To cleanse dark thoughts.
I wanted to recreate a very delicious curry made at The Elephant, a Thai/French/Vietnamese hybrid on 1st Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues. They were open for lunch for a couple of years but no one came, it seemed, and soon they stopped trying. Pity, because lunch cost a fraction of dinner: exactly the same dishes, too. One of them was this chicken curry (at $6.50, quite ludicrously cheap), though clearly my version will not be their's as I never could quite pry the recipe out of the suspicious Latino cooks in the kitchen.
Part of its charm lay - and presumably still lies, at dinner time - in its presentation: A deep china bowl of the curry, swimming in an amber soup with islands of chicken, carrot and potato breaking the surface, sprinkled with shredded mint. And a dinner plate, with a rice "house" upturned, a small banana, one side of it neatly cubed, some small pieces of mango, a sprinkling of roasted peanuts and half a lime, sliced not across, but from top to bottom.
It is a curry with intimations of fish sauce, fresh lime, heat and a sweetness. And a lot of coconut milk.
A word about curry. I just tried to find the reference, I swear it is Charmaine Solomon's, but can't find it now in The Complete Asian Cookbook, though it must lurk...
Curry. It is not a powder. So many people still think it is. Blame or thank the British Raj for that, depending on your point of view...It is not even a specific combination of spices. Curry comes from the Tamil word kari, and means sauce. So curry can be almost anything. It takes its melody from the base notes, always the first combination of spices or flavourings to go in the pot:
My anything went like this, and bear in mind I have a well-stocked, though small, pantry and fridge, because I like such things. This would be for two people:
4 cloves of garlic, squashed and chopped
1 finger of ginger, peeled, and finely chopped
1 Tbsp red chile flakes (this is not proper), or a couple of bird eye chiles
1/2 a large onion, chopped fine
1 Tbsp shrimp paste (subst. 2 anchovies?)
1 Tbsp palm sugar or brown sugar
1 Tbsp tamarind
2 Tbsp tomato paste
3 Tbsp Fish sauce (I like Squid brand)
1 can coconut milk, with as few nasty additives as possible
2 chicken thighs and drumsticks, each hacked into two pieces with a BIG KNIFE
2 medium potatoes, in large quarters
2 big carrots, in large pieces
mint or cilantro or both
[Ed: 8/31/08 - and much improved by, I would think, a lime leaf or two, if you have fresh leaves available; or lemon grass. I substitute two slices of lime, peel and all, for that vaguely bitter, citrus-y taste. Add when you put the chicken in.]
I used grape seed oil as it was the most neutral I had. Saute the garlic, ginger and onion over medium heat till the onion is translucent. Add the sugar, shrimp paste, tamarind, tomato paste and chile, stir and cook some more until the onion is soft and the flavours have made friends. Pour the coconut milk in and cook to reduce slightly. What I didn't do, but will next time, is unorthodox. Put in a blender and puree. I wanted very smooth sauce. But I was lazy and hungry and didn't feel like washing the blender. Now add the hacked chicken pieces and the vegetables. The sauce should just cover them. Add the fish sauce. Cook until the chicken is just tender. Taste: I had the advantage of knowing the Elephant's curry so knew what taste I was aiming for: slightly sweet, a little tart, hot, full. You can add some more fish sauce or lime juice if you like.
Serve on steamed rice, with chopped banana, sprinkle of chopped roasted peanuts and freshly shredded mint or cilantro. More lime is good, squeezed over just before eating. This goes well with beer, or with a fruitier and very cold white wine, such as Chenin blanc.
Below: this is the sauce. Don't know why I used a stock pot.
After the chicken and vegetables are added.