My friend Michelena makes incredible Mexican mole, from scratch. Friends beg her for jars of the thick, luscious sauce. (Well, I did, anyway.)
The process takes her two days.
Now, I love to cook, which you’ve probably guessed. But I do not love spending all day in the kitchen, much less two days. I totally respect the love and care that goes into all that toasting and soaking and hand-grinding, but if that’s what I have to do to get a sauce like that… well, I’m not going to get a sauce like that.
You can take the same approach with Thai chile paste, another rich, gloriously flavored sauce that elevates whatever it comes in contact with. Traditional recipes involve a similar amount of toasting and soaking and hand-grinding. The one time I spent two days of hands-on time cooking one meal, it was a Thai feast for Arne’s birthday. The centerpiece was a Chu Chee scallop curry. It was amazing, and he still mentions it now and then. But I’m never making that again.
Another approach, of course, is to buy these sauces ready-made. Most supermarkets – at least around these parts – carry premade mole and Thai curry paste (Doña Maria and Thai Kitchen are by far the most common brands). I’ve bought and used them both, and in fact I like to have a little jar of Thai Kitchen red curry paste around for making quick and simple Thai-inspired soups. With a little doctoring, they can make very tasty dinners. But they’re not even in the same stratosphere as the real thing.
But what if you could get close to the stratosphere with much, much less effort? That’s what I’ve tried to do with this yellow curry paste, and I think I’ve succeeded. I modified the recipe from Victor Sodsook’s sadly out of print cookbook True Thai – the same cookbook from which I found the recipes for that laborious long-ago birthday dinner.
I’ve done major streamlining, though, so that the curry paste can be put together in a half hour or less. Most notably, I took out the steps of toasting, soaking, and grinding whole chiles separately from the rest of the spices; instead I use crushed red pepper flakes, added to the spices at the end of toasting, and grind them together with all the other ingredients. In the food processor, not a mortar and pestle. Added water hydrates the chiles as they are ground. I’ve also replaced the shrimp paste with peanut butter, a step Sodsook suggests to make vegan curry paste. (I include instructions for using shrimp paste, if you want to stay closer to the original.)
Is the resulting curry as multidimensional, as authentic, as amazing as the original recipe? Of course not. But it is pretty amazing – light-years beyond what you’d get out of a jar. It’s a homestyle curry, with more texture than restaurant curries. If you want a smoother paste, you can make it in a blender rather than a food processor, but the process is much more laborious: You’ll need to use more water so the paste will be loose enough to engage the blades, and scrape down the jar constantly. Still a lot less work than pounding it in a mortar and pestle!
One of the wonders of this kind of flavoring paste is storability. This recipe makes enough curry paste for two batches of finished curry (each making about four servings). Stick the rest in a jar, toss it in the freezer, and next time you want curry you can throw it together in no time.
Yellow curry is one of the mildest Thai curries, and the most similar to Indian-style curry; in fact, this recipe uses several tablespoons of Madras or other sweet Indian-style curry powder. There’s some heat to this yellow curry, but to my tastes it’s quite mild. I would recommend making the curry paste as written the first time, spicing the finished curry with cayenne pepper if needed, and making subsequent batches with more crushed red pepper if you want it hotter.