I am very proud to share with you my first improvised Thai curry paste! Since I started to cook from Thai Food by David Thompson, making curry pastes from the scratch, I realised how sophisticated they were and thought it must be terribly difficult – if not impossible – to create one on my own. Last week I realised this step was the only solution to my big Thai leftovers problem. Actually, almost all the fresh produce I buy for the curries comes pre-packaged, I never use everything in one cooking session, so the leftovers have been accumulating in my freezer. I am able to use some of them in the following recipe, but then I have to buy something else too, which I don’t use at 100%, and so on…. A vicious circle I finally started to break last week with a totally improvised curry paste, mixing some of the fridge’s and freezer’s contents (though I still have a long way to empty my big “Thai” ziplock bag!). It wasn’t totally random and my short experience with David Thompson’s recipes was extremely helpful, of course. I have included the staples (lemongrass and dried chillies), made sure to add some of the curry ingredients I’m particularly fond of, such as galangal, shrimp paste and dried spices which I had learnt I love in Thai curries. I also had some fresh turmeric in the fridge, so it went into the paste too. And all this assembling process worked perfectly! My first free-style curry paste was certainly better than any store-bought and I will even dare saying I liked it as much as some of my favourite pastes from David Thompson’s book. I wouldn’t advise doing it if you have never made a curry paste from a real Thai recipe, but if you have at least a short experience and are intimidated by the idea of creating your own paste, just like I used to be, give it a try!
TIPS: I haven’t indicated any amounts because I haven’t weighed or measured anything. I chose the ingredients in amounts I considered correct, then adjusted the flavours after mixing everything and that was it. Talking about the amounts…I have a warning: be very careful with fresh turmeric! If you add too much of it, the curry will be horribly astringent. Don’t skip the gloves while handling it.
If you cannot find all the ingredients, do not try to replace them; look for what you have in stock and what you can buy in your Thai grocery shop (or online, I’ve seen some online shops selling fresh Thai produce in the USA, for example). Some of them can also be found in organic shops (for example fresh turmeric or lemongrass).
The quickest way to use this paste : I warm some coconut milk, add the required amount of paste and, when it starts boiling, add the meat and/or vegetables together with torn kaffir lime leaves. I sometimes add discarded tough parts of lemongrass (I remove them before serving), some more coconut milk or stock (or half of both, depending on how rich you want it to be). I let the curry simmer and add the fish sauce to taste at the end. I sprinkle with very finely cut fresh kaffir lime leaves (I eat them in this form). I’m recently hooked on thick Thai rice noodles and use them in curries instead of rice.
Coriander roots: in Thai grocery shops coriander (cilantro) is sold in bunches together with roots (some general Asian shops sell it this way too, here for example I buy it in a Vietnamese shop). If you don’t have such a grocery shop, go to the farmers market and ask fresh coriander vendors if they would mind selling you next time roots too (coriander is an annual plant, so they don’t need the roots for the next season anyway). You can also buy potted coriander and keep the roots (they freeze quite well) or sow the seeds and grow your own coriander, of course. Some say coriander roots can be replaced with coriander stalks, but I think it’s really the desperate move because the stalks are much more pungent.
Fresh kaffir lime leaves are sometimes difficult to find, but many grocery shops sell them frozen (I don’t advise the dried form: they lose about 90% of their aroma or more). Another way to have them is to buy a kaffir lime tree! I have three small ones, have been keeping them indoors for several years and use the leaves whenever I need (before cutting off the leaves/branches, check online or ask a specialist how to do it in order to boost the growth of the plant).
This curry paste will keep for about a week in the fridge. You can also freeze it in individual portions (though David Thompson advises against it; I agree it’s not as good as the fresh one, but it’s still delicious enough for me and helps me to have a 15-minute Thai curry ready at any moment!).
Special equipment: If you are happy to work with a mortar, then you don’t need any appliance. Otherwise it’s useful to invest in the cheapest coffee grinder and use it only for dry spices (I use one when cooking Indian all the time).
A good food processor which mixes also tiny amounts of food is very handy here. Mine mixes small amounts but still leaves the paste a bit chunky (I don’t mind it too much, but if you want to achieve a smooth paste, like the store-bought, you might want to invest in a very powerful food processor).
Preparation: about 20 minutes
fresh lemon grass
dried red chilli peppers
Thai fermented shrimp paste
Soak the red peppers in warm water.
In the meantime roast the coriander and the cumin seeds at low heat.
Grind them in a coffee grinder (I have a cheap one used only for spices) or crush in a mortar together with white peppercorns.
Cut off the tough upper part and the tough lower part of lemongrass. Remove the outer dry leaves (don’t throw them away; they add a wonderful flavour to curries and soups) and chop finely.
Chop finely the galangal.
Cut up roughly the shallots.
Peel and chop finely the turmeric.
Crush some shrimp paste with a fork.
When the chillies have softened, put them into a food processor together with the remaining ingredients and mix well.
Add water if necessary (I always need to add some liquid with my food processor, but if you have a very good one it might not be necessary) and some salt.
Taste and add more ingredients if necessary.