Thai food was my gateway to cooking. I was traveling to Los Angeles frequently for work and discovering the pleasures of wildly spicy and tangy laap, the pan-fried noodle flavors of pad kee mow, and the sweet relief of creamy Thai tea. The flavors sang, intense and heightened — all new to this Midwestern girl.
Back home I had a friend, Joe, who was Thai and who brought curries and noodle dishes to weekend dinners with friends. It was Joe who offered me my first glimpse into how these dishes were built. It was tantalizing and fun — a delicious way to understand what my Thai, Indian, and Chinese friends wanted to eat; and how, ultimately, one dish, like green curry, can be something new that wakes you up, then something that you learn by teasing it out like a knot, and then, after you've learned it by heart, continues to be a point of connection that ties you with your past and your present.
Green curry wasn't just the dish that got me into cooking in earnest (and for that it would have to fight it out with laap and great bolognese and also South Indian pork vindaloo). It was also the dish, it turned out, that happened to be a favorite of my now-husband, a man I met on one of those trips to Los Angeles, and who ended up following me back to Ohio, where — I am sorry to say — the average quality of Thai restaurants simply does not match up to Los Angeles. But not many places do.
So Joe's green curry became one of those dinners that I carried straight on into a new household and a new life, with a guy who still gets very romantic about the fact I can make spicy curry at the drop of a hat. And every time I make it I remember Los Angeles, before we got to know each other over mouth-numbing seafood and noodles at places like Sanamluang and Yai Thai, and before I knew you could make good green curry at home.
But you can, and while I enjoy the authentic processes of cooking Thai from scratch — see my review of Pok Pok to see just How Committed I Can Be — there's a lot to be said for opening up a couple cans and making fabulous curry in 20 minutes. That's what happens here. In fact, this recipe calls for fewer ingredients than almost anything else I make.
A 20-Minute, 5-Ingredient Curry
You open a can of good green curry paste, found at almost any Asian grocery and even in some grocery stores, not to mention Amazon, and sauté it with a little oil. Then add coconut milk and chicken, and simmer. There you have it: green curry.
For the curry paste I usually buy the Maesri brand, which is in little green cans you can find at your local Asian grocery. Good-quality coconut milk is important, too; I like the Thai Chaokoh brand.
I also like to add cuttlefish balls, which are chewy, savory balls made out of pressed squid. (Find them in the frozen section of the Asian grocery.) They add a slightly funky, fishy element to the curry that I really like, but they're completely optional — you can leave them out.
And finally, this recipe is easily adaptable to vegetarians — just use the zucchini and leave out the meat and fish, or add some fried tofu squares at the end. Or skip the zucchini and use what Joe always used — the small round eggplants you can find at Indian or Chinese grocery stores. I use zucchini because it's more accessible, but either will be delicious in this sauce.
I made this again last weekend and took it to a gathering of friends. Joe and his family moved back to Chiang Mai a few years ago, but many of our mutual friends have stayed here. After my friends and my husband raided the curry, scooping out almost every bite, I took a photo of the lone remaining fish ball and the last of sauce, and sent it to Joe: "Songsdhit here is your green curry — once again the hit of the party."
The Easiest Thai Green Curry
1 tablespoon vegetable or peanut oil
2 to 4 ounces Thai green curry paste, such as Maesri
2 13.5-ounce cans coconut milk, such as Chaokoh
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast or thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
8 ounces cuttlefish balls, thawed, optional
1 pound zucchini, cut into thick half-moons
Fish sauce, to taste
Sugar, to taste,
Soy sauce, to taste
Heat the oil in a 4-quart (or larger) Dutch oven or heavy pot set over medium-high heat, and when the oil is hot, add the curry paste. Be cautious, as it will sputter. Fry the paste for 2 minutes, stirring frequently. This will be quite pungent, so turn on the fan or vent!
Scoop the thickened coconut solids out of both cans of coconut milk, leaving the watery milk below. Fry these solids for about 2 minutes along with the curry paste, until the oil starts to separate out, forming beads on top of the curry paste. Add the chicken pieces and stir to combine.
Add the rest of the coconut milk and the cuttlefish balls, if you're using them. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 20 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through and the fish balls are warm.
When the chicken is done, add the zucchini and simmer just until tender. Taste and adjust seasonings with fish sauce, sugar, and soy sauce until it is balanced enough for your tastes.
Serve with rice or rice noodles. This keeps well for up to 5 days in the fridge.
On heat: For a fully tongue-tingling experience, use the full 4-ounce can. If you have a lower tolerance for heat, use half the can.
More vegetables: The last time I made this I took a tip from Andrea's recent series and seared some baby bok choy and red peppers and added them to the curry just before serving. This added a nice extra serving of vegetables, not to mention color and crunch. But again, optional.
Updated from recipe originally published August 2012.
(Image credits: Faith Durand)