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Recipe Wed Dec 10 2008
I lived in Thailand for five years when I was a child. I was too young to remember too much, but one thing that has stuck with me ever since is the taste and smell of the Thai food. After our family moved back to rural Japan where we came from, everyone in our family craved Thai food horribly. There wasn't a single Thai restaurant in the city we lived in, and when my mom ran out of the packets of curry paste, a big bottle of fish sauce and bags of dried Pad Thai noodles she smuggled back from Bangkok, we just had to hunker down and wait for the uncertain opportunity for the next Thai feast. Which, of course, did not materialize for a long time. My mom and I developed a habit of looking for Thai restaurants when we visited my grandmother's house in Tokyo during school breaks, but visits were few and far between. My hunger for Thai food gradually faded. When we moved to Chicago about 15 years later in 2003, I didn't even think about all the Thai restaurants that must be around.
As it turned out, I discovered the abundance of Thai restaurants in good time, but the real surprise came when I realized that Thai ingredients are as readily available as there were restaurants. Around Argyle and Broadway, every other grocery store seemed to carry canned curry pastes, blocks of tamarind pulp, funny-shaped galangals, stalks of lemon grass, and even fermented tiny shrimps (kapi) that gives the distinctive pungent punch to many a Thai dishes. After I encountered one too many bowls of overly sweet Tom Yum Kun in restaurants, I decided to make one myself. (Tom Yum Kun, sour and spicy broth with shrimp, is supposed to be absolutely firely hot. When I dealt with the real stuff as a seven-year-old, I could only sip it carefully from a spoon. A big gulp probably would have costed me ten minutes of couging heaves.)
In my first try, I made it from scratch, using fresh lemon grass, kaffir leaf, etc. However, as is too often the case with exotic cuisines that aren't really a part of my everyday repertoire, I didn't know what to do with the remaining ingredients. I watched them darken and wither in the refrigerator with a stinging sense of guilt. So when I discovered a convenient jar of Tom Yum paste at the Tai Nam Market on Broadway, I was quite happy. Sure, the paste will be a little bit less fresh-tasting, but it'll keep longer in the fridge, and I won't have to go out to buy all the ingredients when I'm suddenly in the mood for Tom Yum Kun. (And it's a great bonus when the weather is nasty and there's an inch of slick snow-sleet coating on the streets.) To my delight, the particular Tom Yum paste I picked up, bearing "Lee Brand" was surprisingly fresh- and clean-tasting for a ready-made paste. And it's pretty versatile. I've used it for Tom Yum Kun soup, of course, but I've also used it in stir-fried noodles with a good result.
(Curry recipe using this paste after the break)
Yesterday, as I discovered that I was in need of quick Thai curry fix, I used the Tom Yum paste to make a sacreligious version of the Thai red curry. The sweetness from the coconut milk and sweet potatoes, the sourness from the lemon grass (in the paste) and the tomatoes, the heat from the chilis (in the paste), the saltyness and the umami from the fish sauce made the curry a very complex and satisfying meal. The tender sweet potatoes and crunchy long beans were a nice contrast in texture, too.
Thai Five Flavors Curry
- 1/2 tablespoon oil
- 1/2-inch ginger, minced
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 generous tablespoon Tom Yum paste
- 1/2 pound ground beef
- 1 small to medium sweet potato, cut into bite-sized chunks
- 12-15 long beans, cut into 2-inch length
- 1 can coconut milk
- 4 cocktail tomatoes, cut into four or six sections
- 1 tablespoon nam pla (fish sauce)
- salt to taste
- fresh cilantro for garnish
- In a medium pot, heat the oil. Fry the ginger and garlic for a minute or two, until flagrant. Add the Tom Yum paste and stir-fry, being careful not to let it burn.
- Add ground beef and stir-fry, breaking apart any lumps, until cooked. Add sweet potato and cook for a minute or two.
- Pour the coconut milk into the pan and combine well. Turn the heat down so the coconut milk won't boil too vigorously. Let it simmer for 10-12 mintues, until the sweet potato pieces are cooked through.
- While the sweet potato is cooking, boil some water in a pot. Parboil the long beans no longer than a minute. Drain and set aside.
- When the sweet potato is cooked through, add the parboiled long beans and tomatoes to the pot. Season with nam pla (and salt, if you don't want it too pungent), garnish with cilantro and serve with rice.
The only thing I wish is if there were a way to send all the ethnic dishes--from Thai to indian--that I cook to my parents who are now back in the ethnic food desert of rural Japan...