Making a Curry Paste from Scratch
by Kasma Loha-unchit
There are few gastronomic delights more satisfying than curries made from freshly ground pastes. The flavors of a good, homemade paste surpass even the very best pastes imported from the kitchens of Bangkok. Moreover, paste making is a fun activity and a deeply stimulating experience. The aromas of all the spices and herbs are released as they are pounded in the stone mortar, and the olfactory nerves are rewarded with unexpected pleasures.
One of my students regained her sense of smell – which she had lost following an accident – as her nose was stimulated by the aromas from the herbs used in paste making. Others have found the process of pounding and grinding to be therapeutic in itself, regarding it as a safe way to release pent-up tension and suppressed aggression. One of these students, who had traveled extensively in Thailand, swore that the Thai people she met were as gentle as they were because they spent so much time pounding and chopping and cooking in the kitchen. She stayed with families in rural areas and awoke each morning to the sound of the rhythmic pounding of the mortar and pestle coming from the kitchen. It seemed to her that their aggressions were directed and transformed into something useful and creative, rather than harmful and destructive.
Pounding up a storm in the kitchen certainly can relieve frustration, anger and depression as well as produce a great meal and the resulting feeling of accomplishment. The sharing of the meal restores a sense of harmony and connectedness with others. Energy is transformed from negative to positive, and everyone gains.
These therapeutic benefits are not forthcoming, however, if you are rushing against time in the kitchen. Paste making can be a very engaging process, and time constraints will only produce stress rather than relieve it. The benefits are also lost if you try to take a short-cut by using a food processor, rather than the age-old mortar and pestle.
A food processor mainly chops and shreds, and unless liquid is added, you end up with a coarsely chopped mixture, not a paste. Grinding and pounding with a heavy mortar and pestle, on the other hand, crush the fibers of herbs, releasing the essential oils that hold the flavors and aromas. That is why herbs that appear fibrous and dry become very moist when pounded. A pounded paste is immensely aromatic and has a breadth and depth of flavor lacking in a processed mixture.
One of my students – who would have preferred to make everything in the food processor – decided to make two pots of curries using the same recipe. One was made with the paste created entirely by pounding in a stone mortar, and the other was made with paste produced in the food processor. Upon tasting, his wife immediately identified the curry made the traditional way; the flavors were just so much more alive.
When you are short on time, you may need to use short-cuts. Just be aware of the trade-offs and decide if you are willing to sacrifice taste for an extra half hour of your time. Also, remember that not all short-cuts work and may, instead, lead to frustration. As you are learning the intricacies of Thai cooking, it is important to follow guidelines as closely as possible and learn what each step contributes to the final result. When you have gained a better understanding of the whys and hows of the traditional methods, then you can begin to take short-cuts, noting as you do what is being sacrificed along the way. You may find certain steps are not as crucial as others and discover a short-cut that works well for you in your kitchen without compromising flavor – it may even add a special twist that you prefer. But unless you already know the way to get some place, you may get lost taking a short-cut.
Offsite: Easy Thai Green Curry Recipe, an Interview with Kasma Loha-unchit, and Musings on Thai Curry Pastes. (Opens in new page.)