This is a coconut-based jungle curry of catfish featuring fresh green chilies, sand ginger and an upcountry herbal charm.
While the term ‘jungle’ is widely used nowadays, it remains poorly defined. It is commonly understood that jungle curries are water-based curries with a proper curry paste. Jungle curries are spicy and share a similar evolutionary path with gaaeng khuaa (แกงคั่ว) and gaaeng phet (แกงเผ็ด), coconut-based curries with which they share an identical phrik khing paste.
Conversely, the first-ever printed recipe for jungle curry was documented by Lady Plean Passakornrawong as a coconut-based catfish curry, in her 1908 book Maae Khruaa Huaa Bpaa (MKHP). Obviously, it is not the water versus coconut base that made it a jungle dish; it could be posited that Lady Plean uses “jungle curry” to emphasize the vast difference in the dish’s culinary codes compared to those she was accustomed to.
Lady Plean’s culinary approach celebrates complexity and, often, aristocratic eel and catfish dishes were extremely detailed. Higher cuisine called for specific varieties of dried long red chilies, with an attractive color, a pleasant aroma and only mildly spicy. Furthermore, the paste was reinforced with medicinal rhizomes such as sand ginger (เปราะหอม), bitter ginger (กระทือ) and fingerroot (krachai) (กระชาย), a combination designed to mellow down the muddy taste of these freshwater animal meats.
In Lady Plean’s coconut-based jungle curry of catfish, simplicity prevails. She uses a phrik khing based paste made with seasonal, fresh long green chilies (phrik chee fa) (พริกชี้ฟ้าเขียว), which gives the curry a light greenish hue and herbaceous notes – very different from the fruitiness of the red chilies to which she was accustomed.
Furthermore, Lady Plean omits from the paste the fermented shrimp paste (kapi) and the coriander roots but adds fingerroot (krachai) (กระชาย) and sand ginger (เปราะหอม) – almost as if she couldn’t resist. In addition, rather than relying on basils to dominate the curry’s herbal identity, Lady Plean completely changes the herbal profile of the dish, evoking the village ambiance with a handful of sawtooth coriander (ผักชีฝรั่ง). Finally, she seasons the curry to a monotone, spicy-salty flavor profile without the soft, sweet cushioning common in the higher cuisine.
Lady Plean begins by pounding the paste using fresh long green chilies (phrik chee fa) (พริกชี้ฟ้าเขียว). She omits from the paste the fermented shrimp paste (kapi) and the coriander roots but adds fingerroot (krachai) (กระชาย) and sand ginger (เปราะหอม). She notes that the paste does not have to be extremely smooth. Once the paste is ready, Lady Plean continues to grate coconut and squeezes coconut cream, which she uses to fry the paste. When the paste is cooked, she adds the catfish, which she has cleaned beforehand. She then adds roughly sliced sawtooth coriander and seasons the dish with fish sauce only.
She finishes the dish with crispy fried Thai garlic and crispy fried shallots (หอมแดง และ กระเทียมไทยเจียว).
|Sand ginger||Fermented shrimp paste (kapi)|
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For the paste:
- 8 pieces fresh green long chili (phrik chee fa) (พริกชี้ฟ้าเขียว)
- 1 teaspoon sea salt (เกลือทะเล)
- 2 1/2 tablespoons lemongrass (ตะไคร้)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons galangal (ข่า)
- 1 tablespoon fresh sand ginger (เปราะหอมสด)
- 4 pieces fingerroot (krachai) (กระชาย)
- 1 teaspoon kaffir lime zest (ผิวมะกรูด)
- 1 tablespoon Thai garlic (กระเทียมไทย)
- 2 tablespoons shallots (หอมแดง)
- fish sauce (น้ำปลา) as needed
- Clean the fish and remove the internal organs.
- Scrape the slime off the catfish skin with a knife. Rub the catfish with coarse salt, then wash it thoroughly.
- Using a sharp knife, slice the fish into 1″ (2.5 cm) thick steak cuts. Set aside.
Prepare the curry paste:
- An overview of the curry paste ingredients.
- Slice the fresh chilies into small pieces and discard the seeds.
- In a pestle and mortar, pound the curry paste; start with the chilies and gradually add the other ingredients, from the driest to the wet. Pound the paste to a semi- fine consistency. Set aside.
Cook the curry:
- In a brass wok, heat the coconut cream until it thickens and oil appears. Scoop out a small portion to drizzle on top of the finished curry.
- Add the curry paste.
- Fry the paste until it loses its rawness.
- Stop the frying with liquids collected from cleaning the pestle and mortar, and plain water. Important: this is to separate the oil particles created during the paste-frying process from the rest of the broth. At this stage, mix gently to avoid re-emulsification of the oil.
Diluting the curry
- Dilute the curry with water or chicken stock to your liking.
- Add the catfish and mix gently.
- Add the sawtooth coriander and allow it to wilt into the curry broth.