When it comes to pairing fruits with meats in savory dishes, it’s hard to match the bold tangy-luscious combination of apples and prunes in this old-fashioned coconut-based spicy curry with braised duck. The dish is seasoned to a spicy, salty, and sour-sweet flavor profile, which is further intensified by the prunes’ subtle nectareous, savory-sweetness and the apples’ fruity, sweet-tartness. This curry is a perfect example of how fruits can complement the already complex and profound aromatic relationships between meaty-savory flavors, the curry paste’s aromatic identity, and the dish’s herbal character of Thai basil and fresh peppercorns – creating a most memorable flavor impression.
The significance of apples and prunes extends beyond their taste. Both fruits play important roles in Chinese and European cultures and were utilized for centuries in traditional dishes and medicinal practices by ancient civilizations such as the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians. Prunes are considered a symbol of longevity in Chinese culture; apples symbolize health and fertility in European culture, as well as lust, desire and forbidden love. Consistently portrayed as an object of temptation that leads to consequences, the apple is key to the biblical story of Adam and Eve, and how they came to discern good from evil; in Greek mythology, the Trojan War was triggered by the awarding of a golden apple.
Notably, these fruits appear some of the finest and most elegant dishes known to the world, such as Chinese duck with savory prune sauce, tender braised pork belly with dried apples, fragrant Persian prune and saffron rice, or hearty Indian lamb stews with grated apples. Thus, it is unsurprising that this duck curry, which celebrates these delectable and auspicious fruits, appealed to the Siamese aristocracy of the early 1900s.
Additionally, the acidity of the fruits counters the richness of the coconut curry and duck meat, resulting in a more satisfying overall taste. Recent scientific studies have shown that the acidity in fruits complements the savory elements in a dish, in part due to the high levels of malic acid found in fruits. Malic acid is a naturally occurring substance that bestows a tangy and crisp taste, similar to that of green apples. It adds complexity to savory dishes by interacting with glutamic acid, which is the main component of the umami taste, thus enhancing the overall taste perception. Rotzoll, Nina, Andreas Dunkel, and Thomas Hofmann. “Activity-Guided Identification of (S)-Malic Acid 1-O-d-Glucopyranoside (Morelid) and γ-Aminobutyric Acid as Contributors to Umami Taste and … Continue reading
The addition of fruits not only adds flavor, but also helps to tenderize the duck meat; this is achieved via two different methods. First, fruits that are high in glucose and fructose, which are both types of simple sugars, can act as humectants. When added to meat dishes, humectants amplify the water-holding capacity of the meat, keeping it moister during cooking. Both glucose and fructose have hydroxyl groups (-OH) which can form hydrogen bonds with water molecules. These hydrogen bonds help retain the water molecules in the food and slow down the evaporation process. Think of it as giving a drink of water to a plant so it doesn’t dry out – that’s what glucose and fructose do for our food.
The second way in which fruits can help to tenderize duck meat is through an enzymatic reaction. Prunes, for example, contain an enzyme called “protease” that breaks down proteins in the meat, making it more tender. So, by adding prunes and apples to the duck meat as it simmers in coconut milk, Siamese cooks were able to prepare tender, moist and flavorful duck meat.
While the duck and fruits are simmering, I prepare the curry paste using M.L. Terb Choomsai’s recipe, which is a typical phrik khing (พริกขิง) paste with the addition of dry spices. These spices are the three ‘gateway spices’ (white peppercorns, coriander seeds, cumin seeds); I also use nutmeg. It is important to note that using too much nutmeg can leave a strong aftertaste in the mouth, which some people may find overpowering. It’s best to add nutmeg sparingly and repetitively in small amounts, and to let it play its unique melody in perfect harmony to tame down the gamey taste of the duck.
For the chilies, I select large body chilies and, since the duck is already covered with a darkish broth enriched by plums and apples, I like to keep the chilies quite red, so the finished dish will be a bright, shiny reddish brownish in color. To achieve this, I roast the dried red long chilies to no more than 10% char and then rehydrate them.
The remaining steps of the cooking process are the same as for a typical gaaeng phet (แกงเผ็ด) and are described in the recipe.
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To braise the duck:
- 400 g duck legs (น่องเป็ด) about 4-5 pieces
- 1/2 tablespoon Thai garlic (กระเทียมไทย)
- 1 tablespoon pork lard (น้ำมันหมู)
- 2 pieces green apples (แอปเปิ้ลเขียว) peeled, deseeded and sliced
- 10 pitted prunes (ลูกพรุนแห้ง)
- 4 cups coconut milk (หางกะทิ)
For the curry:
- 1/2 cup coconut cream (หัวกะทิ)
- 3 pieces fresh peppercorns (พริกไทยอ่อน)
- 5 pieces kaffir lime leaves (ใบมะกรูด)
- 1 cup Thai basil (ใบโหระพา)
For the paste:
- 10 dried red long chili (phrik chee fa) (พริกชี้ฟ้าแห้ง) roasted to no more than 10% and rehydrated
- 1 tablespoon sea salt (เกลือทะเล)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons lemongrass (ตะไคร้) thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoons galangal (ข่า) ข่า, thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon kaffir lime zest (ผิวมะกรูด)
- 1 teaspoon coriander roots (รากผักชี) scraped, washed and chopped
- 1 tablespoon Thai garlic (กระเทียมไทย) thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons shallots (หอมแดง) thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon fermented shrimp paste (kapi)(กะปิย่างไฟ) grilled
- 1 teaspoon white peppercorns (พริกไทย) (S1) roasted and ground
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds (malet phak chee) (เมล็ดผักชี) (S2) roasted and ground
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds (malet yeeraa) (เมล็ดยี่หร่า) (S3) roasted and ground
- 1/2 nutmeg seed (ลูกจันทน์เทศ) (S5) roasted and ground
- 1 part fish sauce (น้ำปลา)
- 1/2 part palm sugar (น้ำตาลมะพร้าว)
- salted thick coconut cream (หัวกะทิเข้มข้น)
- kaffir lime leaves (ใบมะกรูด) sliced into hair-thin juliennes
- fresh peppercorns (พริกไทยอ่อน)
Prepare the duck meat:
- Start by deboning the duck legs.
- Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat; add pork lard and garlic. Once hot, add the duck legs, skin side down, and fry until the skin is golden brown.
- Remove the duck legs from the skillet and discard the fat.
- Place the duck legs back into the skillet.
- Add the coconut milk, pitted prunes, and sliced apples to the skillet. Reserve some apples to add to the curry later.
- Bring the mixture to a simmer.
- Cover the skillet with a lid and simmer over low heat until the duck legs are cooked through and tender.
- Once the duck legs are cooked, remove them from the skillet and set aside.
- Discard the fat that is floating on top of the braising liquids; reserve the braising liquid to dilute the curry.
Prepare the curry paste:
- An overview of the curry paste ingredients.
- Roast and grind the spices, starting with the white peppercorns, coriander seeds, cumin seeds and nutmeg. The spices are ground separately and kept separate until they are used in the dish.
- De-seed and roast the dry chilies to no more than 10% char; rehydrate the chilies in hot water.
- Pound the paste until it is smooth with a rounded aroma. Gradually add the other ingredients, from the driest to the wet. After pounding the chilies, add the lemongrass and galangal.
- Add the kaffir lime zest and coriander root
- Add the shallots and garlic.
- Add the dried spices, and pound to a smooth paste. Start with the white peppercorns.
- Add the roasted and ground coriander seeds.
- Add the roasted and ground cumin seeds.
- Add the roasted and ground nutmeg seed.
- Add the fermented shrimp paste (kapi) and keep 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 and fry it until it loses its rawness.
- As you fry, continue to add the dry spices multiple times. Use your sense of smell to determine the amount.
- Stop the frying with plain water and the liquids collected from cleaning the pestle and mortar. This is important, in order 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.
- Add the duck meat and the some of the duck-braising liquids.
- Add the remaining sliced apple.
Diluting the curry:
- Dilute the curry with coconut milk, duck-braising liquids or chicken stock to your liking.
- Season to a salty leading with a sweet floor flavor profile – and do 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, adjusting based on the sweetness already introduced via the fruits in the braising liquids.
Adding the herbs:
- Add the fresh peppercorns.
- Turn off the heat before adding the kaffir lime leaves and Thai basil. Spread the Thai basil evenly on top of the curry and gently push it into the broth, allowing it to wilt down. Do not stir vigorously!
|↑1||Rotzoll, Nina, Andreas Dunkel, and Thomas Hofmann. “Activity-Guided Identification of (S)-Malic Acid 1-O-d-Glucopyranoside (Morelid) and γ-Aminobutyric Acid as Contributors to Umami Taste and Mouth-Drying Oral Sensation of Morel Mushrooms (Morchella Deliciosa Fr.).” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 53, no. 10 (May 1, 2005): 4149–56. https://doi.org/10.1021/jf050056i. @rotzollActivityGuidedIdentificationMalic2005|