A few years ago I lived and worked in Bangkok and had the opportunity to travel around Thailand. One weekend I flew to Chiang Mai and took a Thai cookery course with a young chef named Noi Prateep Chaita. He picked us up at our hotel and drove us out into the countryside to his home. Noi demonstrated several recipes including Fried Chicken with Cashew Nuts, Tom Yam Gung (Spicy and Sour Shrimp Soup,) Papaya Salad, and Pad Thai. He gave each of us a little recipe book he prepared in his own hand writing and I would scribble notes as we went along hoping to remember how to prepare his dishes when I got home. After tasting his recipes, he put us to work at our outdoor stations where we set about madly chopping and tossing and stir frying in the hopes of creating some semblance of his sublime dishes.
Early in the morning, Noi took us to the 250 year old Warowat wet market where the stalls were filled with shimmering, slithering fish, buckets of freshly caught crawling grubs, mountains of spices and curry pastes…deep earthy red, mustard yellow, burnt umber and sienna…aromatic herbs, and fragrant fruits and vegetables.I will always remember the cacophony of sellers yelling out to passers by, the pungent smells…complex and unlike any I had ever experienced before, the visual imagery of the colourful foodstuffs and the people…it was sensory overload but in a good way. We stopped at one stall and Noi encouraged us to try a deep-fried skewer. We could choose from grasshoppers, waterbugs, frogs, crickets, and other large insects I had never seen before. I was hesitant to try any…I had eaten frogs legs in the past…so, with trepidation, I opted for the frog…guts, toenails and all. To be honest, it was crunchy like potato chips and…well…I can’t say I actually tasted it as I gobbled it down in two bites. The others were brave enough to sample the insects and Noi was proud of us.
Noi taught us how to strip the tough back spine off lime leaves, roll the leaves and chop them into fine strips, use the back side of a heavy knife to bruise the lemon grass stalks to release the flavour, and to carefully scrape the seeds and white veins out of the fiery red chilies before chopping them as they are too hot for most palates. (I suggest using thin latex gloves so that you don’t get the chili on your skin as it will burn your eyes if you touch them.) He showed us how to fry the curry paste in oil for a couple of minutes to enhance the flavour before stirring in the coconut milk.
There is a good Asian market near my house where I can buy almost anything I need for Thai cooking. However, galangal is often unavailable so I substitute a nob of fresh ginger…it’s not the same but close enough. If I can’t find lime leaves, I will use 1/2 tsp. grated lime zest and will substitute a little crushed dried red chili for fresh. Two tsp. brown sugar can be used in place of palm sugar. (I generally don’t make this recipe if I am unable to get fresh lemon grass.)
Although the warm sunny Thai breezes and cooking under the wide open sky is a distant memory, I can bring it all back when I create food using fresh Thai ingredients. Watching Noi and his easy, enthusiastic way of cooking and taking it “all” in inspired me to create my own recipe for Thai Yellow Curry with Prawns.
Thai Yellow Curry With Prawns
Assemble all of the ingredients near the stove
4 tbsp. vegetable cooking oil (divided)
1 onion, peeled and sliced lengthwise
1 red pepper, seeds removed, chopped in 1 inch cubes
5 or 6 mushrooms, quartered
5 lime leaves, finely minced
2 inch piece galangal cut into slices
1 finely chopped small red chili (seeds and white veins removed)
1 tbsp. chopped fresh Thai basil (stir in at the end)
1 stalk lemon grass, bruised and cut into 2 inch pieces
2 -3 tbsp. yellow curry paste
1 can coconut milk
2 tbsp. fish sauce
2 tsp. palm sugar
1 lb. large uncooked, peeled prawns (about 30-35)
In a wok, heat 2 tbsp. oil and stir in the onion for a minute or two, stir in the red pepper and mushrooms. Cook, stirring over medium heat for 3 or 4 minutes, just enough to slightly soften the vegetables and remove them to a bowl
In the wok, over medium heat, add 2 tbsp. oil and the yellow curry paste, cook, stirring for about 2 minutes. Add the coconut milk, lemon grass, lime leaves, galangal, fish sauce, palm sugar, and vegetables. Heat until simmering.
Simmer 3 or 4 minutes to blend the flavours and add the prawns. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes until the prawns curl and turn pink.
Stir in the fresh basil, taste and adjust seasoning. You may want to take the prawns and vegetables out of the sauce and serve both separately.
Serve with rice. Let your guests know to pick out the galangal and lemon grass as they are added just for flavour. This recipe will serve 4.
Thai people eat with a spoon and push the food onto it with a fork. Noodles are often eaten with chopsticks.