A few weeks ago I had decided that I wanted Thai food.
In particular, I wanted proper Phanaeng (aka Panang) curry, and I wanted to cook it myself.
So, with that goal in mind, we (that being myself and a Thai classmate from my Swedish course) went to the local Thai supermarket for various Southeast Asian food supplies. Yes, I know regular Western supermarkets have them these days too, but neither the price nor quality compare. Not to mention that the regular supermarkets flat-out don’t have some things, which even in my non-Thai view, are essential – such as frozen gyoza wrappers or fresh or frozen kaffir lime leaves (no, dry ones don’t do it for me, and neither should they for you if you are after that good-Thai-restaurant flavor).
I find it interesting that a lof of Westerners (I use the term loosely and as opposed to Thai or other Southeast Asian people here, i.e. those who know about this sort of food from home kitchens) consider Southeast Asian food a bit of a mystery, despite loving it and eating in frequently in restaurants. (I also consider it a bit of a mystery that after eating at some of those restaurants they still love it, but that’s a point aside…) Yet, despite loving the food, very few ever learn how to make it, and most (that I’ve talked to) consider it both, complicated and difficult.
Truth be told, that while there are dishes in every cuisine which challenge even renowned chefs, most of the food you’d get served in a Thai restaurant is not that difficult to make at home, nor are the ingredients unobtainable in major cities throughout EU or North America. And, if you have trouble getting to one of the major cities, they are even available (as is everything) for online ordering. But, to keep in line with where I was going – Thai curries are easy. And, we were going to the Oriental supermarket to buy supplies. Why? Because, as anyone who had tried to cook Thai curry from the packets or pastes bought in a Western shop has discovered, they just don’t taste the same as the stuff they’ve had in that nice Thai restaurant.
Unsurprisingly, people then assume that they are missing out on some far-Eastern secret and give up, resigning to the supermarket route for their fix – and they really, really don’t need to. The solution to the authentic and rich taste is simple – do as the Thai do, not as the supermarket packets say.
How do the Thai do? Well, the ones I know here in Stockholm, and the Thai acquaintances in the USA, would buy a bucket of the real, strong and concentrated Thai curry paste (Mae Ploy brand is commonly imported and has no artificial colors, flavors or MSG or MPG and it keeps forever in the fridge), and then invest in fresh vegetables and greens, which is what really imparts the distinct flavor of Southeast Asian dishes: fresh galangal rhizomes and lemongrass stalks, chili peppers, and fresh or frozen Kaffir lime leaves. No, I would not substitute dry versions for any of these. If pressed, I might sub ginger for galangal, but the flavor would be different then.
I returned from the Oriental supermarket victorious, bearing frozen gyoza wrappers (not for the curry, but I will give them their due and speak of them another time), a bucket of Mae Ploy Panang curry paste, a packet of frozen lime leaves, and fresh galangal and lemongrass. From the sauce isle, I got a bottle of rice vinegar, a bottle of fish sauce aka Nam Pla (it’s cheaper there than in regular supermarkets, and probably fresher, having a likely higher turnaround rate), and a bottle of toasted sesame oil (not for curry, but the aforementioned reasons apply to it as well).
The remainder of the ingredients could be easily purchased from a regular supermarket – full-fat coconut milk in a can, prawns, fresh coriander leaves, a lime and Thai Jasmine rice.
The how-to for this Tiger Prawn Panang Curry is simpler than one’d think, but for easyness’ sake, I recommend cutting up all greens in advance and defrosting the prawns (especially if they aren’t deveined and you need to cut their backs and devein them before the cooking).
Ingredients: (serves 3, or 2 very hungry people)
- Jasmine rice (cooked or steamed, to serve)
- 300g raw (fresh or defrosted) tiger prawns – deveined. Shell on (but if you prefer neater eating, you can use shelled prawns)
- 1-3 tablespoons of Panang curry paste (the real, thick thing – Mae Ploy or other brand such as Peacock, you pick – but, please please don’t be tempted to use the soupy jarred stuff like this!)
- 1 can full-fat coconut milk
- 1 cup (about 250ml) prepared vegetables of your choice. I like bite-sized paprika, sliced green onions, but you can use whatever you like
- 1 stalk lemongrass, washed, trimmed and sliced crosswise into 1-mm thick slices.
- 5-6 kaffir lime leaves, defrosted or fresh, chiffonaded
- 4-5cm piece of galangal, cleaned and trimmed, then sliced into thin slivers or slices
- Fish Sauce – to taste
- 2 teaspoons brown sugar or palm sugar
- Juice of 1 lime
- 1 red chili or 1 birdeye chili, seeded and chopped (optional, to taste)
- A handful of chopped fresh coriander leaves, to garnish (optional, and can be skipped if you – like some people – dislike fresh coriander)
- Prepare all ingredients (wash, dry, devein, drain, chop, as needed). Set aside in bowls. This step simplifies the entirety of the process immensely – if you are new to curry, don’t be tempted to cut-as-you-go. That way lies burnt curry.
- Cook rice according to package directions or your rice cooker directions if you have one of those. Cover and keep it warm.
- Heat a large heavy-bottomed pot or deep pan on medium heat.
- Open the coconut milk can without shaking and spoon some of the thick or solid portion of the milk (coconut fat that floated up on top) into the pan and let it melt.
- Spoon your curry paste into the pan and mash it into the coconut oil with a wooden spoon, then fry gently until it softens and releases aroma.
- Add remaining coconut milk to the pan, along with sugar, galangal, lemongrass, chili (if using) and 2/3 of the kaffir lime leaf strips. (Reserve remaining 1/3 of the leaves for garnish.)
- Bring to a gentle simmer and add the vegetables. Stir.
- Slowly add fish sauce – 1 tablespoon to start, then stir in and keep adding until the sauce is salty enough for you. You can add a little sugar to taste as well.
- Cook until vegetables are just about ready, then add the prawns and stir them in. Prawns cook very quickly and will be ready in just a few minutes – once they are opaque, shells are bright red, and the prawns are curling up some. On average, this takes about 5-6 minuges, but it will depend on the size of your prawns (smaller ones will obviously cook faster).
- Once prawns are cooked and the curry is simmerling gently, take it off heat and add lime juice little by little, stirring and tasting after each addition – again, to taste. Stir in chopped coriander leaves (if using).
- Ladle into bowls, garnish with remaining kaffir lime leaf strips and serve with rice.
In my experience, depending on how long it takes to chop/prepare all the ingredients, the actual cooking normally takes 30 minutes or less total. All in all, faster than phoning up a local Thai takeout and getting the food from there – and (unless you are really lucky with your Thai takeout!) one heck of a lot fresher and better, if I do say so myself!
Note: I would like to thank my friend Maneewan for helping me out with some of the selections and recipe tips.