Thursday, August 25, 2011

Cambodian Chicken Curry

I am surrounded by bad Thai restaurants.  That is a very sad thing, because I love Thai food.  For some reason, here in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC we have many Thai restaurants.  New York may have its pizzerias and Chinese food, Philly its cheesesteaks, other cities what they have, but we have Thai restaurants.  This is especially notable because we have no Thai neighborhoods and no Thai communities to speak of.  Even our Chinatown has largely disbanded.  But, we must love Thai food because they are ubiquitous. 
Three blocks from my apartment there is a Thai restaurant.  Not terrible, but not good.  It’s the kind of place you try and are disappointed, and six months later hoping it is better are disappointed again, and a year later having forgotten your prior disappointment are reminded again after another meal, disliking yourself as much as your meal because you allow your hope to be punished.  Eight blocks in the opposite direction there is another one.  It isn’t terrible either, but it’s not good and the menu is limited.  Six blocks further on the same street is another.  I ate there years ago and don’t remember it being bad, but have had no urge to return, which must mean that my body is telling me something.  Four blocks beyond that are two more Thai restaurants.  One is in a location that has changed cuisines frequently.  It is decorated in a modern way that would be wonderful if the food were good, which it isn’t.  One more block further is another.  Not good. It is a long trail of misery that like the street ends at the river, which I wish I could throw myself into, or at least all of these not so good restaurants.
Along this chain of pain is a pan-Asian restaurant that is wonderful.  It was my first introduction to southern Thai food, including Curry Laksa (if you consider this Singaporean dish related).  I love this yellow curry dish and I order it virtually every visit.  It comes with cellophane noodles, shrimp (it's not on the menu, but I order it this way and they make it for me), fried tofu, sprouts, cilantro, celery and little fried onions.  The curry is the kind of thing you want to slurp out what remains at the bottom of the bowl, and then spread it on your lips, behind your ears and on your cheeks, and then you wish you could take a bath in it.
But what really changed my culinary life was the Massaman curry.  Here was a curry without a color.  Not red, not yellow, not green.  It also had potatoes and peanuts.  It was different, like its origins (from the Muslim south).  It was so subtle, so interesting, so multilayered.  It taught me that curry could be so much more, in this case with the addition of Spice Island ingredients like cinnamon and nutmeg.  This was how exotic was exotic when it wanted to be.  This was beautiful. 
It also hasn’t been replicated at any of the other restaurants in my neighborhood.  So, since my favorite restaurant is a little too far to go to as frequently as I would like, I forced myself to learn how to cook Thai food.  They say if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.  I’m not saying that I am a proficient Thai cook, but I do make good Thai food, which is better than bad Thai food you had to pay for.  I have learned that cooking Thai food is not that hard.  It all seems to involve coconut milk, curry paste, and the addition of fish sauce and sugar.  I have taken extra steps including keeping on hand palm sugar, coconut oil, galangal, tamarind paste, ginger, and lemongrass, which along with a full complement of spices allows me to make just about any recipe.  Which still leaves me wondering, if someone like me can keep these ingredients and make at least a good curry, why are so many restaurants around me cooking not very good, clumsy, uninteresting, you are Thai aren’t you so why aren’t you making good, much less great, curry?
I don't know, but all of this is a long way of answering the question: what on earth possessed you to make Cambodian chicken curry?  The answer is, once you know how to do something, you want to try more of it, in different ways, opening new doors, exploring new ingredients, techniques and tastes.  So, as I was flipping through my recently purchased 500 Curries cookbook, wanting to fill a need to both explore and experience, I came across this recipe.  It is simple and different, in that it uses Indian curry or garam masala as the base.  According to this book, that is common in many Cambodian recipes.  I did not know that, not that I knew anything about Cambodian recipes, but it was something new and something I would try.  Serves 2.
1 1/2 tbsp garam masala
1 1/2 tsp turmeric
2 chicken breasts cut into bite size pieces
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 shallot, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 tsp galangal, chopped
1 lemon grass stock, chopped
1 tsp chili flakes
1 potato (sweet if desired), peeled and cubed
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp sugar
1 cup coconut milk
6 cherry tomatoes, halved
1 small bunch basil, chopped
1 small bunch cilantro, chopped
In a small bowl, mix together the garam masala and turmeric.  Use half the mixture to coat the chicken pieces.  Set both aside.  Heat the oil in a wok or large pan over high heat.  Add the shallots, garlic, galangal and lemon grass and cook a minute or two.  Stir in the rest of the spice mixture, chili flakes and then add the chicken. Stir to coat, cooking for 2 to 3 minutes.  Add the coconut milk, 1/4 cup water, fish sauce, sugar and potatoes.  Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer.  Cook for about 15 minutes until the potatoes are soft.  Add the tomatoes and half the basil, stirring to combine.  Season with salt and pepper, adding a little more of either sugar or fish sauce to taste.  Serve with rice and garnish with remaining basil and cilantro.

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