Gaaeng Jao Dtao – An Aristocratic Sour Curry of Catfish with Young Tamarind Leaves, Fingerroot and Lemon Basil, with a Rustic Flare (แกงเจ้าเต่า)

By: Hanuman
🔊 Listen to the Thai name pronunciation
jao tao

In the world of Siamese watery dishes, soups and curries are typically named in a straightforward manner that indicates the type of curry and the main ingredients. Some dishes, however, bore distinctive or poetic names conferred by their creators; this was particularly applicable during the Siamese neoclassical culinary period extending from the 1930s to the 1950s (ยุคหลังเปลี่ยนแปลงการปกครอง). In this era, cooks were encouraged to use local ingredients and were free to think and conceive beyond the Court’s boundaries and code of manners. This creative freedom was often expressed by bestowing vivid names on both new and existing dishes.

Thaifoodmaster is excited to present a distinctive curry recipe called gaaeng jao dtao (แกงเจ้าเต่า), a curry with a rustic flair, a neoclassical period dish originating in the kitchen of a noble family. Gaaeng jao dtao (แกงเจ้าเต่า), a sour curry of catfish featuring young tamarind leaves, fingerroot and lemon basil, was created by Lady Gleep Mahithaawn (ท่านผู้หญิงกลีบ มหิธาวรรณ) (1876-1961) and appeared in her 1949 book Recipes for Teaching Children and Grandchildren (หนังสือกับข้าวสอนลูกหลาน).

Gaaeng jao dtao (แกงเจ้าเต่า) is a dish that showcases Lady Gleep’s appreciation for vernacular cuisine while highlighting her classical training. Unlike other aristocratic cooks, Lady Gleep was able to combine two staple dishes into one: gaaeng jao dtao (แกงเจ้าเต่า) is a unique merger of a sour curry and a water-based gaaeng aawm curry (แกงอ่อม).

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Lady Gleep Mahithaawn (ท่านผู้หญิงกลีบ มหิธาวรรณ) (1876-1961) – Digital Ilustration by Hanuman

Born into an aristocratic family, Lady Gleep Mahithaawn (ท่านผู้หญิงกลีบ มหิธาวรรณ) (1876-1961) was the granddaughter of King Rama III’s concubine Chaophraya Ratthanaphiphit (เจ้าพระยารัตนาพิพิธ, known as Puak ปุก). When Lady Gleep was seven years old, she was invited to live in the Grand Palace with her grandmother, Princess Nariratana (เจ้าดวงคำเจ้าจอมมารดาในพระเจ้าบรมวงศ์เธอพระองค์เจ้านารีรัตนา), the daughter of King Rama V from the Lao-Vientiane lineage, and her aunt, Princess Praphatsorn (เจ้าประดิษฐาสารี). The older women trained the young lady in etiquette and various other subjects of the aristocracy, including embroidery, flower arranging and perfume making; Lady Gleep was also instructed in skills such as folding pandan leaves into intricate vessels. Later, at the request of her father, Lady Gleep was sent to live in Bang Yi Khan Gardens (สวนบางยี่ขัน), on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River – the gardens were set on land renowned for its fertility.

During her three-year stay at Bang Yi Khan Gardens (สวนบางยี่ขัน), Lady Gleep was taught traditional food preparation techniques, and harvested fruits and herbs on her own. Her time in the gardens was a valuable learning experience; in her book, she provides recipes for upcountry classics like gaaeng dtohm pla ra (แกงต้มปลาร้า), a fermented fish soup.

Gaaeng jao dtao (แกงเจ้าเต่า) is a dish that showcases Lady Gleep’s appreciation for vernacular cuisine, while highlighting her classical training. Unlike many other aristocratic cooks, Lady Gleep went beyond convention, combing two staple dishes into one: gaaeng jao dtao (แกงเจ้าเต่า) is a unique blend of a sour curry and a water-based gaaeng aawm curry (แกงอ่อม).

Lady Gleep Mahithaawn (ท่านผู้หญิงกลีบ มหิธาวรรณ) (1876-1961) – Digital Ilustration by Hanuman

In a nod to its upcountry origins, the paste contains an abundance of shallots and garlic, their sweetness and warmth infusing the dish with a comforting depth. The phrik khing (พริกขิง) curry paste is thickened with a portion of the catfish meat, which was precooked, collected and pounded into the paste, marrying the traits of a sour curry with the rich notes of ohm curry. The rest of the fish is sliced and cooked in the dish. To lay the foundation for this rural sophistication, Lady Gleep brings the catfish from its shallow, murky habitat and pairs it with the audacious blend of the smoky essence of dried fish and the potent deodorizing properties of fingerroot. Lemon basil, with its animated zest, brightens the muddy essence of the catfish and serves as a rejuvenating counterpoint to the earthy, smoky undertones that define the dish – perhaps as a remembrance of the quiet winds that whispered through the young tamarind leaves in the Bang Yi Khan Gardens.

FingerrootCoriander root
Smoke-dried fish (ปลาย่างรมควัน)Kaffir lime zest
Cooked catfish meat
Summary of the curry paste differences from a regular gaaeng khuaa paste

gaaeng jao dtao (แกงเจ้าเต่า)
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Course Main Course, Curry
Cuisine Thai


For the paste:

  • 8 pieces dried red long chili (phrik chee fa) (พริกชี้ฟ้าแห้ง) rehydrated
  • pinch sea salt (เกลือทะเล)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons lemongrass (ตะไคร้)
  • 1 tablespoon galangal (ข่า)
  • 2 tablespoons fingerroot (krachai) (กระชาย)
  • 2 tablespoons Thai garlic (กระเทียมไทย)
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons shallots (หอมแดง)
  • 1/4 cup smoke-dried fish (all varieties) (ปลาย่างรมควัน)
  • 1/4 cup Cooked catfish meat (เนื้อปลาดุกต้ม )

Season with:

  • fish sauce (น้ำปลา)


Prepare the cooked catfish meat:

  • Slice the catfish into 1-inch (2.5 cm). It will be cooked in the curry, and a small amount to thicken the curry paste. Reserve the rest of the catfish for the curry.
  • Cook the amount of catfish required for the paste and cook it in boiling water until cooked. Then collect the meat, and set it aside.

Prepare the paste.

  • An overview of the curry paste ingredients.
  • Deseed and rehydrate the dried chilies in hot water.
  • Pound the curry paste, starting with the chilies and gradually adding the other ingredients from the driest to the wettest. Pound the paste until it is smooth with a rounded aroma.
  • Add the meat of the cooked catfish to the paste and pound well. Set aside.

Cook the curry

  • In a pot, dilute the paste in water to the preferred consistency.
  • Bring to a boil and cook until the paste loses its rawness.
  • Add the sliced catfish and cook until done.
  • Add the tamarind leaves and allow them to cook briefly to release their sourness.
  • Season with fish sauce and tamarind paste if required.
  • Add the lemon basil.
  • Serve and garnish with fresh fingerroot leaves and young tamarind leaves.
Keyword sour curry (แกงส้ม)
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It is truly brilliant with a revolutionary approach introducing aspects and concepts never broached by cookbooks.
Ian Westcott
Ian Westcott
Sourcing Wines for Discerning Private Clients
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