This recipe comes from Southern Thailand, specifically Nakhon si Thammarat. My exposure to Thai food growing up in Portland convinced me that coconut was the base ingredient of dishes across Thailand. It wasn’t until living in Chiang Mai on my Fulbright that I realized how simplistic my assumption was. Creamy coconut curries and soups are common in the south where the country is lined by oceans and coconut trees. However, up north; stir fries and papaya salads, noodles and herbs, sticky rice and grilled pork are the showstoppers. I spent most nights with my host mom Kru Piu cooking these traditional Northern Thai flavors and with that I refined my cooking techniques and expanded my knowledge of Thai culture. Yet, I still longed to learn the coconut curries I grew up on. Kru Piu, who would normally say yes to any cooking request I had, was firm on this-- “I can’t teach you that, I am not from the South.” Perhaps my favorite memory from my time there was when I woke up on a Sunday, wandered into our shared kitchen and was greeted by the biggest grin on Kru Piu’s face. “Today, Bamon will teach us gaeng kiao wan (green curry).” Bamon, (our next door neighbor) is to Kru Piu as Kru Piu is to me-- a culinary genius, bursting with flavor secrets infused with cultural insights. Since Bamon comes from Southern Thailand (Nakhon si Thammarat), she was the only person fit to guide us. The best part? Kru Piu was just as excited as me. “Today we are no longer song mae krua, we have become sam mae krua” (We are now the Three Chefs). When I embarked to Thailand as a Fulbright teacher, I was sure I was going to become an educator, when I left Thailand I was sure I was going to become a chef. Kru Piu is the woman fully to blame for this powerful life shift. As we drove to school together each morning, our first words were reflecting on the meal from the night before, then as we edged closer to school we would start running through the vegetables we had left in the fridge, which of course transitioned to dreaming up the evening’s meal, usually beginning with Kru Piu’s predictably endearing sentence: “Milla have you ever tried…?” The drive wasn’t complete without a morning market stop, for a sticky rice breakfast snack and an ingredient or two for her mom’s dinner needs that night. Every morning at 8am, the King’s song is played across the country which means everyone stands frozen for the duration of the song. Kru Piu was very respectful of this ritual, but sometimes her passion for food would overwhelm her. I’d giggle when the song would come on and Kru Piu would be so focused on selecting the best sweet potato that she would carry-on as the rest of the market stood in perfect standstill. At school we were busy, but it wasn’t uncommon for Kru Piu to arrive at the lunch table with a recipe idea and her car keys, suggesting we use the free period to drive back to the market. Most days, on the way home from school we would stop yet again to see if any new goods had arrived. The vendors became friends, and sometimes if Kru Piu and I made a particularly memorable meal, we brought some leftovers to them the next day. In the evening, our cooking extravaganzas would last up to four hours, the happiest hours of my life. Inevitably, cooking would lead to stories from Kru Piu’s life in Chiang Mai. The amount of tidbits that wove themselves into a quilt of Thai cultural understandings is amazing to me. Comfort with Thai language and living seamlessly oozed out of these cooking sessions. The kitchen is the best classroom in the world. Cooking was how we relaxed, refreshed, re-energized. It was our creative outlet, and where are hearts most naturally settled. I never thought that one of my best friends in the world would be a Thai woman 40 years my elder, but now it is undoubtedly true. That, and Kru Piu and I feel like the same person, just cultures and decades apart. It was a beautiful thing to live with her for my Fulbright year, she embodies the relationship with life and food that I inspire to. This green curry recipe is a connective tool because Kru Piu is a part of it. As a parting gift, I compiled all the recipes we ever cooked together into a cookbook for her. This was an important ritual of reflection for me, and I hope continues to bring warmth for her. Please see photos. Our neighbor Bamon mostly taught us with her hands but offered up this line of wisdom: “When you cook green curry you must be jai yen. You must have a calm heart. The process must be slow. You must take your time to pound the curry paste, introducing each ingredient slowly and with purpose.
Green Curry Paste: 8 cm galangal- thinly sliced (dug from your father’s garden) 4 stalks lemongrass- thinly sliced (cut from your neighbor’s yard) 5 cm turmeric root- sliced twice as thick as lemongrass pieces 10 small red onions “Asian shallot”- peeled and chopped 8 garlic cloves- peeled 10-20 small green Thai chili pepper depending on spice level - cut in half 8 roots of coriander- cut very small 2 tablespoons cumin seed- dry roasted in pan 2 tablespoons coriander seed-dry roasted in pan 3 tablespoons white pepper 3 kaffir lime lime leaves- thinly sliced 3 teaspoons shrimp paste 1 teaspoon salt
Curry ingredients: Coconut milk (1 liter bag of concentrated milk, 1 liter bag of unconcentrated milk), if fresh coconut milk is unavailable, use 2 boxes Aroy-D boxed coconut milk or 1 can coconut cream and 2 cans coconut milk 3 chicken breasts- cut into 1 inch cubes 15 small round eggplants- cut into quarters and soaked in water for 30 minutes, if you cannot find these, use any other available eggplants A big bunch of Thai basil leaves (horapa) Coconut sugar- to taste, typically at least ¼ cup, green curry should be sweet
Dry roast white pepper, cumin seed and coriander seed until they make a popping sound and smell fragrant
Transfer seeds from pan to mortar. Use a pestle to smash into a powder.
Add the rest of the nam prik ingredients to the mortar and smash. This is a slow process. Add ingredients in the following order:
Kaffir lime skin
Small green Thai chili pepper
Traditionally, only a mortar and pestle is used, however, it is now common to use a blender to ensure the curry paste gets smooth. If a blender is used, add a little water to help it blend.
In a large wok or pot, add the concentrated coconut milk (or coconut cream) and bring to a boil, stirring constantly until it is thick and boiling.
Once thick, add the curry paste to the pot and stir. Once combined well, add the rest of the coconut milk (unconcentrated) and lower heat to a simmer.
Add chicken to the pot but don’t stir (this will prevent the curry from being flavored like raw chicken).
In a new pot, boil enough water to cook the eggplant. Drain the eggplant soaking in water and boil until just soft, then drain and add to the curry wok.
Add coconut sugar to taste (but at least ¼ cup), stir until dissolved
Turn off the heat, stir in the Thai basil
To serve, add the thinly sliced red chilis to make it beautiful. Enjoy either with senmi (thin rice noodles), or white jasmine rice