant. These results are not accidental: they are obtained thanks to the use of genuine fresh ingredients and, in the case of curries, a homemade paste is the crucial reason of the stunning difference. This scallop curry is the perfect example of the elegance and sophistication only a homemade paste can yield.
Even though David Thompson has completely changed my way to see the Thai cuisine (for example I will never even consider using a commercial curry paste), I must confess I do not follow all his recommendations… I do not prepare fresh coconut milk, as the author urges everyone to do, and I allow myself to reduce significantly the fat content in coconut milk/cream – based curries. Served in my house as the main course with rice and some vegetables, they are much too rich and, anyway, it’s an old habit of mine to lighten dishes as long as they remain delicious. In this recipe, I have also used more scallops (and in general indicated this recipe, normally for four, as serving two, since I have it only with rice and vegetable side dish, which is less than a typical Thai meal). Even though I’m a coriander fan, I didn’t like it here; sliced makrut lime leaves and chilli seemed a sufficient “fresh touch” at the end. For the original recipe, check David Thompson’s wonderful book.
TIPS: Since every curry paste I prepared was different from the previous one, every ingredient is of a high importance and cannot be skipped, so if you embark on a curry paste making adventure (though, since it takes me about 5 minutes, I don’t know if “adventure” is the right word), make sure you have ALL the required products. You will be thrilled to recognise them, afterwards, one by one in the finished dish.
I am able to buy all the fresh ingredients necessary for Thai pastes in Asian grocery shops and I know these are available in many European countries, so I hope you can get those in your city too. (Some can be sold frozen, for example makrut lime leaves).
Curry paste can be prepared in a mortar (an optimal solution, apparently) or quicker and easier in a food processor (I use a small baby food mixer). The author recommends to add some water (not coconut milk; see below), which makes it easier to obtain a smoother paste.
This recipe will yield more paste than necessary; the remains can be stored in the fridge for several days and then used once more (I experiment with other ingredients). Do not add coconut milk to the paste before refrigerating because it will spoil quicker.
Do not freeze the remaining curry paste! You will completely spoil its aroma and texture.
I have realised that – purists might criticise me here – certain Thai ingredients freeze quite well (though they lose some of their aroma, so I advise using a bit more of these; I usually use 50% more makrut lime leaves for example). I have been freezing makrut lime leaves, grachai, galangal (this one loses quite a lot in the process, but is still acceptable), coriander roots and fresh pepper corns. Do not freeze homemade curry paste, Thai basil or coriander leaves. Frozen ingredients are obviously better than no ingredients at all and definitely better than dried ones (do not even try to dry makrut lime leaves).
Preparation: about 40 minutes
Ingredients (serves two):
5-8 dried long hot red chillies (deseeded, soaked until soft in warm water and drained)
a big pinch of salt
5 thickish slices of galangal
4 tablespoons chopped garlic
3 tablespoons chopped lemongrass (remove the outer tough leaves, the upper 1/3 of the stalk and also the lowest toughest small bit)
3 tablespoons chopped red shallot
1 tablespoon chopped coriander root
10 white peppercorns
1 heaped teaspoon roasted shrimp paste
14-16 scallops (depending on the size and your appetite, of course)
500 ml (about 2 cups) coconut cream (I have used only 250 ml coconut milk instead)
1 tablespoon palm sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
250 ml stock (or coconut milk; I have used homemade chicken stock because I prefer a cleaner taste)
4 makrut (also known as kafir) lime leaves, thinly sliced (I always remove the central vein)
1 tablespoon thick coconut cream
1 fresh red chilli, sliced
(coriander leaves, torn; I don’t like their presence here, so I have skipped them the second time I prepared this curry)
Prepare the paste, grinding all the ingredients in a mortar or mixing in a food processor, adding some water in order to obtain a more or less smooth paste (see the tips above).
Heat the coconut cream (or milk, if you opt for a lighter version), add 3 tablespoons of the paste (mine were well heaped) and stir-fry for about 5 minutes.
Add the sugar, the fish sauce, the stock (or coconut milk) and let it simmer until it thickens.
Add the scallops and 2 sliced makrut lime leaves.
Let the scallops simmer until they become opaque (if they are not completely covered in liquid, you might have to flip them once).
Taste the seasoning and adjust so that the flavours are at the same time salty, hot and fragrant thanks to the makrut leaves.
Serve the individual portions or on a serving plate, sprinkle with the fresh chilli, the remaining sliced makrut leaves and coriander, if using.
(Refrigerate the remaining paste for several days and use it with other ingredients.)