Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Curry paste

Here is one of those things that even the most adventurous cooks rarely do from scratch. This is a shame. I doubt the home cooks on the other side of the planet fret over the details of these creations and you shouldn't either. Like curry powders and mole', the list of ingredients and the descriptions of the processes used to make them often make the recipes in books sound daunting. Read these recipes but ignore them. The only hard part for many should be sourcing the right ingredients.

The crucial ingredients (in my opinion): Galangal, lemon grass and lime leaves

Living in Cleveland, we are fortunate to have many stores selling obscure ingredients from around the world but last week was the first time that I ever found fresh galangal root here. My first curry pastes were successfully made with frozen galangal, frozen lime leaves and frozen lemon grass. Now I can finally make one with all of the appropriate fresh ingredients. The trick to deciding how to mix these or any ingredients in the right proportions is simply tasting them. I often tell my customers that while something may not necessarily have a pleasant flavor on its own, the only way to get an a good idea of how much to use is to taste it. My first bite of fresh galangal was memorable to say the least. It is the only ingredient that absolutely shouldn't be left out. After that you can use whatever you like and can find. Besides my big three I used Thai basil, cilantro (often the roots and stems are used so don't throw them away), lime (juice and zest), garlic, ginger, shallots, green chiles (they are a staple of green curry pastes these days but if you don't like it hot, remember that they were making these mixtures long before chiles were ever introduced to that part of the world), turmeric root (not traditional but I had it so why not), and the dry spices, coriander, cumin and white peppercorns, all toasted and ground. The last ingredient that is in most recipes is shrimp paste. You can find it in any Asian store. It is funky and potent but it adds the umami to bring the whole thing together.

You could use a food processor or a blender but both would require the addition of liquid and it's better to keep it on the dry side. They also chop more the smash so I don't believe that you get the same extraction of flavor. Nothing is like the good old mortar and pestle. A little salt will help break everything down. Add your ingredients and beat the shit out of them.

The best way to taste your creation is a simple rice dish. Just heat a little oil, fry some of the paste and add some cooked rice with a little liquid and mix. If there is anything wrong (there wont be) you can easily taste it this way and make adjustments if necessary

It will take about an hour of your time and about $5.00 worth of ingredients. It freezes well so you will use it for several meals. And it's fun. Don't let peoples overly anal descriptions of these kinds of recipes deter you. They are actually pretty hard to fuck up. Enjoy.


Edsel L said...


Which store had the fresh galangal? I've found it before, but lately nobody seems to carry it.

Your curry paste looks awesome. Love the mortar and pestle.


Park to shop. I love that place. They also had the fresh turmeric root that I added. Unfortunately, They didn't have any fresh lime leaves. I ended up using frozen ones.
P.S. I have many mortar and pestles but that one is heavy and deep. You can really pound the heck out of stuff in it.