Last Thursday kicked off the first day of the Chinese (Lunar) New Year. The celebrations last for 15 days, and this is a time when many people throughout Asia travel to be with their families; to enjoy delicious food, traditions, and a break from work. I love learning about the traditions of other countries, and I’m especially drawn to the various rituals, beliefs, and symbolism associated with Asian culture. I’m especially drawn to the delicious cuisine.
As a kid I loved Chinese food, and growing up in a very small town we were lucky to have a couple of “mom and pop” Chinese restaurants nearby. It was always a fun treat to go there with my parents, and as a kid I was so impressed by the décor and tiny tea cups. Of course reading my fortune after crunching up my cookie was always the highlight of the visit. Throughout the years my horizons were broadened a bit more. In my 20s I was introduced to Vietnamese food, first while working as a clerk for a Vietnamese couple who own a fabric store and upholstery business. The best part of that job was that they would cook me up the most awesome lunches, in a tiny little kitchen at the back of the store. They are both terrific cooks, and I was introduced to all kinds of fabulous dishes. When I moved to the Ann Arbor area to pursue my degree in Rec. Therapy, I was super excited to discover a Vietnamese restaurant in my neighborhood, and I enjoyed many a noodle dish while living there. Soon after that, I packed up and took up residence in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. It was just a quick ride on the “L” to downtown Chicago, where myriad ethnic restaurants abound. Lucky for me, even in Oak Park, I was within walking distance of several Asian eateries, including an awesome Thai restaurant. This is where I first tasted a Thai curry dish, and it was love at first bite.
My taste buds must have been maturing around this time, because I suddenly started adoring the flavors of coconut, cilantro, and lemongrass, all of which are plentiful in Thai cuisine. I don’t remember how exactly it started, but my husband and I began a weekly Thai take-out tradition not long after I moved back to Michigan. It’s by far our number one choice for eating out, and we have several terrific restaurants to choose from. For three years, we got Thai food almost every single Friday. My go-to dish, of course, was my beloved red curry vegetables.
These days we don’t get Thai every week, but we still enjoy it about once a month. I find that I really like recreating the dishes at home, that way I know exactly what is going in it and I can customize the dish according to our preferences (how spicy, which vegetables, etc). I also find that my homemade veggie curry tastes less oily than the restaurant version, and though it may not taste exactly the same, I love the bright flavors in my rendition, and I’m certain it is quite a bit healthier. Also, traditional Thai curry is made with fish sauce or some kind of seafood paste, so in order to enjoy it without these ingredients, you either need to find a restaurant that accommodates vegetarians or make your own curry paste.
I was always really intimidated by homemade curry paste. Traditionally, whole seed spices are toasted and then ground with a mortar and pestle. All of the ingredients are then added and ground together with the mortar and pestle to make a thick paste. Purchasing a large mortar and pestle seemed unlikely, as well as trying to wield one while balancing a baby on my hip (which is how I do about 95% of my cooking). Then there was the question of chili peppers. Which ones should I buy? Thai red chilies are the most authentic, but are harder to find. Also should I use dried or fresh? Well, I’ve found that you can make a pretty tasty (albeit non-authentic) curry with any variety of red chili peppers, ground spices instead of whole, and a food processor instead of a mortar and pestle. It’s really pretty easy! The best part of making your own: it tastes so fresh and vibrant! Also, you can customize it according to which flavors you want to stand out. Love lemongrass? Add a bit more. Don’t like it too spicy? Use less chili peppers, or a milder variety.
For this dish, I simply sautéed some of my favorite veggies, then added the homemade curry paste, my easy homemade coconut milk, soy sauce, and a touch of coconut sugar. I threw in some crispy tofu, but feel free to add a different protein of choice, and serve over rice or noodles. This dish is brimming with veggies and lively flavors, while using very little oil. I hope you give it a try, and that you enjoy it as much as I do!
Vegan Thai Red Curry Paste
adapted from Thai Dishes cookbook
Makes 1/2 – 3/4 cup
5-10 dried red chilies (use Thai chilies for most authentic flavor, also more spice, or milder red peppers for less spice) see notes below for variations
1/3 cup of chopped onion or 2-3 shallots, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 stalk of lemongrass (only the white inner core, peel/remove the tough outer layers)
1 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
2 tsp chopped cilantro stems
2 Tbsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp white pepper
zest of half a lime (use kaffir limes, if you can find them)
1-2 Tbsp water
To make the curry paste:
1. Soak the dried chilies in hot water for about 15 minutes, then drain well. Add all ingredients to your food processor and process adding one tablespoon of water at a time until a smooth paste forms. Store leftovers for about a week in the fridge or a few months in the freezer. Try freezing in an ice cube tray (measure a tablespoon into each cube) to make future curries really easy!
1. For a visual guide to chili peppers see this chart. To make the paste less spicy, you could try using more onion/shallots and less peppers, or use a milder pepper. Or you could add a filler, such as one tablespoon of tomato paste (this will change the flavor slightly).
2. Don’t have dried chilies? In a pinch, you can also use cayenne pepper instead of dried chilies, or Thai chili sauce (or chili garlic sauce). Try about 1/2 – 1 teaspoon of the cayenne pepper, or about 2 teaspoons of Thai chili sauce. You may need to add more onion or some tomato paste if you sub cayenne pepper or chili sauce for the chilies.
3. If you want more heat, be sure to use thai chili peppers, or add in red pepper flakes, a bit of cayenne, or chili garlic sauce. You could also try using fresh red chili peppers, just use less, maybe 1-3.
4. Customize it! Throw in a few cilantro leaves in addition to the stems, extra lemongrass, more ginger, and adjust spices according to taste.
5. I haven’t tried it myself, but I’ve heard that Golden Mountain Seasoning Sauce is a good substitute for fish sauce in creating that unami flavor. Try adding a teaspoon along with the other ingredients.
For the Veggie Curry
Use any variety of vegetables that you like, I used:
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 cup baby corn
1 large carrot, sliced
a handful of sugar snap peas
1/2 of a large zucchini, sliced
2 cups of sliced mushrooms
1 bell pepper, sliced thinly
1 – 2 tsp coconut oil
2 Tbsp low sodium soy sauce or coconut aminos
1 tsp of coconut sugar
Easy homemade coconut milk*
1 1/2 cups of shredded unsweetened coconut
1 1/2 cups hot water
1. Make your coconut milk. Simply add the shreds and hot water to your blender and blend on high for about 1-2 minutes. Strain out the pulp using a fine mesh sieve or a nut milk bag (be careful if using a nut milk bag if your water was very hot, you may need to let it cool for several minutes.
2. Saute the onion and garlic in the oil in a large wok over medium – medium high heat. After about a minute add in the rest of the vegetables and stir fry for about 5-7 minutes, until veggies are bright in color and crisp-tender.
3. Stir in 3-4 tablespoons of the curry paste (start with 3), all of the coconut milk, 2 Tbsp of soy sauce and the 1 tsp of coconut sugar. Stir until the sauce begins to bubble then turn off heat. Serve with tofu, tempeh or other protein, over rice or noodles.
* Instead of making the homemade coconut milk, you can use a cup of “lite” or full fat canned coconut milk. I like to make my own because it’s cheaper, has no gums or additives, and it tastes more coconut-y.
What is your favorite ethnic cuisine? Have you ever tried to re-create it at home?