My love for Thai food isn't really about the specific flavors of any particular dish. I make no claims to understanding the detailed history of Thai cuisine. Instead, I am completely enamored with the process of cooking Thai food. I love that Thai cooks do not bind themselves to tradition -- they constantly improvise, each cook putting his or her own stamp on a given dish. One must use all of her senses to cook with flexible grace and elegance. If a sauce tastes too fiery, in goes a big pinch of palm sugar. If the garlic is young and mellow, add another clove or two. Everything seems to be centered on the concept of balance, and the only way to find that balance is to use your intuition. For me, that's precisely where the beauty exists. This style of cooking simultaneously educates and empowers the cook.
Take green curry paste as an example. It's a flavorful puréed mixture of aromatic ingredients -- lemongrass, galangal (a relative of ginger), shallots, garlic, and chile peppers -- and it serves as a foundation for many dishes. Traditionally the ingredients are pounded into a paste using a mortar and pestle. Of course, it's a little more complicated than just mindless pounding. The mortar and pestle must be made of granite, not marble, which is too slick of a surface to properly rough up the fibrous ingredients. The pestle should strike the sloping point where the side meets the bottom, and then drag along the bottom in a smooth, sweeping grind. It takes time to crush everything together into a cohesive mixture. One must watch attentively to know when the next ingredient should be added to the mortar -- the galangal and lemongrass are added first, so that they spend the most time being pulverized.
Given the inherent flexibility and diversity of Thai cuisine, I like to think that Thai cooks wouldn't mind if I used the tools and ingredients I have to make my own version of green curry paste. Since I don't have a granite mortar and pestle, a food processor will have to do. When I can't find fresh galangal or Kaffir lime zest, perhaps I can substitute ginger and ordinary lime juice for a less nuanced yet tasty approximation. Vegans might consider swapping out shrimp paste, which lends a funky fermented note, and using vegemite instead. Would it be terrible if I added a pinch of my favorite spice, turmeric? I'll leave it all up to you.
However you choose to make curry paste, let go of the idea that it will be completely authentic and embrace the creativity and engagement inherent to the process.
Thai Green Curry
If you are making this in a mortar and pestle, the order of ingredients is the same as outlined below. Begin with the lemongrass, lime, spices, galangal, and salt. Then, once that is sufficiently pounded, add the remaining ingredients and continue pounding.
Serves 2 to 4
For the curry paste:
2 stalks lemongrass
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
½ teaspoon coriander seeds
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
¼ teaspoon white peppercorns
1 (2-inch) piece galangal, finely sliced
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
1 small shallot, sliced
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 teaspoon shrimp paste
¼ cup sliced Bird's Eye chile pepper (also called Thai chile)
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
For the green curry:
1 (400-ml) can coconut milk
1 small onion, sliced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and sliced
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken (breasts or thighs), cut into bite-sized pieces
1 teaspoon palm sugar, coconut sugar, or brown sugar
2 teaspoons fish sauce
1 bunch Thai basil, for garnish
Steamed rice, for serving
First, make the curry paste: Trim the lemongrass, peeling away all the tough green layers until you reach the softer purple-white interior. Thinly slice only the bottom few inches, place in a bowl with the lime juice, and set aside to soak for at least 15 minutes.
In a small, dry pan set over medium-low heat, toast the coriander, cumin, and peppercorns until fragrant and beginning to pop, 2 to 3 minutes. Let cool completely.
In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine the lemongrass-lime mixture, the toasted spices, galangal, salt, shallot, garlic, shrimp paste, chile pepper, and turmeric. Blend until very finely chopped.
Then, make the curry: Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl in the thick, creamy part that has risen to the top of the coconut milk can. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of the green curry paste and cook, stirring often, for a few minutes. Stir in the onion, bell pepper, and chicken, let them sizzle for a moment, then pour in the remaining coconut milk and bring to a simmer. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the palm sugar and fish sauce, then taste and adjust the seasoning to your liking. (The remaining green curry paste can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.)
Garnish with the Thai basil and serve alongside steamed rice.