Southeast Asian Curry, Demystified


I fell in love with Cambodian food on a trip to Southeast Asia a few years ago. After a blistering hot day spent climbing the ruins of Angkor Wat, a spicy coconut curry full of root vegetables and tofu really hit the spot. When I returned home, I looked up recipes for Thai and Cambodian curries, but was completely daunted by the list of ingredients—galangal, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves—the list was endless. And then I discovered the handy little cans of pre-made curry pastes available at most Asian grocery stores. They come in a variety of flavors: red curry, green curry, yellow curry, and massaman curry, but I’ve found the red curry most closely approximates the dish I ate in Cambodia. While any brand will work, I have had the best results with Maesri, a Thai brand which has a picture of an older lady on it. While the instructions on the label say to use the entire can, I find that to be way too spicy for my western palate; I use half the can in my recipe. (You can save the other half in a small Tupperware in your refrigerator; it keeps for weeks if tightly sealed.) The canned curry paste does all the work for you, so no need to assemble all those exotic ingredients before starting.

A note about tofu: If you use tofu straight from the package, you will get a flavorless, spongy mess. I’ve discovered that the best way to prepare tofu is to freeze it in its package, defrost it, remove it from the package, wrap it in paper towels and/or a dish cloth, place a heavy book on top of it, and press it for at least six hours. While this may seem like an elaborate process, it is really quite easy and just requires some forethought. By freezing and defrosting the tofu, the molecular structure of the tofu breaks down and allows more water to escape during the pressing process. By pressing the tofu, all of the flavorless liquid gets discarded, making the tofu ready to absorb whatever delicious flavors it gets cooked in.

If you are a chicken eater, boneless, skinless chicken thighs work just as well in this recipe in place of the tofu. If you are watching your fat intake, reduced fat coconut milk (available at Trader Joe’s) will do the trick just fine. If you have some squash or pumpkin you would like to use, they will work just fine in lieu of the potatoes.

  • 1 Tbs. cooking oil (olive or vegetable will do)
  • 1 onion, cut into chunks
  • 1 package of extra firm tofu, frozen, defrosted, pressed (see note), and cut into chunks
  • ½ can of red curry paste, found at your local Asian grocery store (I use Maesri brand)
  • 1 can of coconut milk (reduced fat okay)
  • 2 cups broth (veggie or chicken, depending on your preference)
  • 2 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into big-ish chunks
  • 2 potatoes, peeled and cut into big-ish chunks
  • ½ cup of peas (optional) (frozen okay)
  • 2 glugs of fish sauce (optional)
  • Lime juice to taste
  • Cilantro to taste

Heat the oil on high in a pot. Add the onions and sauté until brown. Add the tofu, flipping each piece over occasionally until browned on all sides. Add the curry paste, sauté for just a minute, then add the coconut milk and broth. Stir to create a uniform mixture. Add carrots, sweet potatoes, potatoes, and peas, adding a little bit of water to cover if necessary. Now would also be a good time to add a glug or two fish sauce if you are using it. Bring the mixture to a boil, and then turn the heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes, until the carrots and potatoes are cooked through. Sprinkle with lime juice and cilantro and serve piping hot in a bowl accompanied by basmati rice. Enjoy!

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About Michelle
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