Growing up "curry" meant the boxed bricks of rich S&B or Golden Curry. It was a comfort food for many Japanese households having been introduced to Japan by westerners after centuries of isolation. Karē Raisu or curry rice is as popular as ramen though many unfamiliar with Japanese food wouldn't know it. It's the other end of the culinary scale from sushi or shojin ryori (artistic Buddhist temple food), to be sure, but it's impossible to underestimate the comfort of a curry rice plate to a Japanese person. Proust had his Madeleines, I'll take curry.
Years back my mother had a friend, now since passed, who was one of the many Japanese women transplanted here who found themselves enjoying the freedom of life in the US over the constrictions of Japan. I used to giggle over their names: Fumiko Church; Akiko Smith, etc. Unfortunately for Reiko, her marriage was not a happy one, but she managed. She and my mother enjoyed a friendship for years. I remember my mother remarking, quite astonished, that she discovered Reiko hardly knew how to feed herself after her husband left. She'd grown up in a fairly well-off family in Japan so the cooking was done for the family. Later as Reiko's health began to fail, my mother visited more often and brought her food or cooked for her. One day she made her Kare Raisu. Reiko swooned, overtaken with emotion at the comfort food from her childhood. My mother, ever the pragmatist, was shocked "it's just a boxed mix..."
As I grew up and learned about the dangers of saturated fat (the boxed bricks have built-in roux - flour+fat thickener) I ate it less and less. Our spring this year has been long and wet and cold and dreary. And wet. And unending. And rainy. And grey. So guess what I've been craving? I had my hand on the box in H Mart the other day, but the memory of that mouthfeel, that fat, swayed me. I put it back.
But cravings never go away until they're sated. Cravings are like that. So I decided to make a Thai curry. It was delicious and I want to share the recipe and encourage you to make it at home. Still, I see a Kare Raisu in my future.
A note about Thai ingredients:
- I use Thai Kitchen curry paste. I've also found an authentic Thai brand in Chinatown to which I added the Thai Kitchen roasted chili paste. At any rate if you're vegetarian, you might try to make your own curry paste. I have not tried this so I cannot compare the flavors. Since many readers would have a hard time finding some of the components (galangal, Makrut) I use what I think is largely accessible here.
- I like to add fresh lemongrass. You can now find this at most Whole Foods. Of course, if you're near a Chinatown, you can always find it there, too. We got some beautiful fresh, organic lemongrass at WFM. Use your cleaver, the back/spine of the knife and bruise the lemongrass to release the flavor. It will simmer in your curry, simply pluck it out before serving.
- Makrut lime leaves are a wonderful addition if you can find them. They may still be labeled as "Kaffir" lime leaves (Kaffir is derogatory slang which is not something we want to be perpetuating. Easy enough to use the actual name of the ingredient, don't you agree?)
- Frizzled shallots - really more Vietnamese ingredient but I had some to use.
- Fish sauce - I used to buy the Three Crab brand, widely available in most Asian markets. Andrea Nguyen turned me on to Red Boat and there's no going back. It's really superior and clean tasting. Love it. Fish sauce is pure umami and lends that savory note that is essential in so many things. Italians have colatura. Japanese, dashi. Umami is everywhere and a major reason why something like a fresh roll can be so very satisfying, fish sauce in the dipping sauce.
With deference to Thai cooks out there, here is a version I make at home, with ingredients most any of us could find in their local grocery store or on Amazon.
Thai Red Curry
Choose your vegetables based on what's in season, or what's due to be used up in the fridge. Dice according to density so everything will cook evenly. I dice carrots or sweet potato or butternut squash in about 1/2" dice.
Assemble your aromatics: lemongrass, makrut, ginger, garlic, shallot.
Assemble your fish sauce, chili paste, curry paste, lime, sugar. You'll be balancing the flavors of savory, spicy, sour, sweet and smoothing it all out with coconut milk.
I recommend starting with a 3:2:1 ratio: curry paste: roasted chili paste: fish sauce. Then adjust to your taste.
Add a couple glugs of neutral or peanut oil to a large hot skillet. Add your chili paste, and aromatics, cook for a few minutes, add harder vegetables like carrots now. Bruised lemongrass, makrut leaves, then add roasted chili, and fish sauce. I often add a bit of water to help release anything sticking in the pan.
Add remaining vegetables. Simmer until vegetables are tender. Taste and adjust seasoning adding more fish sauce, lime or chili as desired.
Serve with rice or rice noodles.
Next up: Japanese Kare Raisu - Curry Rice!