It’s probably a little too soon in our Year of Asian Cookbooks project for me to be confused by a recipe, but here we are. In my first recipe I tamed the mortar and pestle to prepare a classic Thai Red Curry Paste or Nam Phrik Kaeng Daeng. Using that, I’m now making an authentic, traditional Thai Phanaeng Nua Beef Panang Curry recipe, which you’ll also see called Penang Curry. Don’t worry, it’s the same delicious dish.
Named after the island of Penang in northern Malaysia, just over Thailand’s southern border, the curry paste for an authentic Thai Penang curry usually has different ingredients to a Thai red curry. Most notably, less – if any – shrimp paste and often with the addition of nutmeg and peanuts, sometimes in the paste, but more commonly sprinkled over the dish.
So to get to the bottom of this, I went straight to the top, to Thai Chef Ian Kittichai, whose Issaya Siamese Club book I am currently cooking from, to seek some clarification.
“In this book I use red curry paste as a base or ‘mother paste’ for the ease of home cooking,” Chef Kittichai explained. “An example of this is if you add tamarind and palm sugar with some cooked fish, the red curry paste base becomes a type of gaeng som curry…”
It makes practical sense, as the next couple of dishes I’m cooking also use the red curry paste as a ‘mother paste’, a nice take by chef Kittichai on the French concept of the ‘mother sauce’, where all French sauces are derived from five sauces: Béchamel, Espagnole, Hollandaise, Tomato and Velouté.
In some ways, this also reminds me of Cambodian cuisine, which has a basic kroeung (paste) with galangal, lemongrass and turmeric as the base, then other herbs and spices are added depending on the recipe.
Regarding the use of peanuts, Chef Kittichai said “I never puts peanuts in my Phanaeng curry as it is then like a version of a satay sauce because it is so thick. Some recipes call for peanuts, but I prefer to not use peanuts.”
The chef also advised that he doesn’t use nutmeg (a personal choice) and that most curry pastes (including Phanaeng) do contain shrimp paste.
I also asked him about the characteristics of a traditional Phanaeng curry, which he agreed is a ‘dry’ curry and one of the sweetest curries in Thai cooking. I suspect it’s that last point – that lack of serious heat – that makes the Panang Curry so appealing to Westerners.
The dish itself is quite easy to make, so if you’ve made a batch of curry paste over a weekend, this is a great, fresh and lively mid-week curry to do.
I love the fact that Chef Kittichai uses short ribs and while they’re more fiddly to tackle when you eat, the fact it’s a drier curry makes it a little easier to grab those bones and chow down.
Both beef ribs and pork ribs are revered in Thai and Chinese cooking. In Sydney if I wanted good ribs I had go to my favourite Chinatown butcher shop to get them.
How good does this dish taste? Well, I made this it three times, once using pork ribs purely because they’re better than the beef ribs here in Siem Reap and we had another menu we wanted to use them in (more on that soon).
This is a rich, velvety dish, with the consistency of a great Indian semi-dry curry and the real depth of flavour you expect from simmering the curry paste.
A couple of quick tips…
If you can, at all, get fresh coconut milk. Even if you have to make it yourself (and I’ll cover that soon), just do it. As long as you accept that you’re now cursed, as canned coconut milk will never taste the same again.
I never add all the fish sauce or the palm sugar at once. I usually add half the amounts and gradually add the rest until I’m happy with the balance of flavours. This is particularly important with the fish sauce which not only varies from brand to brand, but also from batch to batch of the same brand.
While MegaChef isn’t the best Thai fish sauce ever, it has a good clean flavour, no preservatives or MSG, and best of all, it’s consistent in sodium levels, which is why we’re always spotting it in the best kitchens in Thailand when we’re interviewing and photographing chefs.
Only use kaffir lime leaves. They are one of my favourite Asian ingredients ever. Leave them out of the dish and you have a car with three wheels.
Pea eggplants. We’ve been eating them in Thai food for a couple of dozen years but I still don’t get them, but they do add texture to a dish that has no other vegetables. They do, however, work for me in a Cambodian dish that I’ve scheduled for this series, but I don’t know any non-Asian people that actually enjoy these bitter little green balls. Sorry.
And that water that you simmered the beef in? Don’t waste it. You’re on your way to a usable white beef stock with that. You can freeze it and use it another time – even to make a richer version of this dish…
Phanaeng Nua or Beef Panang Curry
Recipe by Ian Kittichai from the Issaya Siamese Club Cookbook used here with permission.
1 l water or beef stock
1 kg beef short ribs
40 g Nam Phrik Kaeng Daeng or Red Curry Paste
200 ml coconut milk
45 ml fish sauce
45 g palm sugar
20 g pea eggplants
1 g kaffir lime leaves, veins removed and torn into halves
1 g red finger chilli peppers, deseeded and julienned
1. In a pot, bring water to a boil. Add beef short ribs and reduce to simmer for an hour until tender. Set aside.
2. Heat a frying pan over medium heat, add the vegetable oil and the Nam Phrik Kaeng Daeng (Red Curry Paste). Simmer and stir until brown for 15 to 20 minutes.
3. Stir in coconut milk and bring to the boil.
4. Add fish sauce, palm sugar, cooked ribs, pea eggplants, kaffir lime leaves and bring to a boil again.
5. Ladle into bowls and garnish with red finger chilli peppers.
6. Serve with steamed jasmine rice on the side.
Issaya Siamese Club
Chuea Phloeng Rd
Sathon, Bangkok, Thailand
+66 2 672 9040