Top | The Elements of Life

Thai Curry Gaeng Koa

(recipe, Su-Mei Yu)

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Gaeng koa is one of the most ancient curries, developed after chiles were brought to Thailand in the 16th century by the Portuguese. The ingredients blend the tastes and flavors of opposite elements — earth and wind — to create a perfect balance, not only in taste, but also for health. Gaeng koa is a lighter curry using less coconut cream and more coconut cream and milk combined. The paste can also be used as seasoning for stir-fried dishes and savory custard.


    Thai curry chile paste
    1. 1 tsp. salt
    2. 5 cloves garlic, minced (2 tablespoons)
    3. 15 dried arbol chiles or chiles Japones, soaked in hot water to soften, dried thoroughly, and minced
    4. 1 stalk lemongrass, tough outer layers and green stem removed, tender inner stalk minced
    5. 7 thin slices galangal or fresh ginger
    6. 1 Tbsp. minced smoked salmon (not lox; optional)
    7. 1 shallot, minced
    8. 1 tsp. fermented shrimp paste or red miso
    Curry broth
    1. 1 cup coconut cream
    2. 1 cup coconut cream and milk combined
    3. 1 cup almond milk (or use 2 cups almond milk and eliminate the coconut cream and milk combined)
    4. 1 tsp. salt
    5. 2 Tbsp. fish sauce (for vegetarians, use light soy sauce)
    6. 2 tsp. palm sugar, dark brown sugar, or maple sugar
    7. 1 stalk lemongrass, tough outer layers removed, tender inner stalk cut lengthwise and slightly pounded
    8. 6 to 7 fresh Thai or 3 to 4 fresh serrano chiles, slightly crushed
    9. 6 to 7 kaffir lime leaves, slightly crushed, or grated zest of 1 lime
    Main ingredients
    1. About 2 cups bite-sized pieces of beef, chicken, or firm-fleshed fish fillet such as catfish, red snapper, or sea bass, dried thoroughly
    2. 2 cups mixed firm-textured vegetables, such as onions cut into chunks; green beans cut into 2-inch lengths on the diagonal; mushrooms, halved; cauliflower florets; and/or bamboo shoots
    To finish
    1. 2 kaffir lime leaves, slivered, or zest of 1 lime, cut into slivers


    1. Pound the salt and garlic together in a mortar until they form a paste. Add the remaining chile-paste ingredients one at a time, adding the next only after the previous one has been incorporated into the paste. The paste will keep in an airtight container, refrigerated, for up to a month.
    2. Combine the coconut cream and chile paste in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat and heat until the oil separates out and the oil bubbles take on the color of the chile paste, stirring frequently. Add the coconut cream and milk combined and almond milk and stir to mix. When the mixture comes to a boil, add the salt, fish sauce, palm sugar, lemongrass, chiles, and lime leaves, and stir to combine. When it boils again, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. (If making the curry broth ahead, let cool completely at this point and refrigerate. It will keep overnight. Bring to a boil before adding the meat and vegetables.)
    3. Add the main ingredients to the simmering broth. Once they are cooked, add the slivered lime leaves and stir until limp. Serve immediately.


    For a different twist, make this with 2 cups small shrimp and scallops, 1 pound large mussels or ½ pound smaller ones, and 1½ cups sliced tart fruit such as apricots, tart plums, or grapes.