A while back I posted a menu which included a squash soup with coconut milk and red curry paste. Skip and Chris, who are readers, here asked for the recipe. I responded in a comment, but ever since have been meaning to actually post the recipe. Here it is.
Depending on how much you use of this amazing and versatile paste it will keep in the fridge forever.
Some tips on using it:
1. You need to fry it for a minute in a tablespoon or so of hot oil first before you add anything else to it (like coconut milk or squash puree, etc.) If you want to be “authentic”, use peanut oil, but for goodness sake search out and spend the money on organic (you’ve already heard my rant about the very questionable farming methods used to grow peanuts in this country and how they are a rotation crop with cotton, the most heavily pesticide sprayed crop.)
These days palm oil or soy oil are ubiquitous for frying, both of these are seriously problematic from both an environmental and health point of view. For what it’s worth I tend to use organic canola oil for most things as it’s easier to find and tends to be a little cheaper than peanut oil.
2. Saltiness. You’d think that anything with anchovies and salt in it would already be salty enough, but this is a perfect example of where things that are salty are all salty in a different way. Sea salt, soy sauce, and fish sauce are all important additions to whatever dish you are making – peanut sauce, sweet potato and squash soup, stir fries, red curry duck, etc. In Thailand, in a traditional food stall or restaurant, you would always have on the table: hot peppers in fish sauce, plain fish sauce, sugar, dried ground hot peppers and vinegar and then, additionally, depending on what you ordered, fresh herbs.
All this to simply say just because you are adding a spice paste don’t think it in and of itself will be enough. The key ingredient so often to most Thai cooking is the final squeeze of lime juice at the very end.
3. Finally, I substitute anchovies (I buy salted, but packed in oil ones work just as well) instead of shrimp paste. I do this for two reasons. Firstly, commercial farming of shrimps can be devastating to the environment with rich, lush mangrove swamps – wonderfully diverse ecosystems – turned into deserts and then abandoned by commercial shrimp farms. The problem with a product like shrimp paste is that you have no way of really knowing where the shrimp in it come from or how they were caught or farmed. Secondly my bf is Jewish, so shrimp aren’t so big in our household.
This recipe is based on the one in Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid seminal book: “Hot Sour Salty Sweet”
Krung Gaeng Deng: Red Curry Paste
In dealing with hot peppers of any kind I highly recommend you use latex or rubber gloves when handling them!
De-seed and stem about 1 1/2 cups of dried Thai red chiles (this is tedious work as the seeds often are not so willing to leave their home, my 2 cents worth is not to get hung up on removing every seed, just be aware that the seeds will make your paste hotter).
Place the prepared chiles in a bowl and cover with hot water, place a plate on top to make sure they are submerged and leave sit for 30 minutes.
In a cast iron skillet over medium high heat add 1 1/2 tablespoons coriander seeds, 1 teaspoon cumin seeds and 1/8 teaspoon black peppercorns. When the mixture become aromatic and the coriander and cumin seeds have started to change color remove from the heat and place either in a spice grinder (a cleaned out coffee grinder is what I use) or a mortar and pestle. Grind to a fine powder.
If you have a mortar and pestle it takes longer, but I find there is something very gratifying about grinding warmed spices in it.
Trim and mince 2-3 stalks of lemongrass (you really need to be ruthless here you want to take off all the outer dried leaves and just work with the softest inner leaves, in the markets of NYC you can now find local lemongrass in late August and September).
Roughly chop 1 Tablespoon of coriander root (all fresh coriander/cilantro bought from an Asian food store will still have the roots on usually this is not something you can find at the local Safeway).
Trim, peel and roughly chop 1/4 cup of garlic and shallots.
Trim, peel and roughly chop 1/4 cup of galangal (this is a gnarly rhizome related to ginger, but it is not something you can substitute with ginger even though some recipes say you can. It is one of the things that give this a true authentic Thai flavor, it is available frozen in Asian food markets and in New York is sometimes found fresh at Bangkok Center Grocery, Commodities or even Whole Foods).
Ditto goes for 1 teaspoon of wild lime zest you can substitute regular lime, but it isn’t the same. These limes are often called Kaffir limes, but this is no longer acceptable as kaffir actually is a racist term so more and more people are referring to them as wild limes.
Drain the hot peppers reserving the liquid.
In a food processor or a blender (a blender will give you a finer paste, but I like the more country style effect I get with my food processor) add the prepared: lemongrass, galangal, coriander root, garlic and shallots and wild lime zest and process until a paste. Then add the dried spices, peppers, 1 teaspoon of sea salt, 2-3 teaspoons of chopped anchovies (or 11/2 teaspoons of shrimp paste) and process, adding the reserved pepper water to blend into a paste.
You can do this all in a mortar in which case you want start with the lemongrass, galangal and coriander root, when they have been broken down then add the garlic and shallots, pounding again until they are all incorporated and form a paste then add the peppers, pounding and grinding again until all the ingredients are incorporated (adding liquid as is needed) then add the remaining ingredients and work into a paste. This can take a very long time and requires a large mortar, but if you are up for it and looking for a very authentic paste this is how it has been done historically in Thailand.
Place the paste in a sealed jar in the fridge. It sounds like a challenge assembling and processing all the ingredients, but it is so worth it and really makes a huge taste difference to canned. Also, as always this is a guideline feel free to add more or less of what ever. I’m inclined to use more cumin seeds and anchovies, but it’s up to you and as you use it don’t forget you can adjust it on a dish to dish basis.