This is a recipe that is absolutely integral to preparing one of my favorite dishes. At 19, while on a day-long expedition to Chicago with an art class from college, I was fortunate, when dinner-time came, not only to be persuaded to try Thai food, but to have chosen a dish from the menu made from this preparation as my introduction to the cuisine. I have never forgotten the flavour of that dish; few do who have ever tasted it. And, while store-bought pastes are readily available for this and other popular Thai dishes, none approach the flavour and aroma of the hand-made-from-scratch ones.
Khiew means green. Wan is sweet. Krung* means a paste of fresh, aromatic things used to season a dish…. “Wet masala” or “masala paste” might be the best English translation of krung, as the word masala itself is becoming assimilated into the language… Kaeng is a more difficult word to translate. In my opinion, the best English equivalent would be a loose use of the word stew…..
Kaeng is often translated as “curry”, but that seems to be a catch-all word in English for anything cooked in a well-seasoned liquid, or even something that happens to have a pinch of “curry powder” in it; I avoid the word for the most part. There are, in the Thai repetoire, dishes called kaeng cheud (sometimes spelled jeud), which are “clear stews” directly descended from the Chinese “clear soups”, as they are called in English. Also, there are dishes called prik kaeng, which are nearly-dry dishes cooked in a thick paste of mostly chiles. And to top off my argument, there is a paste and associated stew called (krung) kaeng kari……. “kari” seeming to follow suit with the British term “curry”, (of still-unknown exact extraction, but perhaps from the Tamil word kari); recipes for it contain a quantity of prepared “curry powder”…… Obviously then, in the Thai language, the word kaeng does not, in their minds, denote “curry”, as all of their food contains aromatic substances, naturally, for flavour and health….So, in lieu of all this, I use the word stew as the closest English word to kaeng. Therefore, I will translate the Thai title of this preparation to “Masala paste for sweet, green stew” or “sweet, green stew flavouring paste”. Does that sound okay with you? You will find this paste used to make what is known on Thai menus simply as: “green curry”.
Nomenclature aside, let us delve into the pleasures of making our own krung, shall we? This particular paste is always made using fresh green chiles, and also traditionally includes the addition of fresh chile-leaves. Spinach leaves, or any other well-coloured, mildly-flavoured green can be substituted, and often are, even in the best Thai restaurants. This paste, and subsequent stew made with it, is known for it’s beautiful, jade-green colour, delicate harmony of spices, and somewhat intense heat. It is often stated to be the most refined and sophisticated of the many Thai kaeng, and I have read that it is the favorite of the Thai Royal Court. Many, many recipes for this one, special paste exist; oddly, they are all in agreement with most of its components, but differ greatly in proportions. I am continually making notes with every attempt I make, and reading and listening to Thai cooks speak with obvious enthusiasm about it. I share with you what I have today.
I implore you, when making this for the first time, to use a mortar-and-pestle; this gives the correct consistency and texture to the paste, as well as an unforgettable sensual experience coupled with a certain meditative quality often spoken of when performing repetitious tasks that require patience. Try to aim for every slice of the fine mincing to be 1 mm or less; your mincing skills will ultimately determine the smoothness of your finished paste. If you must use an electric wet-grinding machine, do add as little water as possible; be sure to allow a little extra time for frying (when the time comes to preparing a kaeng) to allow the extra water to evaporate before proceeding.
You will need:
Garlic, finely minced, 3 T
Coriander roots and/or stems, finely minced, 3 T
Chile-leaves or other greens, two handfuls, finely minced
A mix of mild and hot fresh, green chiles, seeded if you wish, and finely minced, about 2 1/2 C (I used two poblanos, 16 serranos, 6 long Thai chiles)
Coriander seed, whole 1 T
White peppercorns, whole, 1 t
Cumin seeds, whole, 1 t
Anise or fennel seeds, whole, 1/4 t
Turmeric, ground, 1/8 t
Nutmeg, ground, a pinch
Galanga**, about 1″, peeled and finely minced, 2 T
Lemon grass, 2 stalks, pale-crisp parts only, 2 stalks, finely minced, about 4 T
Kaffir lime peel/zest***, finely minced, 3 t
Shallots or onions, finely minced, 2 T
Kapi/ shrimp paste****, 2 1/2 t
1)Dry-roast the coriander seed and white peppercorns lightly, just until fragrant. Remove and let cool. Do the same with the cumin and anise seeds. Grind all of these together to a powder, add the turmeric and nutmeg; set aside.
2)Sprinkle the minced chiles with a little salt and mix well. Allow to stand for 30-45. Place these in a piece of cheesecloth or muslin and squeeze out as much liquid as you can. Set aside, reserving the liquid in a separate bowl.
3)Wrap the kapi/ shrimp paste in a small piece of aluminum foil and roast over medium heat until fragrant, 4-5 minutes, flipping several times. Set aside to cool.
4)In a large mortar, use the pestle to pound the minced garlic into a smooth paste. Add each ingredient in the exact order listed, adding the next only when a paste has been achieved with the preceding ingredient (the dry, roasted spices are added together obviously, and can be used to absorb any liquid that starts splashing at any moment before this). At the end, unwrap the kapi and blend this very well into the paste. Add the reserved chile-liquid.
This paste will keep for a week or two in the refrigerator, or longer in the freezer.
As an afterthought, if anyone has any ideas about how to make the experience of hand-pounding this paste a little less sensual, I’m all ears!
*This is also sometimes called nam prik kaeng: chile-water [for] stew.
**Galanga or Kha is in the ginger family and has a unique flavour worth seeking out; it is always available fresh in Thai markets. If it is truly unattainable, substitute 3-4 T finely-minced ginger.
***Kaffir limes or magrut are available fresh in December-January in Thai markets in the U.S. The dried peel is available year-round from a few mail order companies. It has a very unique fragrance and flavour. Substitute with 4-5 t of regular lime zest if absolutely necessary.
****Vegetarians may substitute kapi with a slightly greater quantity of miso paste or mashed cubes of fermented bean-curd; skip the roasting in foil step.