Salty leading and sour-sweet to follow, this coconut-based gaaeng phet spicy curry might be made of chilies, but it is fruitier than it is spicy, and lighter than it is dense. Originally cooked with the meat of game birds, it retains a surprisingly light body that opens space for the birds to fly. The curry is tinted golden orange from a paste imbued with fresh yellow chilies and turmeric; it is perfumed with lemongrass and lemon basil leaves.
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A fresh, fruity, mildly spicy and very airy curry
The use of yellow chilies in place of dried red chilies imparts a blast of green curry-like freshness. The yellow chilies are a bright copper and orange in color but, despite their fiery appearance, they are only moderately spicy and as composed as the robes of meditating monks. Their fruitiness is ripe and sweet – a contrast to the youthful, leafy-herbaceous freshness of green chilies or the mature characteristics of rehydrated dried chilies. The ‘chili aroma’ of yellow chilies is the fruitiest of them all. Acclaimed and widely utilized in Central Plains cuisine, the yellow chili is used in salads, relishes and curries, or in garnishes. Rarely, however, are yellow chilies used to make curry paste, as in this dish.
To reinforce the vivid orange hue of the chilies, kaffir lime zest and coriander roots – the green elements of the curry paste – are removed, and replaced by an intense fresh turmeric; as if to protect the luxurious fruitiness of the yellow chili, the astringent galangal and dry spices are also left out of this paste.
In yet another aromatic twist that further expands the dish’s fruitiness, common ingredients used in gaaeng phet spicy curry – hand-torn green kaffir lime leaves and sharp anise-flavored Thai basil – are replaced by citrusy elements of lemongrass and lemon basil leaves. In the final accommodation to the chilies’ orange fruitiness, the curry is seasoned salty, leading with a sour-sweet floor instead of the typical salty-sweet flavor profile of gaaeng phet spicy curries.
This unique curry merits even further examination due to the design of the curry paste, which amplifies fruitiness and produces an airy curry result. To study it, we first list the ingredients that were added or omitted from the standard phrik khing (พริกขิง) paste composition. This gives us a clearer overview of the paste and an easier way to memorize it.
The following table summarizes the curry paste variances of a basic phrik khing (พริกขิง) paste.
|Fresh yellow chilies
|Kaffir lime zest
|White peppercorns (S1)
Use the universal ratios of 1/2 the amount by volume of the fish sauce in palm sugar, to achieve a flavor profile with a salty leading and a sweet floor. Then, when you are satisfied with the seasoning, add no more than half the amount of palm sugar volume in tamarind paste. This results in a sour layer that appears to rise above the sweetness, yet allows the saltiness to lead the flavor profile.
But of course, this is just a game plan – you can adjust these seasonings as you cook and taste.
You can use any game bird including snipe (นกปากซ่อม; nohk bpaak saawm), pigeon (นกพิราบ; nohk phiraap), quail (นกกระทา; nohk grathaa), or even chicken and duck. The birds can be served in any fashion you wish: whole on the plate, sliced, or bone-in and chopped into small pieces. I recommend braising them tender with aromatics before adding them to the curry and avoiding the temptation of grilling or smoking it first.
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To braise the quail:
- 4 quail (นกกระทา)
- 2 stalks lemongrass (ตะไคร้) bruised and cut into segments
- 10 thin slices fresh turmeric (ขมิ้นชัน)
- 5 shallots (หอมแดง) bruised
- water (น้ำเปล่า) to cover
For the curry:
- 1 cup coconut cream (หัวกะทิ)
- 1/4 cup coconut milk (หางกะทิ)
- 1 cup chicken stock (น้ำสต๊อกไก่)
- 2 stalks lemongrass (ตะไคร้) bruised and cut into segments
- 5 shallots (หอมแดง) bruised
- 1 cup lemon basil (ใบแมงลัก)
For the curry paste:
- 1 1/2 cups fresh yellow chili (phrik leuang) (พริกเหลือง) deseeded and thinly sliced (about 14 chilies)
- 1 teaspoon sea salt (เกลือทะเล)
- 2 tablespoons lemongrass (ตะไคร้) thinly sliced
- 7 thin slices fresh turmeric (ขมิ้นชัน)
- 1 tablespoon Thai garlic (กระเทียมไทย) thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons shallots (หอมแดง) thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon fermented shrimp paste (kapi)(กะปิย่างไฟ)
- 1 teaspoon white peppercorns (พริกไทย) (S1)
- 1 part fish sauce (น้ำปลา)
- 1 part palm sugar (น้ำตาลมะพร้าว)
- 1/2 part tamarind paste (น้ำมะขามเปียก)
- shallots (หอมแดง) thinly sliced
Braise the quail:
- Clean and wash the quail thoroughly. Use them whole or chop them into small bite-size pieces. Set aside.
- Fill a large pot with light coconut milk enough to cover the quails, and add the fresh turmeric, lemongrass and shallots and bring to a simmer.
- Add the quails and braise covered on medium low heat.
- Once the quail are tender and their skin tinted yellow, remove them from the pot, discard the cooking liquids and the aromatics. . Set aside.
Prepare the aromatics:
- Bruise and peel lemongrass. Cut it into large pieces. Set aside.
- Peel and bruise the shallots. Set aside.
- Pick the leaves of the lemon basil. Set aside.
Prepare the curry paste:
- An overview of the curry paste ingredients.
- De-seed the fresh yellow chilies and slice them into thin pieces. Set aside.
- Pound the curry paste: start with the fresh yellow chilies, the salt and the white peppercorns.
- Gradually add the other ingredients, from the driest to the wet. After pounding the chilies, add the lemongrass and, while pounding it, gradually add the turmeric. Continue pounding the paste until it is smooth with an orange color that is to your satisfaction.
- Add the shallots and garlic.
- Add the fermented shrimp paste (kapi) and continue pounding until a rounded aroma is achieved.
- Remove the curry paste and set it aside. Wash the mortar and pestle with about one cup of plain water and reserve the liquids.
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 plain water and the liquids collected from cleaning the pestle and mortar.
- Important: At this stage, in order 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.
Diluting the curry:
- Dilute the curry with coconut milk and chicken stock to your liking.
- Add the quail and mix gently. Braise the quail in the curry until they are fully cooked.
- When the quail are almost cooked, add the bruised lemongrass stalks and bruised whole shallots.
- Season to a salty leading with a sour-sweet floor flavor profile – and 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.
- Add tamarind paste at the ratio indicated.
Adding the herbs:
- Turn off the heat before adding the lemon basil. Spread the lemon basil equally on top of the curry and gently push it into the broth, allowing it to wilt down. Do not stir vigorously!
The Contrasting Histories of Gaaeng Rawaaeng (แกงระแวง) – Turmeric-Infused Coconut-Based Thick Curry of Braised Duck and Lemongrass
Gaeng rawang (แกงระแวง) is a curry bearing an unusual name and contradictory accounts regarding its appearance, lineage and origins. When I cook this dish, it is a rich and thick coconut-based curry made with a paste of fresh chilies, aromatics, spices and generous amounts of fresh turmeric, which adds warmth and gives the green chili color a slightly earthier, muted tone that resonates beautifully with the duck meat.
The duck meat is prepared separately and slow-braised in coconut cream before being cooked in the curry. This slow-braising process allows the coconut cream and duck’s fattiness to melt together, resulting in moist and flavorful meat with a hint of sweetness. The curry itself is seasoned to a salty and slightly sweet flavor profile.
Southern Thai Spicy Sour Yellow Curry with Lotus Stems and Sea Bass (แกงเหลืองสายบัวปลากะพง ; gaaeng leuuang saai buaa bplaa ga phohng)
Yellow sour curry (gaaeng leuuang, แกงเหลือง) is considered a comfort food for the people of Thailand’s southern region. Lavish amounts of fresh turmeric give this spicy, sour and salty curry its rich yellow tint, as well as its earthy aroma and a pleasantly bitter taste. The curry also contains generous portions of the southern dark fermented shrimp paste, resulting in a cloudy, ochre-colored dish.
Southern yellow sour curry is primarily made with saltwater fish, and with either water spinach (phak boong ผักบุ้ง), bamboo shoots (fresh or pickled), green papaya, the stems of the giant elephant ear plant (Colocasia gigantea) (aaw dip อ้อดิบ or thuun ทูน), winter melon (fak khiaao ฟักเขียว) or lotus stems. But versions of the curry that include freshwater fish, shrimp, salted threadfin fish (bplaa goo lao khem ปลากุเลาเค็ม), or even beef or pork belly, are not rare.
Perfumed Muslim-style Curry of Fresh Chilies with Beef (แกงเขียวหวานเนื้อทรงเครื่อง; Gaaeng Khiaao Waan Neuua Sohng Khreuuang)
The Indian and Muslim cuisines present distinct approaches to using dried spices in curries, both of which influence Siamese cuisine in different ways. Indian-inspired Siamese curries spotlight chilies for their vibrant color, fragrance, flavor and heat, while spices like cumin and coriander play a supporting role. The spices complement and temper the chilies’ intensity, creating a rounded, multi-layered flavor profile; nonetheless, the chilies remain the star ingredient, gently complemented by the spices.
Conversely, Muslim-influenced curries, such as massaman curry, prioritize spices over chilies. Spices like cardamom, nutmeg and mace take center stage, while the chilies provide subtle background heat rather than being the primary flavor. In these curries, the focus is on the rich, warm and complex aromas created by the blend of spices, which is a defining characteristic of many Muslim dishes.
Moreover, Siamese cuisine favors using rehydrated dried chilies in curries for their depth; this depth is highly appreciated, along with the complexity, and comparatively milder heat of the rehydrated dried chilies. As well, the harsh grassy notes of fresh chilies are not favored; they’re referred to in Thai as “green rank” or “men khiaao (เหม็นเขียว)”. Muslim curries often use fresh green chilies, tempering their vibrant, grassy taste with dry spices and thus shifting the flavor from bright and fresh to more subdued and earthy tones, resulting in a dish that is perceived to be layered, despite the burst of fresh chilies.
Perfumed Braised Beef and Potato Curry with Three Gingers, Thai Basil and Bitter Orange (แกงเนื้อใส่เปราะหอมสดและส้มซ่า; Gaaeng Neuua Sai Bpraw Haawm Soht Lae Sohm Saa)
Discovered in a memorial book for the funeral of SubLt. Soophoht Jeungpraphaa (ร.ต. สุพจน์ จึงประภา) (1925-1966), this beef and potato curry dish unites two distinct curry styles: Massaman curry, known for its sweet and warming complexity of dry spices, punctuated by the vibrancy of bitter orange juice; and gaaeng phet (แกงเผ็ด) spicy curry, dominated by a basil herbal identity. The recipe maintains a sense of traditional elegance despite the startlingly unusual culinary fusion; as these two cooking styles are woven together, their spiced comfort, earthy warmth, citrusy freshness, and cool herbaceous notes meld in a gentle refinement. Drawing upon familiar and novel elements, this curry is both comforting and stimulating.
Massaman curry typically presents as a deep, rich dish. Its unique flavor profile is derived predominantly from a range of dry spices that point to its Persian-inspired roots in Siamese cuisine, along with a curry paste that exudes a sense of freshness. The dried chilis are roasted to deepen their color; the rest of the ingredients, such as the shallots, garlic and dry spices, are roasted too, individually, before being pounded into the paste. Conversely, the gaaeng phet (แกงเผ็ด) curry integrates dry spices more sparingly and is known for flavor qualities that are based on a phrik khing (พริกขิง) paste made of fresh aromatics and a basil herbal identity.
Swamp Eel Triple-Layered Red Curry with Fingerroot, Bitter Ginger, Sand Ginger and Thai Basil Flowers (แกงเผ็ดปลาไหลทรงเครื่อง ; Gaaeng Phet Bplaa Lai Sohng Khreuuang)
This eel curry includes a greater-than-usual quantity of aromatics used over three stages. First, the eel is cleaned and sliced into segments; then it is fried with a generous amount of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves and shallots. These help to counter its muddy and somewhat iron-like odor, which disappears along with the liquids and the aromatics.
This eel curry recipe is adapted from the vintage book: “Gap Khaao O:H Chaa Roht” by Ging Ga Nohk) (กับข้าวโอชารส โดย กิ่งกนก – กาญจนาภา พ.ศ. 2485). This rare book was written in 1942 during WWII, a period of global turmoil in which Thailand was invaded by the Japanese. That same year marked a decade from the ending of absolute monarchy rule in 1932, and one generation away from the peak of the Siamese culinary renaissance that flourished in the court of King Rama V (1868-1910): a nostalgic era for its children who are still with us to remember and reflect on those times.