Making Thai Red Curry Paste and How To Use a Mortar and Pestle
This is the first proper post in our new food series A Year of Asian Cookbooks. You can find my introduction to the project here. Is there a better way to start our year-long stint exploring Asian cookbooks than with making Thai red curry paste with a mortar and pestle?
A Thai curry paste made in a mortar and pestle is a pure expression of what we’re trying to achieve this year. No shortcuts. No food processors. No preservatives. Hopefully, just an authentic recipe that is the basis for a delicious dish.
Curries will be a key theme this year, as we’ll be exploring the connections between the different types of curries and curry pastes through Asia.
So why should you make a curry paste from scratch when there are sections of supermarket shelves full of pastes? Well, why make ragu bolognese when it comes in a can? If you actually think that’s okay, I’ll trust you as much as I’ll trust someone who says they cook Asian food yet they don’t own a mortar and pestle.
The only reason to buy a pre-made paste is if you just cannot get all the ingredients and just have to have a Thai curry. Don’t feel bad, they can taste okay, and we certainly know that feeling.
If you have the ingredients, then why not just stick them in a food processor? Because food processors rip things apart, whereas a mortar and pestle pounds a paste until it comes together. The texture is different and the taste is different.
The Thais are generally polite people. Most of them like to make people happy, which is why in most tourist restaurants they’ll make you an anodyne Thai curry light on the chili and heavy on the coconut cream because they think that’s what you want. They’ll also tell you in cookbooks and cooking classes that you can use a food processor to make a curry. They’re just being polite.
Chef Ian Kittichai is Thai and is very polite, as well as very modest, despite running a very successful restaurant empire and producing cooking shows. His flagship Thai restaurant Issaya Siamese Club, located in a wonderful old Bangkok residence, serves up classic Thai dishes based on those his mother used to make, as well as some more innovative fare that keeps the chef’s creative juices flowing.
Chef Kittichai’s classic curries are the real deal, with flavours running rich and deep, and the Matsaman (also called Massaman) curry at his restaurant is phenomenal.
Did I mention that Chef Kittichai is polite? I’m guessing that’s why he’s giving readers the option of using a food processor for his Nam Phrik Kaeng Daeng (Red Curry Paste) recipe in his Issaya Siamese Club cookbook. He does dedicate a full page of this huge glossy cookbook to a visual guide to making the red curry paste in a mortar and pestle, so you can take that as a subtle hint as to what he prefers.
In the cookbook Chef Kittichai has recipes for several classic basic curry pastes, including Matsaman, red and green, but as his red curry paste gets used for several different dishes in the book, I chose this one to start with.
But before we get to Ian’s recipe, I want to consider what other recipes are out there. The results of a quick Google search for ‘thai red curry paste recipes’ revealed a list of crimes against Thai cuisine that ran a few dozen pages long.
Some of the lowlights include using tomato paste (!), substituting ginger for galangal (they may look similar, but they do not taste similar), anchovies from a can (no, that’s not shrimp paste), paprika and “chilli powder from the spice aisle” (really?), and substituting any other kind of lime for Kaffir limes (Kaffir limes and their leaves have a unique aroma).
I also noted that there are many recipes that are reasonably authentic, but add some fresh prik kii nu (bird’s-eye chillies) as well as the dried chillies. It’s actually green curry paste that has fresh green bird’s-eye chillies instead of the dried red finger chillies.
Don’t do it. Particularly if you’re new to the heat level of those little chillies that Chef David Thompson of Nahm Bangkok affectionally calls “scuds”, after the scud missile. It’s way better to use the recipe as is and add the chillies during the cooking process.
Chef Kittichai’s version of the paste is a classic one, very close to David Thompson’s, although Chef Thompson adds a little nutmeg. Having watched David make some curry dishes, I know he also has a few tricks up his sleeve that really jack up the flavour (and the heat level!) before serving.
A couple of quick notes on using a mortar and pestle. The mortar and pestle should be stone — preferably granite. A medium sized one with an inner diameter of around 14cm will be big enough to make a batch of around 250 grams, which is what this recipe is meant to make.
The rule is to always add the dried spices to the mortar first and then the ‘wet’ ingredients. Save the shallots until last as they will be very watery and make it hard to form a good paste. While this recipe does add dry then wet ingredients, it’s not explicitly explained why.
The correct action in using the pestle is not pounding straight down, but angling the pestle and contacting the side of the mortar, dragging the ingredients down into the centre, where you give a little twist and lift to start again.
To keep the mortar stable, I put a damp tea towel down, then a wooden cutting board on top, another damp tea towel and then the mortar.
The paste will take a while to come together. You’re meant to grind until you can’t recognise individual ingredients, such as the Kaffir lime leaves, but I usually fall a little shy of that (as you can see in the photo).
Many home-cooks say they use a shop-bought curry paste because they’re time-poor, yet it really only takes me about 15-20 minutes to make a paste in a mortar and pestle. And I have to say the process is actually therapeutic. I like the sound and the rhythm and the aromas that emanate from the mortar.
The resulting paste blows away any store-bought pastes and once you’ve made this, the process to make a finished red curry is quite simple — as you’ll see in the next post of the series.
Nam Phrik Kaeng Daeng (Red Curry Paste)
Recipe by Ian Kittichai from the Issaya Siamese Club Cookbook used here with permission.
Makes 250 grams*
6 g coriander seeds
6 g cumin seeds
12 g coarse sea salt
2 g white peppercorns
15 g dried red finger chilli peppers (soak in water for one hour and then squeeze the water out)
80 g lemongrass, finely sliced
20 g shallots, finely chopped
15 g garlic cloves
10 g galangal, finely sliced
2 g lime zest, grated**
1 g Kaffir lime leaves, veins removed and finely chopped
20 g Thai shrimp paste
1 section banana leaf (substitution: aluminium foil)
- In a dry pan, combine coriander seeds, cumin seeds, coarse sea salt and white peppercorns and cook over moderate heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Place the spices in a mortar and finely grind or use a food processor and blend until smooth. Add dried finger chilli peppers, lemongrass, shallots, garlic cloves, galangal, lime zest and kaffir lime leaves and finely grind.
- Wrap shrimp paste in a section of banana leaf and roast the parcel in a frying pan for one minute on each side. Remove shrimp paste from the parcel and set aside. Aluminium foil can be used instead of a section of banana leaf.
- Add shrimp paste (to the curry paste) and finely grind until smooth.
- Curry (paste) can be stood in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
* I made this curry paste twice this week and only achieved a batch of around 180 grams. I’m going to blame my cheap digital scales purchased in Siem Reap.
** Clearly chef Kittichai implies Kaffir lime zest here.
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