The first time I sampled the Southern Thailand dish geng gari gai or aromatic chicken curry, it was a revelation. It was not just the flavour of the salty, spicy, creamy, and rich dish, but how it was complimented by was what it was served with — ajat dtaeng gwa, Thai cucumber relish, and roti.
There is a myth that Thai food is a canonically pure, indigenous cuisine that mysteriously emerged, fully formed, in the 13th century when Thailand’s first capital was established at Sukhothai in 1279.
Indeed, Sukhothai had been an Angkor outpost when Tai tribal chiefs overthrew its Khmer commander. Their occupation of Sukhothai was one step in what was a “slow, but relentless, southern migration of Tai settlers, often at the expense of Mon-Khmer populations, which had its origins in southern China in the sixth century BC” according to J.M. Barwise and N.J. White in A Traveller’s History of Southeast Asia.
In Southern Thailand, as we learnt during our month of culinary research on Phuket that the influences on the island’s cuisine came from all directions but mainly from maritime traders, sailors and tin miners who arrived by sea from India, Persia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and China.
With geng gari and its traditional accompaniments, the influence is clearly from India and indeed gari is the Tamil word for curry. Another sign of its origins? The flaky pieces of roti which can be dipped into the curry sauce or used to scoop up the curry and relish.
Since I first tried the curry at David Thompson’s cooking demonstration, held during the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, I haven’t been able to eat it without this crisp, sweet and sour cucumber relish.
It’s such a refreshing taste after every mouthful of one of the most tremendously flavoured curries in the Thai repertoire. If you don’t need the relish, to me you haven’t made the curry rich enough.
While you’ll labour over making the curry, this relish recipe is very simple. It also goes well with that classic Thai staple, fish cakes.
- 3 tbsp white vinegar
- 3 tbsp white sugar
- 4 tbsp water
- 1 pinch salt
- 1 small cucumber, quartered lengthways and sliced
- 4 red shallots, finely sliced
- 2 tbsp julienned ginger
- 1 long red chilli, julienned
- 1 tbsp coriander leaves
- Combine vinegar, sugar, water and salt in a saucepan and bring to the boil.
- Remove from heat when sugar is dissolved and cool down to room temperature.
- When ready to serve, add the rest of the ingredients. It should taste both sour and sweet.