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.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Pad Thai Recipe

I got on a Thai food kick about 2 years ago when my husband and I went to Santa Fe, New Mexico on our honeymoon trip. Although that's about the last place I would expect to fall in love with Thai food, we found an awesome Thai restaurant in downtown Santa Fe that got me hooked! I started cooking Thai food at home and haven't looked back. Pad Thai is a classic Thai dish many Thai food aficionados can't help but love. I'd like to share with you a Pad Thai recipe plus some things I've learned over the past 2 years as a non-Asian obsessed with Asian food. Because I'm assuming you're not from Thailand either, I'm going to try to tell you how to do it the easiest way you can while still being authentic.

90% of the Pad Thai making process is gathering the right ingredients, as they make or break the dish. The rest is technique, so be sure you read the whole post before you skip down to the recipe. The dish itself comes together in less than 5 minutes. Literally! That's why it's so important to know what you're doing before you start. After you get it down, it's a super easy, quick lunch. In Thailand, street vendors actually serve this as a midday fast food meal. You can watch some very informative videos of that here.

I stirred it before I took a picture because I was too excited to eat it. Sorry. Bad blogger!

The basic ingredients in Pad Thai sauce are fish sauce, tamarind concentrate, and palm sugar. The trick is to find the perfect balance of saltiness (fish sauce), sourness (tamarind) and sweetness (sugar). That's why there are no suitable substitutes for the first two ingredients. You can substitute brown sugar for palm sugar, but palm sugar has a distinct flavor if you're willing to go to the Asian market and grate the sugar pucks. It's hard work, though, so I use brown sugar. Fish sauce can be bought in small, overpriced quantities at the regular grocery store or cheap in a large container at the Asian market (hint, hint). Tamarind concentrate comes in a blue and white plastic can. It's a liquid, not a paste. With the paste, you'd have to water down the paste, squeeze it with your hands, and throw away the pulp. The liquid version is already prepared. Tamarind concentrate (the liquid, not the paste) can be bought at the Asian market and at some Walmart locations. I also add oyster sauce as a way to thicken the sauce and add the extra flavor.

As far as technique, the key is to keep the pan hot—much hotter than you're probably used to—and keep everything moving. "Season" your wok before you begin by heating it up to HIGH, adding vegetable oil and wiping it across your wok with a balled up towel. The thin layer of oil will prevent sticking and will give you a higher quality dish. Asian woks are traditionally over a fire, so with an electric stove (which gives intermittent heat), it's difficult to keep things as hot as they should be. Don't fear it. Just be prepared with a cup of water, extra oil, and all of your ingredients handy. Because of the nature of this kind of cooking, reaching into the fridge for a forgotten ingredient will likely not be feasible, so have them already organized on your counter.

Also, cooking Pad Thai is a little bit like making pancakes: you do it one serving at a time. If you tried to do more, your noodles would get irreversibly sticky, clumpy, and ruined. All of the below instructions are for one serving. Just multiply the ingredients for however many people you'll be cooking for, and be sure you buy enough.

(Want to read more about technique? I learned a lot from this article.)

  • A frying pan 
  • A spatula or two for cooking with (to make sure nothing sticks to the pan)
  • A pot and water to boil the rice sticks in
  • A colander to drain the rice sticks
  • A bowl of cold water to transfer the cooked rice sticks to (edit: probably unnecessary. Do it to cool the noodles off, but you don't have to leave them in there. Honestly, people do rice noodles all different ways. The point is that you want to fry the noodles before they've become al dente.)
  • A pair of pasta tongs (or your hand)
  • A small saucepan for sauce (I also use a rubber spatula to get the last serving of sauce out)
  • A cup of water (keep near the stove)


Garnish (prepare first)
  • Crushed peanuts (I buy unsalted peanuts from Wal-Mart and go at them in a sealed bag with my glass measuring cup)
  • The green parts of 1 scallion, sliced diagonally (don't throw away the white part!)
  • Crushed red pepper (or any kind of dry chili powder)
  • Lime wedges

Pad Thai Sauce (recipe source):
  • 3 tbsp tamarind concentrate
  • 2 "big" tbsp brown (or palm) sugar
  • 3 tbsp fish sauce
  • 2 tbsp oyster sauce

The Pad Thai:
  • Vegetable oil (or other flavorless oil)
  • 1/2 shallot, minced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • The white parts of 1 scallion, sliced
  • 1 egg
  • Bean sprouts (canned or fresh)
  • A handful of cooked rice noodles (Medium-sized flat rice sticks, sold at Asian market. You can also use Small flat ones. Flat noodles fry best.)
  • Thawed frozen shrimp, tails removed (may use fresh shrimp also, but all fresh meats must be cooked beforehand)


  1. Chop the shallot, garlic, and scallion—keeping in mind the number of servings you're doing—and prepare the shrimp or meat. 
  2. Gather all tools and ingredients and categorize them on your counter space. Set garnish aside or on table. The Pad Thai ingredients above are organized by order of use, so you can organize them that way if you want. 
  3. Bring water to a boil (enough to cover your rice sticks) and remove from heat. Soak the rice sticks in the warm water for 5-8 minutes. Keep checking your noodles and stop before they're al dente. Lift one up and hold it horizontally about 2 inches from the end of the noodle; it should be soft but not yet droopy. It's important not to overcook rice noodles or the Pad Thai will be sticky. Drain rice sticks in a colander. (Different noodle packages will have different instructions, so whether you soak them or cook them, go by the 2 inch droopiness test.)
  4. Multiply sauce recipe based on how many people you're serving and bring it all to a boil over medium heat in a saucepan. Cook until it's the consistency of a glaze, making sure the sugar is dissolved (the fish sauce may be's a side effect of its awesomeness).

Now for the fun part!

Pad Thai Instructions:
  1. Heat a small amount of vegetable oil in your skillet on MEDIUM heat. Add shallot, garlic, and green onion and cook until fragrant. 
  2. Turn the heat up to HIGH and add the egg, breaking the yolk with the spatula. You can mix it with the other stuff. When fully cooked, remove all of it from skillet and place on plate or bowl. Tip: You can add firm, sliced tofu at this point if you want.
  3. Take a handful of rice noodles from the bowl of cool water and place them in the hot skillet. This is the most important step of Pad Thai. Do not add too many noodles—just a handful. Put in about 1/4 cup water and gently move them around horizontally with the spatula. Make sure the noodles move independently without sticking together. Let the water burn off completely as you fry your noodles, taking care that they also don't dry out and/or get sticky. Move noodles to side of skillet.
  4. Add bean sprouts and shrimp or cooked meat and move around on skillet with the spatula until heated (about 1 minute). If you're using fresh bean sprouts, people usually eat them raw in Pad Thai.
  5. Return the egg, garlic, shallots and scallions to the skillet and mix everything together by turning it with the spatula. Add the sauce and mix it in by turning with the spatula. Your Pad Thai should be a rich woody brown without excess sauce. As soon as the sauce covers all the noodles, dump the whole mess onto a plate or into a bowl. 
  6. Add green parts of scallions, crushed peanuts, crushed red chiles, and lime wedges as garnish.

  1. Are your rice noodles clumped together? It's most likely you overcooked them in the pot at the beginning, although it's also possible they overcooked in your pan.
  2. Is your Pad Thai too light? A number of things could have happened: You added too many rice noodles to the pan, your sauce is watery because you didn't cook it to the consistency of a glaze, or you didn't have enough sauce for the amount of noodles you prepared. It's also possible that all of your water from the noodles didn't burn off, possibly because your pan was not hot enough.

Questions? Ask. I hope I have an answer. I'm not a pro—I don't claim to be—but I have a passion for Pad Thai and I've done a lot of trial and error in order to attempt to perfect a recipe, at least one that works in my household. That said, if you have any suggestions or corrections, I welcome them!