For a quick curry (read: the cheat’s way), combine a jar of Massaman sauce with sautéed veggies, or better yet, swirl together a tube of rich curry paste with some creamy coconut milk. But shortcuts don’t lead to the nuanced flavor and layered approach of a complex curry, something Chef Angus An discovered working alongside his mentor and mastermind of all things Thai, Chef David Thompson.
The techniques Thompson shared varied wildly from the traditional training An received working in classic French kitchens like Jean-Georges Vongerichten's first New York restaurant JoJo and England’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. Rather than follow strict recipes based on cooking times and measurements—where the main seasoning elements often are salt and peppers—Thompson emphasized the idea of cooking by instinct and layering flavor, using a variety of Thai herbs, spices, and flavors. “Traditional Thai recipes don’t use times or quantities, they use a lot of intuition,” An says. “They might say ‘Fry this curry paste until aromatic,’ instead of ‘for 15 minutes,’ so cooks must trust their instincts and senses.”
Every day An’s team uses those instincts to build at least four different curries (his current favorite is spicy Green Jungle Curry) at his upscale Maenam in British Columbia. In fact, his cooks make 20 kilo batches of the sauces twice weekly. Even the largest mortar and pestle is no match for that kind of demand, so An’s team uses an imported stone mill to grind the freshest ingredients—think galangal, kaffir lime zest, and shrimp paste—into a rough paste. For small batches, a stone mortar is the key (a smooth marble bowl won’t provide the proper friction). And the proper grinding technique is vital. A combination of pounding and grinding, in a pendulum-like motion with a flexible wrist, creates the best paste. An then fries his pastes in the traditional Thai way, in a reduced coconut milk, allowing the spices to reach a deep caramelized flavor. A final step—releasing the curry with a spice-infused braising liquid—allows for even further flavor development.
Step 1: Deseed chilies and soak in water overnight.
Step 2: Put the dried spices in the mortar. With a pestle, use a rocking, pendulum-like motion to begin to create the paste. Sparsely add coarse salt to help increase friction.
Step 3: Working in batches, add galangal, shallot, lemongrass, garlic, kaffir lime zest, and shrimp paste. Finally add the chilies, which act as a binding agent and provides color. The curry paste will keep in the fridge for one week, or in the freezer for several months.
Step 4: Over medium heat, cook coconut milk until the oils and fat solids begin to separate (this is known as “crack cream”). Reheat to a boil, being careful as the mixture will splatter, and dissolve the curry paste in the milk.
Step 5: Cook the curry paste in the “crack cream” until it is dark, rich, and aromatic. As the paste caramelizes and sticks to the bottom, scrape with a spatula and stir into the sauce to develop further flavor and aroma.
Step 6: When a dark, rich color is reached, add the palm sugar and deglaze with fish sauce and tamarind pulp (soak tamarind with water, then pass through a food mill).
Step 7: Add shredded, braised duck leg and the braising liquid and continue to cook, basting the duck to heighten the flavors. Add cherry tomatoes, pearl onions, lychees, and kaffir lime leaves.
Step 8: Chiffonade additional kaffir lime leaves and sprinkle into the dish, allowing them to disperse into the sauce.
Step 9: Just before serving, finish the dish with freshly grated kaffir lime zest.