This old Southern Thailand geng gari gai aromatic chicken curry recipe “has a rich and delicious depth that only something rooted in the past can have,” according to Chef David Thompson of Nahm restaurant in Bangkok, who taught the dish to participants at a culinary workshop held in Singapore last week as part of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards events.
On the morning of the Awards — in which Thompson’s Nahm would be voted Asia’s best restaurant — I attended the culinary workshop cum cooking demo with just 11 other participants, spending a couple of hours with the chef, which allowed plenty of time to ask questions about the dishes and about Thai curries more generally.
While I haven’t got this geng gari gai recipe from a book, as I have the others I’ve been making as part of our Year of Asian Cookbooks project, I thought the historic Thai recipe was a perfect candidate for the project for a few reasons.
The dish is a ‘foreign’ curry, according to Thompson, meaning that it was made using ingredients that fall outside the traditional, ‘indigenous’ Thai curry paste traditions. In other words, it uses lots of dry spices from Burma, India, Persia, and the Middle East that travelled to Thailand with traders.
“Foreign curries, coming from the Muslim south or over the border from Burma, still have the hallmarks of their origins,” Chef Thompson explained. “Most traditional Thai curries have very few dried spices. Of course, they have dried chillies, but they do not have various things like coriander seeds or cumin seeds or cloves or other dry spices like that.”
The chef introduced this geng gari gai as a 120-year old recipe that he found intriguing because of the methods of preparation and marination. While he says that there are versions that are both simpler and more complex, this one had “quite an unusual combination of techniques that suggest the past; a greater complexity.”
What the chef is talking about when it comes to techniques is that, firstly, the chillies for the curry paste are prepared separately — some are grilled and some soaked. The shallots for the curry are grilled first because, as Thompson explains, “grilling the shallots gives them, not surprisingly, a smoky, richer, more redolent taste.”
The second key difference is that the chicken in this version is marinated in fish sauce and then curry paste for a few hours. Then all of the meat and curry paste are cooked together in coconut milk.
“What intrigues me with this geng gari gai recipe is that normally you would poach the meat off in coconut milk, you’d skim off some of that cream that comes to the top, then you’d put it into another pot and fry off the curry paste before pouring it back in,” Thompson explains.
“This is the modern, conventional way of doing it,” he elaborates. “With this recipe the technique that I’m about to show you is one that’s original for this geng gari gai style of curry. It makes it slightly oilier and slightly richer.”
I hope to be able to do a round up of tips for making curries later from Chef Thompson but, for now, one specific recommendation for this recipe is to always season in stages. Chef only put about half of the spices into the curry at first, gradually adding more as he felt they were needed.
“While I adore these older recipes, they’re not there as gospel,” he warned. “They’re used as a guideline and to bring them to the present you bring your own sense of taste to them as well.”
Note, if you are researching this dish, that various spellings are used, including gaeng gari gai, gaeng garee gai, and kaeng kari kai among others. It translates as an aromatic chicken curry. Geng means curry and gari means aromatic (and is the word from which ‘curry’ came), while gai means chicken.
Also note that it is often incorrectly, and very widely (in places like Wikipedia, Serious Eats etc) called a Thai yellow curry, which it is not. The direct translation of ‘yellow curry’ is geng leuang, which also comes from Southern Thailand but is yellow due to the inclusion of turmeric.
Geng Gari Gai Aromatic Chicken Curry
- 5 large dried red chillis (grilled)
- 3 small dried red chillis (grilled)
- 5 unpeeled red shallots (grilled, then peeled)
- 2 stalks lemongrass, sliced
- 4 coriander roots, cleaned and chopped
- 1 pinch whole white pepper
- ½ tablespoon toasted coriander seed, finely ground
- ½ teaspoon toasted cumin seed
- 2 Chicken legs (thigh & drumstick)
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 4 tablespoons geng gari curry paste
- 1 cup fresh coconut cream
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1 tablespoon toasted ground coriander seed
- ¾ tablespoon toasted ground cumin seed
- pinch of toasted cloves
- 6 red shallots
- 1 teaspoon palm sugar
- 2–3 tablespoons fish sauce
- additional coconut cream (for presentation)
- 1–2 cups chicken stock
- 2 medium/large ratte potatoes, simmered (optionally in chicken stock), peeled and cut into 2 cm cubes
- 1 pandanus leaf, knotted
- 1 3 cm piece cassia bark, toasted
- 1 squeeze mandarin juice
- Deep fried shallots
- Deep fried garlic
- Jasmine rice
- Cucumber relish (see recipe)
- Cut the chicken leg into two through the thigh joint. If the pieces are large, cut each one in half again.
- Marinate the chicken in the fish sauce for an hour and then mix in the curry paste and leave for a few hours.
- Heat fresh coconut cream and then add marinated chicken and simmer gently along with most of the dried spices and turmeric.
- When almost cooked (ours took around 40 minutes) add the shallots and simmer, seasoning with palm sugar and fish sauce. Simmer until it becomes quite oily and add extra coconut cream as required.
- Add the chicken stock and simmer until the chicken is cooked. When the chicken is cooked add the potatoes, the pandanus and toasted cassia bark.
- Check the seasoning. It should be rich, salty and lightly spiced.
- With the seasoning correct, leave for 20 minutes in a warm place to let the spices ‘ripen’.
- Reheat and check the seasoning. Adjust as necessary to taste.
- Finish with a squeeze of mandarin, if using.
The last recipe in our Year of Asian Cookbooks project was on the Northern Thai pork belly curry Gaeng Hang Lay Moo from Ian Kittichai’s Issaya Siamese Club cookbook.