I still remember the very moment I had my first Thai red curry. It was at Thai Orchid in Dublin, and the world stood still as I tasted Holy Basil for the first time. I flagged down our waitress and said "what is this?!" It was like nothing I had ever tasted - a green flavor similar to basil but with giant hits of mint, and licorice (don't let that scare you); it was so foreign and amazing to my palate. I also became hooked on the Thai style of curry - tamed with coconut milk and sugar, and I've worked hard on my own red curry dishes. I still use the paste, but one day soon, I'lll make my own from scratch.
I love to make my Thai curries really spicy with lots of coconut and palm sugar and fish sauce. I have no idea if this is authentic in any way, because I have not yet had the opportunity to travel to Thailand, but I base this on my personal tastes and how I have developed my method.
I love the smells of Thai curry - the jasmine rice, the lemongrass and ginger and lime leaves and basil - not to mention the curry paste and the coconut milk. It's a sensory experience whose spicy sweetness beckons you to eat!
Jasmine rice is the basic rice of Thai cooking; it is a long-grained rice which is very aromatic; it almost has a buttered-popcorn-like aroma. I recommend that you always buy rice as Asian Markets. The turnover of product is extremely high and the rice is always better. In fact, I would buy all of your ingredients at an Asian grocery store the day you are going to cook it. Frequently the produce is remarkably less expensive - probably because the Asian population shops on a more daily basis, so the produce doesn't have to last for weeks in the grocery store. I purchased a 5 pound bag of Jasmine rice at Crestview Market (repackaged by the store, from larger bags) for something like $4, and it was very fresh smelling, fragrant, and cooked up nicely.
Lemongrass is a tough stalk with an intensely lemony-citrus flavor. Lemongrass is usually placed in the pot whole after being whacked a few times with the dull side of a knife to release the oils and flavor. It is really too tough to chew, so I just throw it in and eat around it.
Lime leaves can be found at many Asian markets - usually in the freezer. Lime leaves are also tough and aren't really eaten as much as they are used for flavor. Break a leaf apart, close your eyes, and inhale. Lime leaves are pretty amazing.
Bamboo shoots are just that - the emerging shoots of certain older bamboo plants. The canned ones are simply horrible, taste metallic, and should be avoided at all costs. Vacuum-packed varieties are okay, but the fresh one was so easy that I highly recommend trying them. I used this method from Just Hungry and it worked perfectly. I couldn't believe how flavorful the bamboo shoots were. They tasted like the corniest sweet corn you can imagine. Like if you could eat a corn cob. They add a nice crunchy texture to the curry.
Chicken thighs are a tasty alternative to chicken breasts. I don't really like chicken breast, because I prefer dark meat. Personally I think the only benefit to chicken breast is their slicability. At any rate, chicken thighs are much cheaper than breast. Even better - buy a whole chicken and chop it up. I would leave the skin on, even if you aren't planning to eat it. It just seems to keep the meat within moister.
Palm sugar (sometimes called coconut sugar) is derived from palm sap and is sold in little buckets (which are hard to use, because they are rock hard) and discs (2 ounce and 1 tbsp, that I've found). You can see a picture of some cakes here. I love palm sugar because it has a unique rich flavor and is more complex than typical Western sugar. I found the larger cakes (in a bag) at Crestview Asian Market in Clintonville (High @ Crestview), and the smaller ones at the Asian Grocery across from Whole Foods in Dublin, where they come in a 4 cup plastic jar.
Aside from the rice, this is a one-pot meal, and although I haven't personally tried it, you could probably make it in a slow cooker. If you did that, I might add the sweet potatoes halfway through or leave them whole so that they don't get mushy.
Thai Red Curry with Chicken Thighs, Sweet Potatoes, and Fresh Bamboo - serves 4ish, about 1/2 hour to make, depending on your knife skills.
8 chicken thighs (I used boneless, but you could use bone-in)
1 medium onion, cut into 1" slices
8 scallions, thinly sliced, white parts separated from green parts
3 14 ounce cans of coconut milk
14 ounces water (just fill the empty coconut milk can)
Thai red curry paste
1/2 cup palm sugar, or 2 2oz discs, or 1/2 cup brown sugar
handful Holy/Thai Basil, also just called plain old basil at many Asian groceries
4 lime leaves, broken into 1/4ths
4 lime leaves, broken into 1/4ths
1 stalk lemongrass, beaten a few times with the dull side of a knife
a 2" piece of ginger, peeled and cut into 2 large chunks
10 dashes fish sauce (maybe a teaspoon)
4 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into large yet bite-sized chunks
2 large bamboo shoots, cooked in rice-rinsing water and 2 dried chilis, peeled, halved, and cut into 1/2" slices.
extra basil for garnishing, cut into slivers
Hot Jasmine rice, 2 cups dry, rinsed and cooked according to package directions
Heat a large dutch oven over high heat and cover the bottom lightly with olive oil or coconut oil. Pat the chicken pieces dry with paper towels and carefully place them - skin side down - in the hot oil to brown. Don't crowd the pan - you might have to do this in 2 batches. Cook for about 2 minutes or until they release easily, the turn and cook one more minute. Remove the chicken breasts to a plate and set aside.
Turn the heat to medium and add the onions and the white parts of the scallions. Cook for about 4 minutes or until they begin to become translucent and then turn the heat to high. Allow the onions to brown very lightly and then deglaze the pan with two cans of coconut milk and the water. Bring the mixture to a boil and add the curry paste - begin with 1/4 of a cup; you'll adjust it as needed. Stir to be sure the curry paste melts into the coconut milk. Add the palm sugar, lemongrass, lime leaves, basil, fish sauce, and ginger. Stir everything together and allow it to simmer for a minute or 2, breaking up the cakes of palm sugar with a wooden spoon. Taste this mixture for heat level. It should be a little spicier than you'd like the end result to be. Add the sweet potatoes.
Simmer over medium heat for 10 minutes, and then add the chicken, along with the 3rd can of coconut milk. Simmer for another 10-15 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked and the sweet potatoes are soft. Add the bamboo shoots and stir until everything is hot. If the curry is too thick for your tastes - I like it to be soup-like without being thin - add water until it is at the desired consistency and bring back to a boil. Taste to adjust seasoning.
Serve over hot jasmine rice, garnished with the extra basil and the green parts of the scallions. To allow for different heat preferences, serve with sriracha (chili/rooster sauce) and garlic chili paste (you'll find it in the store right next to the sriracha).
I love chicken skin and prefer it crispy, so before I served my portion, I placed the thighs, skin-side down, in a hot nonstick pan and allowed them to burn before being eaten.