Yesterday it was spritzing ice crystals.
By late afternoon, tiny icicles festooned the picnic table like spiky fringe on a tablecloth. The pup skidded across the frozen deck and took a joyous, flying leap onto the frosty grass. So wonderful to have a body that bounces like rubber…
In the kitchen, it was warm as toast—and very fragrant. On the stove prawns and eggplant simmered in coconut milk and green curry. The aromas of lime leaf, pungent spices and sea-sweet shellfish swirled through the house: Palate-titillating and supremely satisfying, the rich scent hinted at the pleasures of the warming dish to come.
As I stirred the pot, my mind wandered to a steamy morning in Bangkok when I learned to make Gang Kiew What Goong….
Siam Hotel chef Blair Mathieson and I had just returned from a foray to Thewet produce market, laden with the ingredients needed for the dishes I’d cook that morning—among them fiery green chilies, tiny pea eggplant, bunches of Thai basil, freshly grated coconut.
Though I loved all the dishes, it was Gang Kiew What Goong—Green Curry with Prawns, Pea Eggplant and Coconut Milk—that won my heart. I’ve been fooling around with versions of this dish for years, but there in Bangkok, I realized for the first time how how delicate it could be when made with exquisitely fresh local ingredients. I also realized how easy it could be to make, especially using the right prepared green curry paste.
The class took place in The Siam’s open air kitchen, located in a traditional Thai house, one of a group originally collected by silk maven Jim Thompson and moved to a prime spot overlooking the Chao Phraya river. Here are a few tips which I picked up first by watching Khun Oil, the adorable sous-chef, demonstrate and then fecklessly trying to duplicate her efforts.
Mise en place matters: Normally I tend to wing it, frantically searching for ingredients, measuring and slicing, as I work through a recipe. But the curry cooks so quickly that you should have everything ready before you begin.
Above you can see how neatly the ingredients for the curry were organized for my lesson. At the top: bowls of chicken stock and coconut milk; middle row: shelled and deveined prawns, small jar of fish sauce, pea and sliced "apple" eggplant, Thai and sweet basil; bottom row: palm sugar, lime leaves and sliced red chili; green chili paste.
Coconut milk/cream: In Bangkok, of course, we bought the richest, freshest coconut milk imaginable. It was easy to separate the thick “cream” from the “regular milk” beneath it. But back here, it’s likely that you’ll be relying on canned or asceptically packaged coconut milk. One excellent brand is Aroy-D, which is available in cans or cartons at some Asian markets, or through Import Food.
How to separate the cream from the milk: If using canned coconut milk, do not shake. Simply open the top all the way around and scoop off the thick cream on top. A 14-ounce can will yield approximately 1/3 cup cream and 1-1/4 cups milk. If using packaged coconut milk, refrigerate it overnight, then remove the entire top of the carton. The cream will have congealed on top, making it easy to separate from the milk. As above, do not shake beforehand.
If you’re lucky enough to have fresh coconut milk, you’ll begin the curry by boiling the cream until the oil is extracted. Add the green curry paste and cook slowly until the mixture becomes dry and fragrant. If using packaged or canned coconut milk, however, the oil may not separate from the cream: In that event, simply boil the coconut cream until it is reduced by half before adding the curry paste.
Green Curry Paste: In many Bangkok markets, there are stalls displaying big round bowls of thick, freshly prepared curry pastes. Every cook has a personal recipe of course, but the point is that a good ready-made curry paste can dramatically reduce the amount of time spent in the kitchen.
Although I’ve always made my own, I recently tried and liked “Hand” brand—the logo features a hand with the thumb turned up—which has a bright, tangy, searingly hot taste. The ingredient list includes fresh green chili, garlic, lemon grass, shallot, salt, galangal, kaffir lime leaf, cumin and coriander seed; it omits shrimp paste which can muddy both the color and flavor, although most recipes specify it.
Eggplant: The Siam’s recipe calls for two types of eggplant. “Apple” or small round Thai eggplant—light green, streaked with white, about the size of a plum—can often be found in the produce section of big Asian markets here in the U.S. But pea eggplant—which do resemble giant peas—are rarely found. Some recipes substitute fresh peas, but you can also increase the number of apple eggplant, some chopped into small pieces. If you can’t find either type of eggplant, you can use the long thin purple Asian variety instead.
Khun Oil, The Siam's sous-chef, stirs palm sugar into the coconut milk and broth mixture, watching as it dissolves, adding sweetness to balance the spiciness of the green curry paste.
Watchful waiting is key to a good curry: I was impressed by the amount of time Khun Oil spent simply observing how the curry evolved as it cooked. The green curry paste and coconut cream, for instance, simmered slowly until the mixture had become dry and aromatic. As the eggplant cooked, becoming soft and velvety, it added depth and texture to the sauce, while the pungent fish sauce, sweet palm sugar and bright lime leaf each created new layers of flavor. At every step of the way, she used all her senses to determine when each ingredient should be added to the pot and how long it should simmer.
If you can do that, you almost don't need a recipe. But anyway, here it is!
Green Curry with Prawns, Pea Eggplant and Coconut Milk
(Adapted from The Siam Hotel, Bangkok, Thailand)
Canned or packaged coconut milk, green curry paste, fish sauce, palm sugar, Thai eggplant, Kaffir lime leaves and Thai basil can be found at large Asian supermarkets, or ordered from Import Food, an on-line supplier of Thai ingredients and cookware.
This recipe will serve 3 to 4 people when accompanied by jasmine rice.
Ingredients for the curry:
One 14-ounce can, or two 8.5-ounce cartons of unsweetened coconut milk with cream
1/4 cup prepared green curry paste
2 teaspoons fish sauce
1 Tbsp palm sugar, or to taste
12 ounces fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 cup pea eggplant, or fresh peas (optional)
4 or more “apple” or round Thai eggplant, cut into 4 to 6 pieces depending on size (or substitute two cups long purple Asian eggplant, cut into ½ inch rounds)
7/8 cup chicken broth
½ sweet red pepper, cut into thin strips
1 tablespoon Thai basil
3 kaffir lime leaves
1 tablespoon whole sweet basil leaves
1. Separate the coconut cream and the milk into two bowls. If using canned coconut milk, there should be roughly 1/3-cup cream and 1-1/4 cup coconut milk. Two 8.5 ounce packages will yield slightly more of each.
2. In a medium pan, bring the coconut cream to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring often for 3 to 5 minutes, until the oil is extracted, or until the cream is reduced by half.
3. Add the green curry paste and continue to cook until the mixture becomes dry and fragrant.
4. Add the prawns and stirfry for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the fish sauce and palm sugar. Stir for one minute more, until the palm sugar melts.
5. Add the eggplant, remaining coconut milk and chicken broth, and simmer over medium heat until the prawns are cooked and the eggplant is tender, 10 to 15 minutes. If using the peas in place of pea eggplant, add them a few minutes before the other eggplant is cooked through. Do not allow the mixture to boil; reduce the heat slightly if necessary.
6. Add the kaffir lime leaves and Thai basil. Bring to a boil. Immediately remove from the heat and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
7. Garnish with sliced sweet red pepper and sweet basil leaves. Serve with steamed jasmine rice on the side.