It’s a Thai
In the final part of her series on cooking takeaway food at home, Rachel Allen explores the delights of south-east Asia’s enchanting flavours. Photography by Tony Gavin
Ever since I put a rucksack on my back in my early 20s and travelled around south-east Asia with two friends, I have been mildly addicted to Thai food. The flavours are complex and balanced; a careful dance of intricate tastes, combining salty and spicy, bitter, sour and sweet, with fragrant aromatics such as limes, lemongrass, coriander and basil.
For many of their curries, Thai people rely on curry pastes as their flavour base. Apart from the paste, the only ingredients are whatever vegetable, fish or meat is in the dish, and coconut milk. The curry paste must contain the ingredients to deliver all the necessary complexity. Fortunately, many curry pastes can be found in an average supermarket, though you will find more authentic versions in an Asian food shop.
Ready-made Thai curry pastes are easily available nowadays, but a home-made version, such as the recipe below right, will blow any bought jar out of the water with its utter freshness. If you are making your own curry paste, it’s a good idea to make a biggish batch and freeze what you’re not using for another time.
The classic ‘traffic-light’ Thai curries are red, green and yellow, but the basic method to make them is essentially the same. You start by heating up some oil in a pan, with garlic and onions, if you’re using them, then in goes the thick coconut cream (in a can of coconut milk, the coconut cream will have separated from the thinner coconut milk) which is cooked until it spits and splits. Then you add the curry paste, and, finally, the coconut milk.
After the curry base is made, you can add in raw seafood (which will cook in the sauce); browned meat such as beef; or vegetables, which are sometimes browned or blanched ahead.
As well as the ubiquitous delicious curries, you have Pad Thai, far right. Sometimes called Phat Thai, or Phad Thai, it’s a stir-fried ricenoodle dish with eggs, tofu, and sometimes chicken or shrimp, flavoured with tamarind, palm sugar, dried shrimp, shallots, garlic and chilli, topped with lime wedges and roasted peanuts.
Though I lived on the stuff in Thailand and swore I’d never eat it again, it is for me, simple Thai street food at its best.