Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Kaeng Som (Thai Sour Curry - แกงส้ม)

This is the ultimate grande dame of Thai curries.

On the one hand, it's so simple to make that it's made almost weekly in Thai households. On the other hand, simply because of that everyone, their mother, their grandmother, their dead great-grandmother and her long-dead ancestors have an opinion about it!

(Read the post about food and identity to understand this phenomenon.)

That having been said, the dish is easy to make casually but extarordinarily hard to make expertly.

It's hard for the same reason that chefs routinely test novices with making an omelette, or that you end up skating naked making certain Italian dishes.

You're using a minimal set of ingredients, and there's no place to hide. Either you nail it or you don't, and if you don't, there's no way to fix it.

It's the ultimate test of technique. It's doubly hard for those of us who didn't grow up with a Thai grandmother beating us up while we were learning. We're going to have to take our beatings the ol'-fashioned way via experience.

What is it?

It's a simple water-based "sour" curry that's really quite "primitive" (to use David Thompson's description) in which vegetables and fish are simmered. It's served with rice (of course!)

There are only five ingredients that matter - chillies (which are emphatically not Thai but New World), garlic, shallots, shrimp paste, and tamarind.

There are also ingredients that will "balance" it - e.g. palm sugar, etc.

All the magic is in the paste which takes a bit of effort with a mortar and pestle. Thai curries simply don't work with food processors. You need to pound the ingredients.  (The neighbors rang the bell to check that everything was OK since the sound of pounding wafted out the kitchen window. It sure was, kids, it sure was!)

For the record, it's harder to pound soft ingredients into the right consistency than hard ingredients. This one is filled with soft ingredients — garlic and shallots.

If you persist, and the CC is sure that the readers on this blog are the kind that would do so, you'll be rewarded with sheer magnificence. Everything that is so wonderful about Thai food distilled down into one elegant minimalist package.



2 tbsp dried shrimp

4-6 long red chilies
3 red shallots
3 cloves garlic
1 tsp shrimp paste

2 cups water
tamarind water (thin)


fish sauce (nahm pla) to taste
palm sugar (optional)

Note 1: The kinds of vegetables you can add varies. Long beans are classic as are bamboo shoots, or raw papaya but the CC has seen modern stuff like cauliflower, cabbage, etc.

Note 2: The village roots of this dish should be "obvious".

Note 3: There is a relatively modern variation that plonks in a square-piece of cha-om omelette. Cha-om is going to be impossible to find outside of California. It has a strongly sulfurous smell exactly like that of kala namak in Indian food. The texture is not dissimilar to samphire. If you're feeling particularly flush with money, the combination would do the trick. Otherwise substitute a bitter green and kala namak for a rough approximation.

Note 4: You still need to make the square "omelettes". Cook them thick with egg in a pan like a frittata. Flip, cook the other side. Cool and cut into squares. (They should be quite dry since you're going to plop them into a curry.)

Note 5: This is not a "fancy" dish. All the crazy caveats aside, this is closer to the fast and the furious. You should be able to make it in at most 30 minutes if you get all your ingredients in a row.

Note 6: There is considerable warfare even among the Thai population about how "thin" the curry should be. The CC is going to stay out of this particular "Vietnam".

Note 7: Side dish. The ultimate test of serving Asian food. Keep it simple. The dish is spicy hence sliced cucumbers.

Note 8: You need a fish broth ideally. David Thompson suggests pounding some dried shrimp as the first step of the recipe. Works like a charm. Instant "fish broth" as the deeply dead great-great-great-grandmother would've understood and appreciated.

Note 9: The "correct" sequence of pounding is the driest hardest first to softest wettest last. This just makes it easy to do the pounding. In this case, it would be dried shrimp, soaked chilies, garlic, shallots. and finally shrimp paste.


First make the tamarind water. Soak the lump of tamarind in 1/2 cup of boiling water for 20 minutes. Strain it squeezing the tamarind. You can do this directly into the boiling water later.

Soak the separately chilies in boiling water for the same 20 minutes. Pull out the chilies. Reserve the water to add to the broth.

Roast the dried shrimp briefly on a skillet. Put aside. On the same skillet, roast the shrimp paste wrapped in aluminum foil. Flip and keep roasting until it gives off its characteristic smell. Be careful not to burn it.

(These first three steps can clearly be done in parallel.)

Start making the paste. Pound the dried shrimp followed by the chilies, the garlic, and the shallots. Add the roasted shrimp paste and make a smooth paste.

Combine the stock, tamarind water and paste and bring to a boil. Add fish sauce to taste. Add some palm sugar to balance the flavors. Let it simmer for 4-5 minutes.

It should taste hot, sour and salty.

Add the vegetables and let them cook through. Add the fish and let it poach for 2-3 minutes.

Serve at once with rice.

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