08 March 2009

Bamboo and sardine curry

Naw Mai Dong is typically (and accurately) translated from the Thai as "pickled bamboo," but I think "soured bamboo" is more accurate in terms of its taste; the sour of naw mai dong is more akin to sourdough bread than a dill pickle or another Thai favorite, gratiem dong -- pickled garlic.

Soured bamboo is a pretty intense taste, and I'm somehow reminded of dried porcini mushrooms, even though they taste nothing alike. I'm thinking instead of the powerful fragrance the mushrooms develop when they're softened up in warm water. And, when they're soaking in a covered bowl, the first smell of the porcinis can be quite heady; I feel the same way about naw mai dong. Soured bamboo can be bought in most Asian markets. If you can buy it fresh, do so; it's much better than the canned stuff.

It's been a long time since I lived in Thailand and my curry paste reflects a dozen plus years living in Minnesota; it's milder than it was when I first returned to the states, and I've gotten used to the ingredients available in local Asian markets. Bamboo and sardine curry is a delicious evolution of the first curry I ever made at my home in Trang Province in southern Thailand. Neighborhood kids showed me how to make it and I've got a soft spot for it.

If you haven't eaten canned sardines, give them a try. When I was an avid hiker, I always had them in my pack. They're good for you and because of their small size and feeding habits, they're considered sustainable, too. For curry, I use sardines packed in tomato sauce.

Making curry paste is one of the times a heavy mortar and pestle is essential. A food processor will chop things up but the fibers found in some of the ingredients really need to be pulverized into a paste, and a Thai cloak is unsurpassed for its ability to render a mash of ingredients into a smooth, particle-less paste.

Curry paste
10 dried Thai chili peppers
1 tbsp dried peppercorns
3 tbsp fresh lemongrass - the white ends from two stalks, cut finely
2 tbsp fresh galangal root, cut finely

4 cloves garlic
1-2 shallots
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp tumeric, or about an inch if fresh
2-3 tbsp gapi - shrimp paste

Put first four ingredients into mortar and go to work for a few minutes. After they're pretty smushed up, I add the next four ingredients, adding the gapi only after the paste is the correct texture. The reason I don't add the garlic and shallots at first is that they have a lot of liquid in them and it's harder to really pulverize the other ingredients if they're sloshing around. I like to cook my curry paste a little; I think it intensifies the flavors and I love the smell.

Bamboo and Sardine Curry
Peel and dice two potatoes or a few cups of firm, unripe papaya. In large saucepan or wok, add a few tbsp oil. Heat and add curry paste. NOTE: This curry stinks up your house, so use appropriate ventilation! Fry paste in oil but don't let it burn. Add a little water and mush it around until it's thick like re-fried beans. Cook it a minute or so, adding a little more water if you think it might burn. Add about a half can of coconut milk and about a half cup of water. Stir to mix. Add potatoes and turn heat down. Cover and cook for a few minutes.

If using whole pieces of bamboo, rinse under water and cut into lengths about 3" and then slice lengthwise into thin strips. I like about 3-4 cups worth. When the potatoes are still firm, add the bamboo slices. Stir together. Again, in another nod to an American palate, I now add the remaining lemongrass stems, cut into 3"-4" lengths. If a little more water is needed, add some. The consistency you end up with is one of personal preference. I usually like mine a little on the soupy side because we all like curry sauces on our rice, but some people prefer a much thicker curry. Likewise with the coconut cream -- it's very thick and rich and in a typical curry I'll use between a half and a whole can, depending on my mood.
When the potatoes are just about cooked through, I add a big tin of sardines. The oval cans weigh almost a pound. Add about seven or eight kaffir lime leaves and stir gently; the sardines are fragile and break up quite easily. Heat through. I put the curry into a big bowl and bring it to the table. We scoop spoonfuls of it onto our rice and always serve something cool with it, like leafy green vegetables or an omelette.