Random fact: Did you know if you Google “curry,” you get news and a link to the Twitter account of the Warriors’ Stephen Curry?
But when looking at food, the subsequent entries refer to the fragrant dish whose adoption by multiple Asian countries has created several subspecies of regional flair. It’s a question I’ve often been asked, “What’s the difference between Indian curry and Thai curry?” I don’t know what people assumed these are the only two countries that make a variation of curry. Perhaps they’re the only two they know. Interestingly, the spread and changes of Asian curries are in thanks to Westerners. Colonization of India, where the dish originated, caused the dish to spread to Japan, and from there, it traveled to the Korean peninsula. In Thailand, curry, known as kaeng, dates back to the 19th Century.
“We eat all the time,” Mom said. “Thai people eat every day. My mom and dad cooked it – well, dad didn’t cook, but he ate it.”
This brings me back to Thai curries, which differ from Indian curries primarily through its use of coconut milk and a wet paste, which is now commonly canned and store-bought. Mom, who grew up in 1940s and 1950s rural Thailand, is from a culture whose recipes were among the most modernly primitive. Her family lived in a tiny farming village in the Yasothon Province along the Chi River. The nearest town, Ban Gut Nam Sai, was a two-mile walk.
Cooking was a family affair. Moms, daughters, aunts, sisters… the women cooked, often over fires in outdoor kitchens. Mom calls the “the old styles.” They built roofs over these kitchens so that even in the rain, the fires wouldn’t go out. (It’s no wonder my mom is EXCELLENT at camping.)
“How would you make curry if you couldn’t go to the store for canned ingredients?” I asked Mom.
“We have coconut trees,” she said. “We go up the tree, bring it down.”
“And the curry paste?”
“You would make your own curry out of pepper, garlic, onion, ginger, kaffir lime leaves,” she said. “It’s very hard. You have to soak it in the water and mortar and pestle. The can tastes the same.”
Below is mom’s Chicken Curry recipe, which she and her sisters, Radtdee (pronounced Rah-tdee, with a rolling “r”) and Gaisri (pronounced Guy-see), learned from their mother, known to me as Yaai (ยาย).
Mama Jomsri’s Chicken Curry
- 4, ½ pound chicken breasts, washed, trimmed and cut into thin strips (as if you were cutting them for stir fry)
- ½ cup basil, chopped (fresh or dried)
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ tsp ground black pepper
- Four, small- to medium-size russet potatoes, cut into ¾ in cubes (I’m guessing on the type of potato. When I asked Mom what type, she just said, “The kind you eat.” Dad confirms he typically buys russet potatoes.)
- 1, 13.5 ounce can of coconut milk
- 1, 4 ounce can of red curry paste
- 1, 5 ounce can of bamboo shoots, drained (optional)
- In a large sauce pan over medium-high heat, pour in half of the can of coconut milk.
- Add red curry paste
- For little spiciness, add 1/3 or less of the can.
- For normal spiciness, add about half of the can.
- For extreme spiciness, add the entire can.
- Stir the coconut milk/curry mix to blend. Stir occasionally until boiled for about 1 minute.
- Add chicken and bring to boil.
- Add the rest of the coconut milk, as well as 1 can (about 1 ½ cups) of water. Boil until chicken is cooked.
- Reduce heat to medium. Add potatoes, bamboo (optional), salt and pepper. Continue to simmer until potatoes are cooked.
- Reduce heat to low. Add basil to saucepan and let simmer on low for another 5 minutes.
- Serve over rice.