Jan 21

Monday Memories: Love at First Click of the Camera

Carving at Phnom Kulen, Cambodia.

The clouds had been threatening all morning, but with a few commissions with tight deadlines for stories on our trip to Phnom Kulen (Mount Kulen) we had no choice but to keep riding through the jungle so I could photograph the ruins of the so-called lost city of Mahendraparvata in northern Cambodia, a few hour’s drive from Siem Reap.

We had bought some heavy duty rain ponchos – not the plastic one dollar ones – and as I finished photographing the carving, above, the heavens opened up. I quickly donned the thick poncho and tucked my camera beneath it for our slippery motorcycle ride to the next set of ruins, flying through mud and puddles at a crazy pace.

Already realising that these photos were probably only going to work in black and white, I was wondering how the hell we were going to tell the newspapers and magazines that things had not gone to schedule due to the rain.

With the wet season having just started, the chances of a dry day again, before the ‘tracks’ (barely living up to the label in most places) became virtually impassable for a few months, were slim.

As we arrived at one of the most significant ruins, the clouds rolled off and the weather quickly changed, and, so I thought, had my luck. Sweaty poncho off, I reached for my favourite trusty Nikon D700, which immediately gave me a memory card error. Then a low battery error. Then nothing.

Given that we had a team of locals here to help us get our photos, I didn’t want to panic or start swearing like a drunken sailor. I calmly changed the battery and memory cards as some kind of offering to my faithful friend that had seen more countries in the last four years than most braggart travel bloggers see in a lifetime.

But the camera was dead as a door nail. Of course, on an assignment like this you always have a backup and I quickly changed lenses and put the dead D700 away. I was too busy for the rest of the day to mourn the loss of something that really was just pieces of circuit board, metal, plastic, and rubber.

That being said, that camera was love at first click. While I have used everything from large format Toyo Views, medium format Mamiyas and Bronicas, 35mm Canons, Pentax cameras, and Nikons, the D700 was the first digital camera that had soul to me.

After using larger pro 35mm cameras for years, the D700 also felt more natural in the hand and was far less conspicuous, which is handy when you don’t want to look like a pro photojournalist.

In many ways it reminded me of my favourite 35mm film camera, the Nikon F100. Pro enough, but smaller, and also way less expensive than the top of the line models.

The most impressive thing about the D700 was the remarkably high ISO capabilities – even when shooting at 3200ISO I loved the way the grain looked, with an almost film-like feel.

It had its faults, however. The viewfinder did not have 100% coverage, meaning that your framing was actually 5% larger than it appeared in the viewfinder. The battery door and memory cards were flimsy. The rubber grip parts fell off the camera in record time. The white balance sometimes went completely kooky.

Also, I realised I wanted video, the viewfinder started to bug me, and the sensor at 12.1 megapixels was seen as a little stingy by some art directors used to cropping the hell out of images made with Canon’s 5D MKII with 21.1 megapixels – nearly twice that of my D700.

But there was something about that camera – the size and the image quality and just the right set of compromises that spoke to me.

Nikon made some good choices with that camera, which is more than I can say for the newer models, with the D600 having too many compromises and the D800 just overkill (36 megapixels) for most users, and not as good a street camera as the D700.

Although that particular D700 has been declared dead and I’ve moved on, it still sits on a shelf at home, having shot a whopping 294,401 images. Even though I know the newer cameras have even better sensors (if not the perfect fit that the D700 had in my hands) I occasionally stick a battery into its battered body and flick the on switch, just in case.

You can never have too many backup cameras, particularly ones that felt they had a little soul. Disappointed with Nikon’s latest offerings – and poor official response to problems with the D600, maybe it’s time I looked at Fuji and fall in love at first click again…

Jan 16

Making a Traditional Thai Phanaeng Nua Beef Panang Curry Recipe

Thai Beef Panang Curry

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.

Serves 4

Ingredients
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

Directions
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
www.issaya.com

Next up: Gaeng Hang Lay Moo, a Northern Thai pork belly curry.

Jan 15

Lessons on the Road, Educational Travel and Learning Holidays

A student in a village outside of Siem Reap attends a class supported by an NGO.

I travel to learn. I think I’ve always travelled to learn – to learn about places and about people, to learn about the past and the present, to learn about the world. For me, learning holidays and educational travel are the most enriching forms of travel. They are what motivate me to move and represent the kind of travel I most love to do.

No other sort of travel excites me more. As much as I enjoy lying in the sun, if given only one chance to do something in Cambodia or Thailand, I’ll archaeological ruins at Angkor or in the Isaan, with a good reference book in hand, over spreading a towel out on any stretch of sand. On my last day in a city you’re much more likely to find me running around a museum than a shopping mall. Favourite souvenirs of places? Books by local writers – in paper form.

Of my earliest travel memories, some of the most vivid are from aged four on a trip from Sydney to Perth with my mother to join my father who had driven there. After the flight, from which I recall only impressionistic moments, I most clearly recollect the hours I spent playing with a little Aboriginal boy whom I’d befriended in Perth. I recall rustic games involving rocks and wood chips we animated and named, pretending they were our tiny ‘friends’.

I remember his cute pudgy-cheeked face, the hours we passed content in each other’s company, and the warmth of the Western Australian sun. But what I most clearly recall as we sat at the top of the stairs is a sense of having learnt something.

While we may have looked different to each other (as the racist kids rudely pointed out), we were exactly the same. That early memory of those play-dates in a strange place far from home, on the other side of my country, taught me many things but most of all I believe it motivated me to continually seek out memorable moments in life I can learn from.

My parents often took me travelling in Australia as a small child. We enjoyed summer holidays in seaside towns on coastal New South Wales and one year we did a longer road trip from Sydney to Northern Queensland, to the Whitsundays and Great Barrier Reef. For a reason I can’t recollect my parents wanted to take extra time beyond the school holidays, so before we left home my mum met my teachers to get additional schoolwork so I wouldn’t fall behind.

I was so excited to have fresh new exercise books with clean lined pages, a new sketchbook and scrapbook, a boxed set of coloured pencils, and rubbers in their plastic wrappings. It was as if I was starting a new school year two months before the other kids. I was so delighted I began working on the lessons in the car, reading, writing and drawing until I made myself car sick.

My parents had always taken me to zoos and wildlife parks but on that Queensland trip there was the added bonus of big bananas and big pineapples, and, best of all, underwater aquariums and glass bottom boats that glided us over sea beds blanketed in multicoloured coral. It was all so magical.

During the day we’d gaze in awe at schools of incandescent fish with bulbous eyes and striped and spotted skin in the craziest colour combinations. Then at night I’d sit at the caravan dining table with my parents learning all about these curious things. Dad, with a cold beer in hand, would thumb through the glossy plastic-covered books we’d borrowed from the library reading out interesting titbits. A keen fisherman, he would tease me about how good the fish would taste grilled on the barbie and I’d get annoyed.

My Mum, a talented pen and ink artist, would help me draw the fish we’d seen in my exercise book. Okay, she’d draw the outlines and I’d carefully colour them in. As a kid, travelling, seeing cool stuff, and learning with the two people I loved most in the world was fun and fantastic. Far better than learning in a classroom.

Back at school I’d never been so eager to get up in front of my class for Show and Tell to present my shoe box full of sand, shells and coral I’d collected, my colourful postcards of the sea-life we’d seen, and (probably an unfortunate decision on my parents’ part) a plastic Tupperware container housing a family of pretty blue soldier crabs I’d collected on a beach – and had named. I remember prattling to my attentive classmates about how the crabs lived deep in holes beneath the wet sand and how they’d walked sideways as they scurried down the beach. Little did I know then, but I would quickly learn how and why they died.

A few years later, this time with my toddler-aged sister, my family was setting off again in a much bigger caravan and shiny new four-wheel drive on a one-year road trip around Australia that would turn into five. For that epic journey, my parents enrolled me in correspondence school. Initially established as the School of the Air for the kids of farmers on remote rural properties, lessons were originally conducted via radio. My experience was more fun.

My mother would send the school the address of the post office at our next destination and every fortnight my teachers would send a massive package of assignments, textbooks, library books, and cassette tapes. It was as if Christmas came every two weeks.

I relished untying the string and carefully unwrapping the brown paper to see what lessons were in store for me and what books the librarian had selected. French classes were the best. I loved listening to the exotic accent of my French professor on cassette tape then recording myself on a tape, which I’d return to him for feedback. I especially liked listening to him tell me I sounded like a native speaker. Ah, to be eleven again and be able to learn languages with such ease!

It’s no wonder then that years later I’d end up doing a Masters degree in International Studies that included a year studying abroad. I’d majored in filmmaking, screen studies and writing for my undergraduate degree, and after Terence and I travelled to Mexico (our first trip overseas) and Cuba (our second), I’d developed a passion for Latin America cinema. One year later, having learnt Spanish for twelve months and taken subjects like Modernisation and Globalisation and The Making of the Third World, I was South America-bound with a RTW ticket that took me via London and Madrid to Sao Paolo, an itinerary crafted around film festivals, and a backpack full of books.

In many ways, that year away represents my ideal way of travelling – travelling with a purpose, with a good foundation of knowledge of the history, politics, economics, and culture of the places, some solid language skills, and some learning objectives. Like a detective, I spent my time there tracking down experts, digging up stories, unravelling mysteries, and making connections.

The knowledge I’d developed before I went informed every experience I had each day in Latin America, as I made my way from Brazil via Paraguay and Uruguay to Argentina, from Chile to Peru and Bolivia, and eventually onto Mexico and Cuba. I was learning, always learning. Even when I took breaks between festivals and meeting filmmakers to backpack around, my everyday experiences were richer and imbued with meaning because I’d read about or seen the places I was visiting on the big screen.

Continually stimulated by each new insight, experience, idea, nugget of information, and connection made, I felt empty when I returned to Sydney. Which explains why less than a year later Terence and I were living in the United Arab Emirates where I’d secured a job teaching film, writing and media studies at a women’s university. The first thing we did was fill our shelves with books on Arabia, Middle East history and politics and Islam, and we learnt as we lived each day. During our time there I did a second Masters degree, Terence did one too, and I started a PhD – on, well, film and travel.

Sadly, we’re both much too busy travelling and writing and shooting photos to study now. I’m too busy to even read as much as we’d like – which is why, whenever we travel, we seek out learning experiences, like the Context walks we do around the world, on everything from history and multiculturalism to urban planning and architecture and art, with docents who usually have doctorates in their fields.

Disappointingly, there are too few companies running educational tours with guides possessing such depth of knowledge. Which explains why I was so excited when I recently received an email about a new travel company called The Traveler’s Course, which provides study abroad experiences for adults. As travel writers, we get emails about new travel start-ups and invitations to test out tours every day. I delete most.

But after reading about these one- and two-week trips to Spain, to Madrid and Santiago de Compostela, bunking down in home-stays, getting language tutoring, and learning about the places and their history, society and culture on the way, I was responding to Savannah Sullivan to find out if she offered anything similar in Asia.

Disappointingly, she doesn’t right now (these are her current trips), but she said The Traveler’s Course will slowly expand and she’ll soon be rolling out web-based pre-departure language courses with online tutoring, and adding trips to Uruguay and Ecuador. It turns out Savannah is currently doing a PhD in Spanish Literature in Florida in the USA, where she teaches a course on my favourite Spanish filmmaker, Pedro Almodóvar.

Savannah was also bitten by the travel bug as a child, after travelling overseas at age eight with her parents to Ireland. But it was a post-eighth grade summer school trip to Italy that really inspired her. “We’d been studying the Renaissance that year and found a youth travel service that would allow us to see in person what we’d been reading about in books,” she told me by email.

“What that trip did for me was help me understand that history is living, and that culture isn’t a subject one can learn in books; it’s experiential,” she wrote. “That trip is the one that helped me see that travel is actually more enjoyable when you’re learning something.”

An undergraduate study abroad experience at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain reinforced that thinking. “I studied language, but my professor would also invite me and other students to cultural events, like museums and performances,” Savannah told me. “After a while, I was insatiable when it came to Spanish culture.”

“During my graduate studies, I’ve been able to travel for research and pleasure; it’s become such a part of my life that I want to share it with others,” Savannah explained. “Since my most fulfilling experiences abroad have been ones where I’ve gained an intimate look at the culture, and since I know that many people don’t have the personal connections to do that kind of trip on their own, I established The Traveler’s Course to facilitate it for them.” I’ve bookmarked the website.

My conversation with Savannah had me wondering why there aren’t more companies specialising in educational travel, offering similar in-country learning holidays for adults who don’t necessarily want to do a degree or continuing education course. There are countless travel sites that arrange post-school and university study abroad opportunities but there seems to be few that offer shorter-term learning holidays.

And I’m not referring to things like photography workshops or writing retreats (which we’ll be running this year, incidentally), but learning holidays that provide opportunities to develop knowledge in areas of interest while learning some language, enabling travellers to more fully immerse themselves in a place, and in turn, to better know the world.

I asked Savannah why she loved learning holidays. “I’ll be honest, I enjoy a mojito at a beach resort as much as the next person,” she admitted. “But when it comes down to it, it’s not a unique experience. Taking a trip with a focus on learning – whether it’s history, culinary arts, or language – offers an adventure that truly can’t be repeated. What’s more, the souvenirs you bring back from an educational trip are way more valuable than a refrigerator magnet.”

I couldn’t resist asking Savannah what her dream learning holiday might be. “I’d love to go to India and study yoga,” she told me. “Someday, I want to spend time in the Amazon learning about medicinal plants. Mainly though, anywhere I go, it’s just a dream to be invited into a local’s home to see the interior of their culture.” We are definitely meeting up one day.

The Travelers Course
www.thetravelerscourse.com

Pictured: A young Cambodian student in a class at a school here that we visited with the Shinta Mani Foundation. We’ve never seen students as eager to learn as we have in Cambodia. More on that in another post.

Have you been on a learning holiday? Can you recommend other travel companies that offer them? If not, would you like to go on one? And if so, what’s your idea of an educational dream trip? 

Jan 13

Monday Memories: A Student Stretches at Battambang Circus School

A student takes a stretch class at Phare Circus, Battambang, Cambodia.

In the latest edition of my reflections on photography series Monday Memories, a young student stretches at Battambang circus school in northwest Cambodia. Ouch.

Over the last few months I’ve spent some time behind the scenes taking photographs of performers under the big top at Phare Cambodian Circus in Siem Reap, as well as at Phare Ponleu Selpak, the performing arts school in Battambang which is home to the circus school.

While watching a rehearsal for a show in Siem Reap, I witnessed a young woman performer practicing landing into the arms of a couple of male performers. I could barely watch let alone take a photograph as she grimaced in pain from landing in the splits position – over and over again.

That night as I watched the circus show I saw her perform the same act but this time she smiled as if she was actually enjoying it and it was me in the audience grimacing for her. I still wince whenever I scroll through the photos and see the shots I took of her that day.

On a recent trip to Battambang we had the opportunity to go behind the scenes as part of the Phare Circus Experience offered by Asia-based tour company Backyard Travel, which includes a briefing on the history of the school (it was started by eight former refugees who met at a camp on the Thai border during the Khmer Rouge era), a tour of the facilities, and a chance to see classes – which is how I got to see the training of the young circus students firsthand.

While it was fun to watch the cute kids getting into their warm-up class (they start so young!), it was the students practicing doing the splits as part of their stretching exercises that caught my eye. While many of the young boys screwed up their faces as they took their turns to stretch, this little lady appeared to actually enjoy her stretches enough to give me a smile.

I like the symmetry of the photo and the way she is perfectly positioned on the lower third of the frame horizontally, but is also centered vertically. I love the look on the face of the girl frame right, whose turn it is next to do her stretching exercise. And I love the way the light falls off further in the back of the room, creating a natural vignette that gives the subject more prominence.

As you can see by the torn matting on the floor, the Battambang school doesn’t have a huge budget to work with, making the results they achieve there, in all areas, not just the circus school (they also teach music, art, design, animation, and film), all the more impressive.

Phare Ponleu Selpak do great work and the Phare Cambodian Cirus shows are life-affirming events where you can really see the joy that these young people get out of performing, even if getting there involves more than a little pain.

Details: Nikon D600, 85mm f/1.4D Nikkor @ F2.5 @ 1/1250th second @ ISO1600.

You can see more of my photos of the performers in Lara’s story Under the Big Top at Cambodia’s Edgy Phare Circus on CNN Travel.

Phare Cambodian Circus, Siem Reap
www.pharecambodiancircus.org

Phare Ponleu Selpak, Battambang
www.phareps.org

Backyard Travel
www.backyardtravel.com

Jan 10

Making Thai Red Curry Paste and How To Use a Mortar and Pestle

Thai Red Curry Paste, made with 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*

Ingredients
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)

Directions

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Add shrimp paste (to the curry paste) and finely grind until smooth.
  4. 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.

Issaya Siamese Club
Chuea Phloeng Rd
Sathon, Bangkok, Thailand
+66 2 672 9040
www.issaya.com

Next up: Making a Traditional Thai Phanaeng Nua Beef Panang Curry Recipe.

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