Saturday, January 26, 2013

Thai Coconut Curry Recipe

UPDATE: This post was updated with pictures and all that good stuff.

I'll admit it: I have an Asian food obsession. I mean, I don't just make stir-fry every once in a while when I want something easy and quick. I actually go all out and make Thai curry most nights of the week. As you can imagine, I've done it enough to learn a thing or two—my non-Asianness aside! That's why atrocities like this one make me cringe. Making Asian food in the slow cooker is probably the only way you can possibly ruin it. Yet slow cooker Asian recipes are all over Pinterest, and most of them are accompanied deceptively by pictures of stir-fried dishes. Do not listen to them! (I can't even deal. At least 5 people commented on that recipe I just linked to that their slow cookers busted or cracked because it called for them to put it on the stove burner. Derp.)

I'm going to show you how to make Thai curry the right way. It's not perfect or anything (I'm still learning), but it's a lot closer to authentic than most of what you'll find out there on the Internet.

Thai yellow curry with shrimp and zucchini

As I mentioned earlier in my Pad Thai post, Asian cooking generally requires extremely high heat in order to work. Meat gets browned and caramelized in something the Chinese call wok hei, or "the breath/flavor of the wok." Unfortunately, electric stoves (like mine) cannot do this, which is why if you have an electric stove, Thai coconut curry is the best Asian dish you can make. It's full of creamy, almost soupy goodness you'll just want to eat with a spoon. The cool coconut flavor balances with the hot spices of the curry in a simmered song of Thai harmony. Even still, it is good to understand that in Asian cooking, you should brown your meat on HIGH and not let any liquid accumulate.


  • 2 tbsp + of curry paste
  • Minced garlic clove
  • Minced shallot (or a bit of onion if you don't have any)
  • 1 can coconut milk, not shaken
  • Meat, such as chicken, beef, pork, or shrimp/seafood
  • Fresh vegetables, such as sliced bell peppers and eggplant or zucchini, but could be anything
  • Cooked rice (from 2 cups dry)
  • Optional items such as fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, Thai basil leaf (or mint, cilantro, parsley, or Kaffir lime leaf), scallions, crushed unsalted peanuts, lime wedges, extra chili paste of choice, etc.

Step 1: Choose your curry.

What is curry? "Curry" is a loose term for a combination of spices, usually with hot chili peppers as the base and usually in the form of a paste, although it can also come in the form of a powder. The curry is then mixed with a sauce base, such as yogurt (as in Indian cooking) or coconut milk (as in Thai cooking) over a stove. Different types of Thai curry include red curry, yellow curry, green curry, Panang curry and Masaman curry. These each contain different ingredients and are a matter of preference. All, however, are spicy, so the more you use, the spicier the dish is. Thai curry paste can be bought at any Asian market in little cans about the size of tuna cans. They're very cheap ($1.39 each where I am). I've tried the pre-made coconut curry sauce that comes in the jar at the grocery store (this), and to be honest, I don't like it.

Maesri Thai curry pastes. Look for these at your Asian grocer.

Step 2: Start your rice.

In case you need the instructions: Bring 2 cups of rice, 4 cups of water, and 2 tbsp of vegetable oil to a boil on HIGH heat. After it has been boiling at a hard boil for about 30 seconds, put the lid on and turn the heat to "simmer." The rice should be done in about 25 minutes, just in time for you to serve it with the curry.

Tip: You can substitute 2 cups of the water for 2 cups of coconut milk to make coconut rice.

Step 3: Brown your meat.

Preheat your pan or wok to HIGH heat. After it is preheated, add some vegetable oil and your cut chicken, pork, or beef (do not use ground meat. Cook shrimp and seafood according to package directions.) Wait about 3 minutes before stirring the meat. Continue in this manner, waiting as long as possible to stir in order to try to get browning. When liquid starts to accumulate, quickly dump the meat into a colander in the sink, back into the wok, and back onto the stove. Meat has a tendency to get rubbery if it is left to boil in its own juices; we don't want that because our goal is to stir-fry using insufficient equipment for the job. If you have a gas stove, you will have an easier time: just push the meat to one side and let the liquid burn off on its own, a technique the Chinese call shou tang ("collecting the liquid").

Step 4: Stir-fry your vegetables.

Move your meat to a plate or bowl while you work on the vegetables. Stir-fry them until cooked and transfer them to the plate or bowl that the meat is on. But...what vegetables should you use? Specifically, you should use bell peppers if you have them. It's also a good idea to use either eggplant or zucchini because they dissolve and do something magical to the curry sauce: they thicken it into creamy, spicy coconut yumminess. But you can really use whatever you have on hand, preferably fresh.

Step 5: Bhun!

"Gesundheit," you say? No, bhuning is a process the Thais use to cook coconut curry. Now that you've transfered your vegetables and meat to a plate, you are ready to cook your curry paste. Add a little vegetable oil, some minced garlic and shallot, and about 2 tbsp of curry paste if you want it mild. I usually use about half a can, depending on the type of curry paste (for example, I might use less red curry paste because it's spicier). It should get immediately fragrant, but watch out—your nostrils might burn if you're leaning directly over the wok. After that's all mixed together, add a few spoonfuls of the top of your coconut milk—the thick part. This is why you didn't shake your coconut milk. Bhuning means that you add the coconut milk gradually, making sure the contents of the wok stay hot and boiling at all times, until all of the coconut milk is incorporated.

E.g. of "bhuning"

Add coconut milk little by little

Step 6: Doctor your sauce.

Now that all of your coconut milk is incorporated and you can tell your friends you know how to "bhun," let the sauce reduce slightly. Add about 2 tbsp of fish sauce and a handful or two of white sugar if you like it sweet. You can also add the juice of half a lime, and a few handfuls of crushed unsalted peanuts for a creamier texture.

Adding fish sauce, which gives the dish a salty flavor

Step 7: Add your pre-cooked meat and vegetables.

I used shrimp and zucchini and added some red pepper flakes and Thai chili paste for more spice.

At this point, you're either almost finished, or you can let the eggplant or zucchini do its magic and dissolve a bit.

Step 8: Garnish and serve.

Garnish with a Thai basil leaf. If you don't have any Thai basil leaves, the consensus seems to be that the most suitable substitute for it is actually mint, not regular Italian basil. Other suggestions are cilantro, parsley, or a Kaffir lime leaf. Other optional garnishes might include crushed unsalted peanuts, sliced green onions, and a lime wedge. You can either serve this over rice or separate from the rice.


For a drink, try Thai iced tea with milk—or my favorite substitutes, an iced Earl Grey tea latte with french vanilla coffee creamer or an iced chai tea latte (hey, I like to tell you what I already have in my pantry). Some Thai restaurants actually serve Thai iced tea with an orchid. Fancy! The best thing about these drinks? The milk helps wash down the spiciness of the food, so you can make it even spicier! Yes!

Looking for great Thai dessert ideas? Try coconut ice cream (or vanilla ice cream topped with sweetened coconut flakes) served with fresh strawberries or mangoes and a mint leaf. Or, for a low-fat Hawaiian twist on a coconut dessert, try this easy coconut pudding recipe made with coconut milk.

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