Of all the curries in Thailand, this Northern Thai pork belly curry called Gaeng Hang Lay Moo must be the most decadent and moreish of all. It’s a red curry on spice steroids and the extra kick and spice, as well as the richness of the pork belly, make this one of my favourite Thai curries and the one I’ve been cooking this week for our Year of Asian Cookbooks project.
The geographic origin of Gaeng Hang Lay Moo — in its Thai form — is the northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai, beloved by Thais for its laidback atmosphere, arty vibe and fiery food. This, combined with its cooler weather and nearby mountains, has seen Chiang Mai become a popular retreat for well-off Thais and a home for Bangkok creative types seeking a tree-change.
However, it’s the earlier arrival of Indian traders bearing spices that is of interest here. Initially arriving in Chain Mai to trade textiles, their need for the classic Indian spices to satisfy a curry craving saw spices such as turmeric, fennel and cardamom become more commonly used in local Thai cooking.
With the use of these extra spices on top of a classic base red curry mix, there are many parallels with southern Thailand’s Massaman curry. Although the Hang Lay Moo recipe I am using here, by Bangkok-based Thai Chef Ian Kittichai of Issaya Siamese Club, does not contain mace, cinnamon and fenugreek, other dried spices that often appear in southern Massaman curries.
While the spices convey the influence of India and Malaysia, the origins perhaps are closer to the northern Thai border in Myanmar, where a pork curry called wet tha hin lay includes a sour component, just as the Thai version includes tamarind. In fact many restaurants in Chiang Mai call the curry ‘Burmese curry’.
While there’s plenty of heat from the chillies in the curry mix, there’s also the added bite of the ginger — not normally an ingredient in Thai curries, where it’s lookalike, galangal, predominantly features.
Like many Thai curries, Gaeng Hang Lay Moo is a dish that was traditionally shared on special occasions due to the expense and time-consuming nature of making the recipe. Today it’s seen everywhere in Chiang Mai, in varying degrees of quality and numerous permutations when it comes to the spices used in the dish.
Like the best of the food from Northern Thailand, this dish packs an initial punch and lures you in after your taste buds have recovered from the first mouthful. Make a big batch, because it’s true that, like a Massaman curry, Gaeng Hang Lay Moo just tastes better on the second day.
Of interest in Chef Kittichai’s dish is the ingredient ma-khwaen or, more commonly, makhwaen. It’s a speciality of Chiang Rai, and is also found in the rest of Northern Thailand and Laos, where we had it in a jaow (dip). Its pods, used fresh and dry, are from a species of prickly ash trees.
Its botanical name, Zanthoxylum limonella, gives a hint that it has citrus notes, and the genus Zanthoxylum is the parent to the several varieties of trees that produce Sichuan pepper. While it doesn’t have that numbing effect so particular to Sichuan pepper, it packs a real peppery punch, cooled with those citrus notes.
In Chef Kittichai’s recipe it’s clearly used dried and you can find it in Bangkok as well as speciality stores outside Thailand that stock Thai, and specifically Northern Thai, ingredients. While you could substitute it for Sichuan pepper, the latter is such a distinct ingredient it may affect the balance of the dish.
During my research I found that there were many far simpler recipes of the dish and out of curiosity I made a couple of versions (the one pictured is one of them) but Chef Kittichai’s is far superior in flavour complexity. Although I do like to cook the pork out a lot more (two hours plus) than what the chef does in his recipe below.
The chef’s recipe only just cooks the pork to get colour, but I found that giving the pork a really good sear and cooking it for at least three hours gave the best result, so that the pork had that fall-apart-with-a-fork quality. Because it’s pork belly, I found the meat still moist and delicious after a good four hours cooking. Really sublime flavours are generated using this method.
Also during my research, I noticed that many Gaeng Hang Lay Moo recipes — even those with an exhaustive list of ingredients — suggest making the curry paste in a food processor without even a passing reference to a mortar and pestle.
I’m not going to carry on about this in every curry or relish recipe this year, but as Chef David Thompson says in his Thai cooking tome Thai Food, making curry pastes in a mortar as pestle is “onerous and messy, but the result is quite superior”. See this post on how to use a mortar and pestle.
If you insist on taking the 120/240 volt route, a good tip from Chef Thompson is to use a blender, not a food processor. The narrow well of a blender is better suited to the paste coming together and the fact it has four blades makes it more efficient than ingredients being flung around in a wide-based food processor.
With the dried spices, if you’re not going to use a mortar and pestle, a coffee grinder or, obviously, a spice grinder, will do the trick.
This Gaeng Hang Lay Moo recipe may appear laborious, but the results are amazing.
Gaeng Hang Lay Moo (Northern Thai Pork Belly Curry)
Recipe based on Chef Ian Kittichai’s recipe from the Issaya Siamese Club Cookbook, used with permission.
To start this dish, you need to prepare chef’s Thai red curry paste first. Below is the second stage, producing the hang lay curry. I’ve modified the final recipe (bringing the curry and the pork together) for simplicity.
- 20 g dried red finger chilli peppers
- 10 g turmeric fresh
- 10 g coriander seeds
- 10 g cumin seeds
- 12 g ma-khwaen (Thai prickly ash, optional)
- 90 ml vegetable oil
- 40 g ginger (young)
- 150 g of red curry paste (see the curry paste recipe here)
- 1.5 l water
- 1 g salt
- 200 ml tamarind juice
- 20 ml fish sauce
- 50 g palm sugar
- 80 g garlic
- In a dry pan, toast chilli peppers, turmeric, cumin, coriander seeds and ma-khwaen together on low heat for 10 minutes. Once cooled, finely grind in a mortar or use a food processor to blend smooth.
- In a large, heavy bottomed pot, heat oil and sauté the sliced ginger. Add the red curry paste and cook until the oil separates. Add water and ground spices.
- Bring to a boil. Add salt, tamarind juice, fish sauce, palm sugar and garlic.
- Simmer for an hour.
- Curry can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
- 150 g Hang Lay curry paste (see above)
- 200 g taro roots, diced,
- 200 g lotus roots, sliced
- 500 g pork belly, diced
- 50 g young ginger, julienned
- 5 g coriander sprigs
- Boil taro roots and lotus roots in a pot of water until cooked (about 10 minutes). Drain and set aside.
- Sear pork belly in a pan at high heat.
- Pour curry into the pan until meat is covered and simmer on low heat for half an hour.
- Add cooked roots to curry.
- Ladle pork belly curry into serving bowls and garnish with coriander sprigs and young ginger.
- Serve with steamed jasmine rice on the side.
Issaya Siamese Club
Chuea Phloeng Rd
Sathon, Bangkok, Thailand
+66 2 672 9040
CORRECTION: The recipe in the cookbook calls for ‘200 ml fish sauce’, which would result in a salty, fishy disaster that even a hungry soi dog would reject. This has been amended to a more human friendly 20 ml. Chef Kittichai has confirmed it’s a typo in the book, but adds that fish sauce should always be added ‘to taste’.
This post is the latest in my Year of Asian Cookbooks project. Next up: a 120 year-old Geng Gari Gai aromatic Chiang Mai chicken curry recipe from Northern Thailand from Chef David Thompson of Nahm restaurant in Bangkok.