As many foreign Thai cuisine fans I am impressed by the number of ingredients used in every curry, not to mention the mystery of their combinations. I keep on wondering how the cooks cited by David Thompson in Thai Food (THE book to buy if you are seriously interested in this cuisine) decided on the composition of a curry. First of all, the items used to create numerous pastes, but also herbs, roots and other condiments. In this curry I had no doubts at least about the presence of fresh peppercorns: not only do they go perfectly with the paste and the remaining ingredients, but, most of all, they are ideally suited for pork.
In fact, if it hadn’t been for this curry I would have probably never discovered fresh peppercorns. Until very recently, each time I saw them I assumed it was another exotic vegetable I had no idea how to use… I had known pickled green peppercorns for long years (I suppose they are popular in many Western countries), but would never suspect the grape-like clustered grains to be the raw version of what we buy bottled! Now that I think how much I love the very popular French pork pâté with pickled green peppercorns, I shouldn’t be surprised I have appreciated so much the Thai combination of tenderloin with fresh ones.
I’m not a peppercorn specialist and I’m sure you can find detailed information on Wikipedia, but for those who have doubts: black, white and green peppercorns are exactly the same fruit of the same plant. They are simply processed (or not, in case of raw ones) in a different way. It’s a bit like black and green olives or green and black tea…
As usually, I tried to follow the recipe as closely as possible, but, as always, I have seriously cut down on coconut milk and cream because of the taste (I simply preferred a less rich, sharper version ) and for dietary reasons (just like I try to cut down fat in many Western dishes). Another thing I do is thicken most curries; they end up still liquid, but not as soupy as they probably are in Thailand. I have also doubled the amount of meat and adapted the ingredients to a dish for two. I have used pork tenderloin and its use forced me to change a part of the cooking process. You can use any cut you prefer, but if you have a fatter or/and tougher pork cut, check David Thompson’s steps to follow (and of course to see his unaltered recipe).
The missing holy basil is the only not intended change. Unfortunately, the only day I had a chance to take the photograph of this particular curry (not obvious during the rare daylight hours I’m at home during the winter…), I didn’t have holy basil, cited in the ingredients list. If you can find it, definitely buy it! (Holy basil, or graprao, is pungent and has green serrated leaves, while the more popular Thai basil is totally different: it has dark violet hues and smells like liquorice or anise seed).
I know some of you cannot find fresh peppercorns (though do not despair! if I find them easily in several shops in my Swiss city, I’m sure you will find it in many other much bigger Western countries; sometimes fresh produce is sold also online, especially in the USA). Look out for Vietnamese, Thai and generally Asian shops (here even a big supermarket for restaurants sells fresh peppercorns in the Thai section) and ask about the ingredients (sometimes they have small batches arriving once a week). Using rinsed pickled green peppers is another solution, though the taste changes a lot (I have seen these sold in several different European countries, so I hope it’s a universally acceptable tip) and I’ve also seen on some blogs the use of dried green peppercorns, but I’d go rather for the pickled version if the fresh ones are impossible to find.
If you cannot find the products to prepare a curry paste, it’s better to buy a ready-to-use one (in this case red curry paste is the right solution) rather than skip such crucial ingredients such as galangal, coriander root or lemongrass. Your dish will end up closer to genuine Thai cuisine. This being said… if you have all but makrut lime zest, skip it. Do not substitute it with the popular lime zest which has a completely different aroma and taste. To be frank, I once forgot this ingredient and the difference in the served dish was tiny… (I will probably get angry looks if a Thai visitor reads my post…).
If you find the curry paste preparation tiresome, you can easily make it the day before (or even several days) and store in the fridge for several days (tightly closed; David Thompson advises to cover it very tightly with plastic film and then to close the jar/box). It can even be frozen (though many people are against it), thought it won’t be as good as freshly made (but still better than store-bought, in my opinion).
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 if you opt for the latter (not coconut milk which would make the leftover paste spoil quicker in the fridge). Water makes it easier to obtain a smoother paste in a food processor.
Coriander root appears practically in every curry paste ingredients list, so it’s a very important product. Thai and Vietnamese shops sell (at least here) coriander with roots, but if you cannot get it, you might ask for roots at any farmers’ market (vendors will be surprised, but you will probably get them for free next time you come!) or buy potted plants (it’s really worth it!) or grown your own coriander or, at worst use the lower parts of stalks, but they will be much much more pungent.
Freezing fresh ingredients
I have realised that – purists might criticise me here – certain Thai ingredients freeze quite well (though they do 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. Frozen ingredients are obviously better than no ingredients at all and definitely better than dried ones.
Special equipment: a mortar and pestle or a small food processor (baby food processor is perfect), coffee/spice grinder (if you don’t use a mortar)
Preparation: about 60 minutes (if you use tenderloin)
about 300 g pork tenderloin in one piece
300 ml coconut milk
2 tablespoons coconut oil (or about 500 ml coconut cream according to the original recipe)
pinch of salt
offcuts from the lemongrass used in the paste
1 teaspoon palm sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2-3 tablespoons green fresh peppercorns
3 makrut (also known as kafir) lime leaves, finely sliced (or more, if you use frozen leaves)
a handful of holy basil (graprao) leaves
1 long red chilli, julienned
6 long dried chillies (or more!)
large pinch of salt
6 tablespoons chopped lemongrass ((remove the outer tough leaves, the upper 1/3 of the stalk and also the lowest toughest small bit, use the offcuts in the “stock” at the beginning)
2 tablespoons chopped coriander roots
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
First prepare the paste.
Soak the chillies for about 15 minutes in warm salted water.
Drain and cut into pieces.
Roast the cumin and the coriander seeds (don’t burn them).
If you intend to use a food processor, grind the cumin and the coriander seeds in a spice or coffee grinder. If you use a mortar, start grinding them in a mortar, adding one by one the remaining paste ingredients, starting from the toughest. If you use a food processor, simply put the ground spices and the remaining ingredients and mix everything, adding water if necessary to make a smooth paste.
Combine 200 ml of the coconut milk, the lemongrass offcuts and the salt.
Boil for about 20 minutes.
Add the pork loin and simmer for about 10 minutes.
Leave to cool in this “stock”.
Remove the cold meat from the stock and cut into bite-sized pieces or slices.
Fry the paste in the coconut oil + the remaining coconut milk (about 100 ml) or in coconut cream for several minutes.
Add the palm sugar and the fish sauce.
Add the pork, the makrut lime leaves, the peppercorns and as much of the coconut “stock” as you need to obtain the desired thickness of the curry.
Just before serving add the holy basil leaves and sprinkle with fresh chilli.
According to the author the curry should taste hot and salty at the same time, so adjust the taste accordingly.