Stocked with a contemporary brew of umami-rich ingredients, this ancient, bright and slightly sour coconut-based shrimp and tomato curry demonstrates how simple – yet clever – flavor-layering techniques can spotlight the shrimp and the spectacular savory tomatoes over the curry background.
The tomato – an unconventional Siamese ingredient?
According to researchers, the ancestral form of tomato plants was confined to Peru and Ecuador, and not widely domesticated until it reached central Mexico Jenkins, J. A. (1948). The Origin of the Cultivated Tomato. Economic Botany, 379–392. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4251913. There, the tomato was a sprawling and vining plant in Aztec gardens, grown for medicinal and ornamental purposes. When introduced to Europe in the 16th century, the tomato – a fruit not mentioned in the Bible – was regarded as a foreign plant that needed to be handled cautiously. In fact, this vigilance may have been justified: the tomato was dubbed the “poison apple” because its acidity leached lead from the pewter plates on which it was served, resulting in many deaths from lead poisoning Smith, K. A. (2013, June 18). Why the tomato was feared in Europe for more than 200 years. Smithsonian Magazine. … Continue reading.
Not until the 19th century did tomato dishes begin emerging in Europe; likewise, tomatoes appeared in Siamese dishes after the fruit was brought to China and Asia via the Spanish colonies in the Philippines. Though the savory, sweet and sour tomato fruit failed to attain the same popularity in Siam as other New World ingredients, such as chilies, some dishes still include tomatoes.
Given that Thailand’s subtropical climate is ideal for tomato cultivation and that abundant harvests are produced throughout the year, it is unsurprising that tomatoes have found their way into curry dishes. Other fruits commonly used in curries for their sour-sweet notes include the pineapple, salacca, hairy-fruited eggplant, Indian gooseberries, Marian plums, sour bilimbi fruit, and fresh and pickled madan, as well as Chinese and Thai jujube fruit, apples, prunes and myrolan wood fruit – to name a few. However, only the tomato brings a distinct savory flavor to these sour-sweet notes – a flavor that enhances the dish’s overall mouthfeel.
In her 1935 book Gap khao o:h chaa (กับเข้าโอชา ตำหรับแม่ครัวพิเศษแห่งห้องเครื่องเสวย พ.ศ.2478), Ms. Gingganok Ganjanapha (กิ่งกนก กาญจนาภา) recommends using tomatoes as a flavor enhancer for virtually every spicy curry: “Replace [Siamese] regular eggplants with three or four unripe tomatoes to make a tastier-than-usual curry with a distinct flavor,” she writes. She adds, “but don’t forget to put in some holy basil leaves to enhance the flavor.”
แกงเผ็ดทุกชะนิดถ้าต้องการให้รสปลาดและอร่อยไปกว่าที่เคย เมื่อปรุงเครื่องแกงครบแล้ว ให้เอามะเขือเทศชะนิดห่ามหั่นใส่ลงใปด้วยสัก 3-4 ผล แทนมะเขือธรรมดา จะทำให้แกงนั้น ชูรสขึ้นอีกมาก และ จงอย่าลืมว่าใบผักนั้นต้องมีใบกะเพรา เจือด้วยกึ่งหนึ่ง จึงจะชูรสเป็นพิเศษกิ่งกนก กาญจนาภา. พ.ศ. 2478
c1908 Duck and tomato gaaeng khuaa curry
When Lady Plean Passakornrawong published her 1908 cookbook, Maae Khruaa Huaa Bpaa (MKHP), she included the recipe for duck and tomato gaaeng khuaa curry (old spelling: แกงขั้วเปดกับมะเขือเทศ ท่านผู้หญิงเปลี่ยน ภาสกรวงศ์ ตำราแม่ครัวหัวป่าก์). Lady Plean begins by frying the duck meat in pork lard and garlic and, while the duck is frying, she adds some fish sauce for an initial seasoning. She adds the curry paste to the pot after the duck meat has been seared and continues to fry it until it is fragrant. She then pours coconut milk over the duck, covers the pot, and simmers the meat until it is tender. For the curry paste, Lady Plean uses the standard phrik khing (พริกขิง) paste using rehydrated dried red long chilies, to which she adds white peppercorns (S1) and coriander seeds (S2); she leaves out the kaffir lime zest. Finally, she seasons the dish to a sour-salty-sweet flavor profile using fish sauce, palm sugar, and tamarind paste. Lady Plean uses unripe green tomatoes as if they were eggplants, adding them just before seasoning. Once the tomatoes are cooked, she finishes the dish with torn kaffir lime leaves.
These days, whole shiny red cherry tomatoes are mostly used in gaaeng phet bpet yaang (แกงเผ็ดเป็ดย่าง), a spicy curry made with grilled duck, and most diners believe that tomatoes are an integral ingredient in this curry. But if we closely examine the culinary literature, we realize that the tomatoes are only there for their sour-sweet notes, and that many grilled duck curry recipes also use a variety of other fruits, including grapes.
An opportunity for creativity
This curry distinctly features the shrimp and tomatoes over a simple phrik khing (พริกขิง) paste background without any masking spices or herbs. In addition, these three components – the orangey shrimp, crimson tomatoes, and red chili paste – share a color scheme that is appropriate for use as a drop shadow in our flavor-layering strategy.
Thus, using logic and creativity, we can identify ways of re-layering the shrimp and tomato elements by introducing them from various sources and at various times during the cooking.
We follow Lady Plean’s strategy of utilizing a standard phrik khing (พริกขิง) paste using rehydrated dried red long chilies. However, we discard the green elements – the kaffir lime zest and coriander roots – as well as the fermented shrimp paste (kapi), as they can tarnish the admirable shrimp color choice in the curry. Instead, we thicken the paste, giving it a multidimensional shrimp flavor by pounding in orange-tinged grilled shrimp, dried shrimp and shrimp tomalley, which also restores the energy of the living shrimp’s soul. Finally, we extend the shrimp presence by adding dried shrimp to the diluting broth, which in turn connects the shrimp, the paste, and the curry.
To reinforce the imprint of the tomatoes, we extract their essence. We select whole green and red tomatoes, simmering them in chicken stock until the broth acquires a rich and flavorful, slightly sour, meaty taste with a reddish undertone. By using entire tomatoes, we demonstrate the full presence of the tomato as a supporting background for the shrimp. This includes adding the broth sugars from the fruit wall, acids from the tomato jelly, and a pleasant aroma from the tomato skin – as well as using the full range of tomato maturity levels, from young and green to mature and red. Last, we add a pinch of granulated sugar and a pinch of sea salt, and cook the stock down to reduce and intensify the overall flavor of the tomatoes with a desired level of acidity.
Our efforts towards distilling the depth of flavors by subtracting elements based on their color, as well as expanding the main dish’s elements in a consistent manner, are amply rewarded by an insightful clarity and a precise flavor simplicity.
The remaining steps in making this curry follow the routine procedure. The paste is fried in coconut cream; once it losses its rawness, the curry is diluted with coconut milk and tomato-chicken broth.
The shrimp are peeled, cleaned, and cooked whole in the curry, which is seasoned salty prior to installing a sweet floor using palm sugar. Finally, use tamarind paste, if desired, to redefine the dish’s sourness to a sour-salty-sweet or salty-sour-sweet flavor profile.
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- 15 pieces shrimp (กุ้ง) 13 for the curry and 2 for the curry paste
- 1/2 cup coconut cream (หัวกะทิ)
- 1/4 cups coconut milk (หางกะทิ)
- 1/2 cup Northern Thai sour cherry tomatoes (มะเขือส้ม) green and red, halved
For the tomato stock:
- 2 cups chicken stock (น้ำสต๊อกไก่)
- 1 large tomatoes (มะเขือเทศ) cut into quarters
- 1/2 cup Northern Thai sour cherry tomatoes (มะเขือส้ม) green and red, halved
- 2 tablespoons dried shrimp (กุ้งแห้ง) preboiled with fingerroot (krachai) (กระชาย)
- 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar (น้ำตาลทราย)
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt (เกลือทะเล)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce (น้ำปลา)
- 1/2 tablespoon palm sugar (น้ำตาลมะพร้าว)
- tamarind paste (น้ำมะขามเปียก) optional, as needed
For the curry paste:
- 6 pieces dried red long chili (phrik chee fa) (พริกชี้ฟ้าแห้ง) deseeded and rehydrated
- 1 teaspoon sea salt (เกลือทะเล)
- 2 1/2 tablespoons lemongrass (ตะไคร้) thinly sliced
- 1 1/2 tablespoons galangal (ข่า) thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon Thai garlic (กระเทียมไทย) thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons shallots (หอมแดง) thinly sliced
- 2 pieces shrimp (กุ้ง) grilled head on shell on
- 1/2 tablespoon dried shrimp pounded to powder (กุ้งแห้งป่น)
- shrimp tomalley (มันกุ้ง)
- Reserve two or three shrimp for the curry paste. Clean, peel and devein the rest of the shrimp for the curry. Set aside.
Pre-boil the dried shrimp for the stock:
- Boil the dried shrimp in water with fingerroot. When the shrimp have softened, discard the water and the fingerroot. Set the dried shrimp aside.
Cook the tomato stock:
- Fill a cooking pot with chicken stock.
- Add the pre-boiled dried shrimp.
- Cut the large tomatoes into quarters and add them to the stock.
- Add unpeeled red and green Northern Thai sour cherry tomatoes (มะเขือส้ม).
- Simmer on low heat until you are satisfied with the sourness of the broth pulled out from the tomatoes.
- Add a pinch of salt and a pinch of granulated sugar to intensify the tomato element.
Prepare the curry paste:
- An overview of the curry paste ingredients.
- On a pan or in a wok, grill the shrimp; peel them and collect the meat and tomalley. Set aside.
- De-seed and rehydrate the dried chilies in hot water.
- Pound the curry paste, starting with the chilies and salt.
- Gradually add the other ingredients, from the driest to the wettest. Pound the paste until it is smooth with a rounded aroma. After pounding the chilies, add the lemongrass and galangal.
- Add the shallots and garlic.
- Add the grilled shrimp, dried shrimp powder and shrimp tomalley.
Cook the curry:
- In a brass wok, heat the coconut cream until it thickens and oil appears. Add the curry paste.
- Fry the paste until it loses its rawness.
- Stop the frying with plain water and the liquids collected from cleaning the mortar and pestle.
- Important: at this stage, to separate the oil particles created during the paste-frying process from the rest of the broth, mix gently to avoid re-emulsification of the oil.
- Add the peeled and deveined shrimp and allow to cook.
Diluting the curry:
- Dilute the curry with coconut milk and the tomato-chicken stock to your liking.
- Add sliced whole tomatoes.
- Season to a sour leading, salty with a sweet floor flavor profile. Taste before seasoning! Start by seasoning the salty element, using fish sauce.
- When you are satisfied with the saltiness, add palm sugar at the ratio indicated.
- Optional – Add tamarind paste at the ratio indicated.
|↑1||Jenkins, J. A. (1948). The Origin of the Cultivated Tomato. Economic Botany, 379–392. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4251913|
|↑2||Smith, K. A. (2013, June 18). Why the tomato was feared in Europe for more than 200 years. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/why-the-tomato-was-feared-in-europe-for-more-than-200-years-863735/|