I have been spending a lot more time with my mortar and pestle, and I am getting better at pounding pastes. Today I had some Thai basil (aka sweet basil, or horapha/holapha โหระพา) and a kaffir lime from our tree on hand, and I decided to make a green curry with chicken.
Thai basil is a very common herb at Asian markets in Philadelphia. Unlike more specialized Southeast Asian herbs (holy basil, Vietnamese mint, for example, which are best found at Cambodian and Vietnamese markets), Thai basil can be found at large East Asian markets (i.e. Spring Garden Market, Chinatown’s underground market, Hong Kong Supermarket).
Sometimes this herb is referred to as “sweet basil”. It is not, however, the same as standard Italian “sweet basil”. Thai basil is similar, but it has a sharper, spicier flavor than the Italian kind. If you only have access to Italian basil, they are interchangeable enough that they would still produce delicious results. I’ve used Thai basil in pasta and pizza dishes too. To locate this herb in the Asian market, it is often unlabeled in a tub, or it is pre-sized in clear plastic bags. Notice the purple stems, and the purple stack of flowers.
Green curry is, of course, popular and well known in the U.S. The Thai name for the dish is literally “sweet green soup”, and that name hints as to how this is different from other curries popular in Thailand, being sweeter than most. The color comes from the green ingredients: Thai green chiles, lemongrass, kaffir lime peel. The finished dish is not however, extremely green. With coconut milk, the finished product is very light green.
Ingredients for the curry paste are in the image to the left. The trick to a nicely pounded/ground spice paste is the order of grinding. First, toast dry spices, and pound to a fine powder. Then the items from hard to soft: add chopped galangal and finely sliced lemongrass, salt, sliced shallots, roughly chopped garlic, chiles, cilantro, kaffir lime peel, kapi.
We rarely make our own pastes. In Thailand, most people would get paste pre-pounded from a seller at the market. Paste ingredients can vary depending on spice shop, and outside Thailand, spice pastes are most commonly consumed in pre-sized 1/4 cup cans. Recipes in cookbooks and online seem pretty standard. Here are measurements for mine:
- 10 tiny green chiles
- 2 Tblsp finely chopped lemongrass bottoms (fragrant parts of about two stalks)
- 1 tsp coriander roots
- 1 Tblsp sliced shallots
- 1 Tblsp coarsely chopped garlic
- 1 tsp coarsely chopped galangal
- 1 tsp coriander seed, lightly toasted
- 1 tsp cumin, lightly toasted
- 1/2 tsp white peppercorn, lightly toasted
- 1 tsp coarse salt
- 1 tsp kapi paste (crayfish paste)
- 1 tsp or more kaffir lime peel or 4-5 kaffir lime leaves (the peel has more fragrance)
The hard part of this curry recipe is pounding of the paste. Beyond that, it is simple and straightforward. Typical ingredients for the soup (curries are called “soups”) in Thailand are sliced bamboo shoots (I usually used a canned kind, but the whole shoot), golf ball-sized Thai eggplants, halved or quartered (I didn’t have those today), Thai basil leaves, and coconut milk. Chicken or fish is common for meat.
The process is simply to bring coconut milk to boil (I used a 15 oz can), add curry paste and meat. For sugar, the best kind to use is palm sugar. It is usually sold in little 1 Tblsp cup shaped forms. I used two or three tablespoons, first cracked in the mortar and pestle to help it dissolve. Fish sauce is the salt to add, start with a good tablespoon. Then add whatever else you are cooking in terms of vegetables (I used bamboo shoot slices and long red chiles). Add some kaffir lime leaves. Adjust for seasoning. Add more palm sugar and/or fish sauce. When everything is cooked through and tasting right, dump in the prepared Thai basil leaves (break these off the stem much like the process for making holy basil stir fries).