Thursday, April 07, 2011

Is Panang Curry Really A Lithuanian Dish?

The mighty, lip-smacking chicken panang curry is one of the top 10 dishes in the world, for my money. If there is any doubt it might fail to get into the top nine, there is definitely none that it is Thailand’s greatest dish.

If you escape the arguments about whether it is really Lithuanian or whether it’s Thai, or whether it’s Angolan and Thailand just has its own version of it, and look at the meal itself, it really is a wonderful creation. It’s not that I’m not interested in its tangled history and the ingredients that strictly make it up, or any Illuminati-doctrinated engraved template for the dish that might one day be unearthed on a Malaysian island, I’ve just had too much Sang Som to get into all that now.

I ate a lot of different meals in the months I was in Thailand, but I kept coming back to the chicken panang in the same way I often order chicken vindaloo. There’s something comforting in the way certain curries are made that just gives you a feeling of well-being, and some sort of fleeting peace of mind.

Everyone has a comfort meal they keep coming back to – whether it’s shepherd’s pie with a splodge of ketchup, or a bowl of heartening lentil soup, or a plate of expensive English bangers with a pot of yellow mustard (and I mean canary yellow, not the beige-yellow French stuff, and definitely not the revolting brown). For the past two months for me, it’s been the mighty chicken panang. If I was back in the UK, it would be pork pies, but that’s another story I’ll cover in the next blog...

There is something about the nutty taste of the singed peanuts, the heat of the chilli, and most importantly for me, the thick rich gravy. A proper curry should be eaten with a fork, not a spoon. It doesn’t have the deep spiciness of Indian food – an assimilating cuisine that I still think boasts the best curries in the world - but what it loses in the absence of tomatoes and the heavy use of onion and dried spices, it more than makes up for in its fire and lip-smacking richness.

I know I haven’t been in Thailand for a while, and therefore have been having pangs for my scrumptious panangs, but I haven’t been going completely cold turkey as it were. I’ve been carrying around a jar of panang paste that I made in Bangkok, and frying it in restaurant kitchens.

With the dearth of refrigeration in Cambodia, as I think I might have made passing reference to in a few recent blog updates, I’ve been a bit worried about it going off, but it seems fine. I think it’s the amount of red chillies in it. I don’t think bacteria would last too long in my trusty tub. It’s like pocket dynamite.

Most restaurants in Cambodia seem to stay open all day, and many are usually deserted in the late afternoon, and it has given me a chance to chat with the chef, tip him a few dollars to destroy his kitchen, and try out my chicken panangs.

I realised the success of the dish would be down to the paste, and I’ve experimented a lot with that. I’ve watched a lot of Thai chefs make their versions, and I’ve tried them out, but I still think the best is from a Thai cooking school I went to years ago near Keith Floyd’s old restaurant on Patong Beach in Phuket.

The recipe below can be easily tweaked. For a traditional green curry paste, you follow the recipe but leave out the chilli oil, peanuts, cumin and coriander, replace the red chillies with green ones, and add a handful of Thai basil leaves and 2 tbsps of vegetable oil. For a traditional red curry paste, you just miss out the peanuts, cumin and coriander.

Panang Curry Paste

20 red bird eye chillies
1 Tb finely diced galangal
3 Tb finely sliced lemon grass
3 kaffir leaves, thinly sliced
2 Tb minced garlic
3 Tb minced shallot
3 ts salt
2 ts cumin seeds
2 ts coriander seeds
2 Tb chilli oil
3 Tb ground peanuts

Bearing in mind this pot will go a long way, it’s worth taking some time to make it – and doing it the traditional way. And even if you do skimp on the bashing time, or just blitz it all up in a food processor, it still tastes better than any of the shop-bought pastes I’ve had.

Pound the ingredients in a pestle and mortar for a good 20 minutes, yes 20, slowly adding the chilli oil as you go along, and waiting for each dribble to be absorbed before adding the next one. View it as a ritual, and an essential part of the sorcery. Thais say a good cook never rushes the pounding – they flavour it with their sweat. Store the paste in a jar in the fridge, or on top of the air conditioning unit if you’re staying in a dodgy Cambodian hotel like me.

Chicken Panang Curry

My recipe uses shrimp paste rather than the usual fish sauce. I think shrimp paste has a finer flavour and blends in better with the other ingredients. The fish sauce should be served in a small side bowl with a pinch of palm sugar, a good squeeze of lime or lemon, and finely chopped chillies floating about in it (nam pla prik). You can add a handful of chopped green beans and/or peas to the curry five minutes before the end.

2 Tb panang curry paste (above)
1 Tb vegetable oil
500g chicken thighs, boned, skinned and diced
2 tins of thick coconut milk
1 cup of chicken stock (or water)
1 Tb finely shredded lime leaves
3 or 4 red chillies, cut in half lengthways
1 Tb roughly chopped fresh coriander
1 Tb shrimp paste
1 Tb palm sugar
2 Tb roughly chopped peanuts
Salt and black pepper to taste

The best way to get thick coconut cream on tap, as it were, is to leave a few tins of coconut milk in your fridge (oh, how I miss having a fridge in the room - this guesthouse is minimalist even by Cambodian standards...) And then whenever you fancy a Thai curry or something, open a couple of tins and scoop out the fatty solids that have separated from the liquid. You need about one tin of cream for this recipe, and usually two tins of coconut milk will provide this, depending on the brand.

Fry the paste and oil over a medium heat in a wok for one minute. Add the chicken and fry for another two minutes until the meat is well coloured, then remove and set aside on a plate. Add half the coconut cream to the wok and cook down until it is almost evaporated, and the coconut oil has separated. Return the paste and chicken to the wok, turn up the heat, and fry for two minutes, stirring all the time.

Then add the rest of the coconut cream, ground peanuts, shrimp paste, sugar, lime leaves and chillies. Stir for another 15 to 20 minutes until the chicken is cooked but still moist. Add some water or stock if it becomes too dry. The sauce should be fairly thick, but should easily cover the meat, and there should be enough to soak up some rice. Add the chopped coriander at the end, and garnish the dish with a few splashes of coconut cream.

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