A journey through Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam in search of the best cooking classes and culinary advice from chefs and grandmothers alike: in this three-part series Fine Dining Lovers presents the best dishes, tips, and tricks learnt along the way.
First stop: Ao Nang, Thailand for an adventure in curry pastes.
THE PLACE: AO NANG, SOUTHERN THAILAND
Chef Chonlaya Laotang’s daily Krabi Thai Cookery School is set beside sun-kissed coconut and mango trees in her open-air kitchen. She picks up students from hotels and guesthouses and drives them five minutes from the touristy beach area of Krabi Town. Thanks to multiple, portable cooking stations in the breezy space, all participants get to grind curry pastes, slice kaffir lime leaves, and wok-fry dishes including pad thai, chicken and coconut milk soup, and stir-fried morning glory. The small, smiling Thai lady is a tour de force in the kitchen, where she’s backed by her well-trained team of assistants. Within four hours of instruction we’re sitting down to a feast of tom yam soup, green papaya salad, green, red and yellow curries, and a special paenang curry with chicken.
THE CROWNING DISH: PAENANG CURRY
This dish adds ground peanuts to a traditional Thai red curry paste of soaked, dried chili peppers, galangal, kaffir lime, coriander stems, shallots, garlic, salt, pepper, cumin, coriander seeds, cardamom, shrimp paste, peanuts, and lemongrass ground in a large mortar and pestle. Fish sauce, sweet basil leaves, palm sugar and tamarind juice are added after the paste is fried in oil. As the dish doesn’t contain coconut milk, it’s drier than its green, red, and yellow curry counterparts. Paneang curry also often includes freshly ground turmeric root both for colour and digestion. With Jasmine rice, it’s pure hot-sour-salty-sweet comfort in a dish.
THE TECHNIQUE: 'BANG BANG'
Chef Laotang is a big advocate of “bang bang,” aka pounding the life out of curry pastes. Unlike green papaya salad, which involves a mix of crushing (garlic and chili pepper), gentle bruising (papaya strands, runner beans, and herbs), and stirring (to dissolve palm sugar and not destroy heirloom tomatoes), curry paste should be massacred with a heavy pestle. To do it, you’ll need a large mortar and pestle, and patience. Place your thumb on top of the pestle with your fingers wrapped around its length. Hold the mortar in place with your other hand. Without hitting your hand holding the mortar, vertically snap the wrist of your pastel-holding hand, making contact with the contents of the mortar on its side and bottom by dragging them downward. This way you cover more area with a single “bang” and create more friction against the side of the mortar. It should be loud. Use gravity and the snap of your wrist—not your forearms or biceps—to provide the weight of each “bang.”
1. Unlike a blender, it’s unlikely that with a mortar and pestle you’ll grind the curry paste too finely. Yes, it is a lot of work, but so are coq au vin, homemade pasta, and five-tiered chocolate mousse cakes with hazelnut-mocha buttercream. Worth it? Yes. Besides, this dish doesn’t even require knife skills.
2. Cook the paste fast and hot in a couple tablespoons of oil in a wok. If using a flat-bottomed pan you’ll need more oil to prevent the paste from sticking. Don’t undercook the paste or it will taste raw.
3. After adding the tamarind paste, fish sauce, palm sugar and lime, taste and adjust the seasonings. Never serve a dish without tasting it first. This is easy to forget when flames are flying.
4. Speaking of flames, best use a gas stove for the high heat you need. If the oil takes more than ten seconds to begin to heat, the temperature isn’t high enough. Dinner will also take much longer to cook, which in a time-crunched world equates to culinary disaster.
The ”bang bang” technique is also handy for homemade spice rubs and marinades for grilled, barbecued or seared fish, chicken, meat or vegetables. Its advantage over a blender or food processor is in its ability to give a coarser or finer grind or mash as required. It does not, however, replace these kitchen gadgets; for example, do not try to “bang bang” a smoothie...
THE SHOPPING ADVICE
Small, fresh Thai chili peppers are available at most South Asian markets. If you can’t find them, use larger fresh hot red chilies and adjust the heat level, erring on the side of caution at first, then inching your way up (test the heat of a particular pepper by nibbling the bottom tip). Galangal is often found frozen, but young ginger (with smooth rather than old, wrinkly skin) works as a replacement in a pinch. You’ll often find lemongrass fresh, but use only the fresher, more tender, inner lower stems, as shipping dries it out.