Typically, in Central-style curries, different types of basil are not used together. In higher cuisine, it is an unstated – but understood – practice to avoid blending the definitive scents of various basils. A curry’s final herbal identity is intended to remain definitively with its basil: the citrus notes of holy basil; the spicy-woody and pungent flavor of tree basil; the tart fragrance of lemon basil; or the cooling anise sensation of Thai basil.
In this spicy coconut-based curry, two types of basil are deployed to create a unique integrated herbal signature that feels both citrusy and anise-like – an herbal profile that is more appropriate for village life. As such, when Ms. Jeep Bunnag described this dish as a “curry of tiny and small fish”, I expected a specific assessment of small, whole fishes, indicative of the rustic cooking style in upcountry communities that rely on small aquatic animals as the main nutritional source.
For the aristocracy, however, beauty starts with “fish.” Jeep Bunnag replaced the rustic small fish in the original recipe with small, fish-shaped fish balls that literally decorate the dish as they figuratively swim in the curry. Moreover, the robust herbal profile of the curry, composed of two basils and fingerroot, is semantically prepared to deodorize the dish as if small fishes were actually used. This herbal shift remains fresh and pungent, as the fish balls – unlike a fish – offer no aromatic resistance.
Fish-shaped foods are auspicious and considered a blessing for a good, affluent life with an abundance of food and a surplus of wealth. This ancient veneration of the fish originated in China and was introduced to Siam via the Chinese dragon gate over the Yellow River, leaping its way onto the dining tables of the aristocracy. Furthermore, a Buddhism parable presents the always-open eyes of a fish as a symbol of mindfulness and awakening, a path one should take to minimize the actions of self that can cause disturbance to others.
To prepare the fish-shaped fish balls, Jeep Bunnag scrapes the meat of a clown featherback fish, and pounds it with saam glur. She then presses the mixture into a fish-shaped mold and steams it before introducing it to the curry. Shaping the fish balls is for decoration, and perhaps reverence, but it is absolutely optional. The fish balls can be fish-shaped or round; either way you have a delightful story.
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For the fish balls:
- 400 gr clown featherback fish meat (เนื้อปลากราย)
- 1/2 tablespoon coriander roots (รากผักชี) scraped, washed and chopped
- 1/4 tablespoon Thai garlic (กระเทียมไทย)
- 1/2 teaspoon white peppercorns (พริกไทย) roasted and grounded
For the curry:
- 2 tablespoons fingerroot sliced into thin juliennes
- kaffir lime leaves (ใบมะกรูด)
- 1 cup Thai basil (ใบโหระพา)
- 1 cup holy basil (ใบกะเพรา)
- 1/2 cup coconut cream (หัวกะทิ)
- 1 1/2 cups coconut milk (หางกะทิ)
For the curry paste:
- 10 dried red long chili (phrik chee fa) (พริกชี้ฟ้าแห้ง) roasted to 30% char and rehydrated
- 1 teaspoon sea salt (เกลือทะเล)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons lemongrass (ตะไคร้)
- 1 tablespoons galangal (ข่า) thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon kaffir lime zest (ผิวมะกรูด)
- 2 teaspoons coriander roots (รากผักชี) scraped, washed and chopped
- 4 pieces fingerroot (krachai) (กระชาย)
- 1 tablespoon Thai garlic (กระเทียมไทย) thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons shallots (หอมแดง) thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon white peppercorns (พริกไทย) roasted and grounded
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds (malet phak chee) (เมล็ดผักชี) roasted and grounded
- 1 part fish sauce (น้ำปลา)
- 1/2 part palm sugar (น้ำตาลมะพร้าว)
Prepare the fish balls:
- Start by processing the clown featherback fish. In an earthen mortar and pestle, pound the fish meat vigorously to develop its actomyosin protein structure and improve its texture as it steams. You can add ice cubes from time to time, to keep the fish mixture chilled and prevent the fats from melting. Wetting the pestle will help to prevent the fish from sticking to it. You will know the process is done when the fish’s resistance to the pounding becomes constant. The process should take about 30 minutes.
- Season the fish meat with a paste of saam glur – the coriander roots, garlic and white peppercorn.
- Using a spoon or wet hands, form the mixture into roundish balls and cook them in very hot but not boiling water. If too much heat is used, the fish balls will expand too quickly, and their texture will be impaired.
- Alternatively, use a fish-shaped silicone mold to form fish-shaped balls; and then steam the fish balls.
- Allow the fish balls to cool to room temperature in a bath of cold water. Set aside.
Prepare the curry paste:
- An overview of the curry paste ingredients.
- Roast and grind the spices, starting with the white peppercorns and then the coriander seeds. The spices are ground separately and kept separate until they are used in the dish.
- De-seed and rehydrate the dried chilies.
- In a mortar and pestle, pound the chilies with salt into a fine paste.
- Gradually add the other ingredients, from the driest to the wet. Pound the paste until it is smooth with a rounded aroma.
- Add the dried spices. Pound to a smooth paste.
- 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. Add the curry paste.
- Fry the paste until it loses its rawness.
- Add the julienned fingerroot (krachai).
- 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.
Diluting the curry:
- Dilute the curry with coconut milk or stock to your liking.
- Start by seasoning the salty element using fish sauce.
- When you are satisfied with the saltiness, add the palm sugar at the ratio indicated.
Adding the herbs:
- Add hand-torn kaffir lime leaves.
- Turn off the heat before adding both the Thai basil and holy basil. Spread both basils evenly on top of the curry and gently push the leaves into the broth, allowing them to wilt down. Do not stir vigorously!
Plate and serve:
- Place the curry into a serving bowl. Garnish with kaffir lime leaves sliced into hair-thin juliennes.