Joe’s Amazing Thai Curry

Om nom nomIt is rare, but not unheard of, for D for Dalrymple to feature food-oriented posts, but  I’ve never posted a recipe before. I’m not really a recipe kind of gal: I read them for the ideas and food porn, then pretty much do my own thing. Apart from when I’m baking. I learned that the hard way.

Still, there’s a first time for everything. The recipe I want to share is a dish that was introduced to me by my colleague Joe. Joe is probably the best cook I know. Every weekday at 12.15 he opens his little tupperware box and unleashes an incredible array of delicious aromas. His packed lunch is always cooked, always different, and always superb. It makes everyone else’s sandwich look a little bit shit.

Earlier this year, Joe selflessly (show-offingly) volunteered to prepare lunch for the whole team. At 12.30 I was sent down the road to Yupa Thai to buy beer and two portions of Jasmine rice. We ate the curry in the office out of tupperware boxes balanced on our knees, and I can honestly say that it was the best food I had ever tasted.

While it’s safe to say that Joe is a big fan of food and of eating in general, he’s particularly good at Asian cooking and is a particular devotee of David Thompson, a chef who, though Australian, is widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest authorities on Thai food in the world (quite what Thai people make of this, I can’t say). Joe cooks regularly from his books and has visited Nahm (the London restaurant of which Thompson is owner and executive chef) twice, where both meals ranked in his top ten restaurant meals of all time. Joe visits a lot of restaurants. If one in five of Joe’s top ten restaurant meals were served at Nahm, you’d better believe that the food is pretty spectacular.

Strictly speaking, this recipe is from David Thompson’s Thai Food and its proper name is Chicken Curry with Peanuts and Holy Basil. However, seeing as Joe wrote out this recipe for me longhand with his own helpful hints and I’ve since added several of my own ideas and observations, have never met David Thompson OR been to his restaurant, and didn’t even use holy basil – Joe’s Amazing Thai Curry it remains.

A quick note on ingredients. You’ll observe that there are rather a lot of them. Annoyingly, pretty much all of them are integral to the dish’s awesomeness, although you’ll see a couple of suggestions for substitutions. Some ingredients are difficult but definitely possible to obtain. While you’ll find a lot of them in the supermarket, you may have to visit a Thai or Oriental supermarket for things like holy basil, fresh galangal, coriander root, kaffir lime leaves and red shallots.

So totally worth it.

Joe’s Amazing Thai Curry (serves 3 hungry people or 4 who can be trusted to share nicely)


  • 6 long dried red chillies
  • Large pinch of salt
  • 1 tablespoon chopped galangal root*
  • 2 tablespoons chopped lemongrass
  • 1 teaspoon grated kaffir lime zest**
  • 1 tablespoon scraped and chopped coriander root***
  • 3 tablespoons chopped red shallot
  • 4 tablespoons fresh chopped garlic (2-3 if from a jar)
  • 10 white peppercorns
  • ½ teaspoon roasted coriander seeds
  • ¼ teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 blade mace

* Fresh galangal if you can get it – if not, normal supermarkets do freeze-dried galangal pieces which you’re supposed to use to infuse a dish and then fish out, but I just ground them up and incorporated them into the paste. Bart also do a galangal paste. I wish I’d known that before I tried to grind freeze-dried galangal. Looooong.

** I’m not sure it’s possible to buy kaffir lime zest as a product in the UK, but I found actual kaffir limes on sale in Borough market last weekend. They’re tiny, knobbly and smell amazing. If you can’t get any, substitute a couple of frozen kaffir lime leaves (see below) and normal lime zest in the paste.

*** If you can’t find actual coriander root, use the lower part of the stem of normal coriander or use extra coriander seeds.


  • 2 cups* coconut cream**
  • 1 tablespoon palm sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon roasted and finely ground peanuts
  • 6 chicken thighs – skinned, boned, and chopped
  • 3-4 inches ginger, julienned***
  • 1 long red chili, deseeded and julienned
  • 4 kaffir lime leaves, shredded****
  • 1 handful of holy basil leaves*****

* 1 cup = 250ml

** I guarantee that the coconut cream is NOT what you think it is (either a thick liquid sold in small cans or the solid stuff in sachets). Here, it’s the stuff that rises to the top of coconut milk. Cheap coconut milk separates the easiest (probably because it contains fewer stabilising agents), so buy several cans and let them stand for a day or so. Carefully remove the lids and spoon out the cream that floats on the top of the milk. If you can’t be bothered to do this, just use 250ml (i.e., half the amount) of tinned ‘coconut cream’, but be prepared for this to be a little on the wet side and not to ‘crack’ properly. You may find yourself poaching rather than frying your paste, but try not to panic. It will still taste fit.

*** Cut into long, ridiculously thin strips.

**** Kaffir lime leaves smell like paradise and are widely available – check the freezer section of an Oriental supermarkets.

***** Holy basil is very difficult but not impossible to find – if you’re planning a trip to an Oriental supermarket it’s worth ringing up several beforehand to find out if they have any in stock. If you can’t find any, Waitrose have just started to sell Thai basil, which is not exactly the same (or, according to Joe, as authentic) but is nevertheless the next best thing. Do not substitute ordinary basil. It is not the same thing at all.


Make the paste first, and be prepared for it to take a while – even if you cheat and use a food processor. Yes, cheat. Joe says that it tastes better and more authentic if you make the paste by hand, painstakingly crushing and combining every ingredient from the hardest to the softest (in that order) using a pestle, mortar and sheer machismo. He says this can take the best part of a day.

However, Joe also said some bollocks about how, technically, the coconut cream used in the recipe should be from an actual, fresh coconut and that you should extract the cream for this recipe using, among other things, a muslin net.

I, however, say that the best part of the day is best spent eating the amazing meal one has just prepared and making sexy chit chat with those lucky enough to be invited to share it with you. So I bought an adorable little Magimix and made my paste in that, although it still took well over an hour. This dish may be one of the best things you’ve ever eaten but you’ll need to block out three hours for prep – considerably more if you haven’t already sourced all of your ingredients.

Because making the paste is so time-consuming, you could consider making it in double or triple quantities and freezing the excess. Best do a dry run first, though.


1. Soak the dried red chillies in water for half an hour or so, and then cut them open, deseed, and squeeze dry.

It is VITALLY important to wash your hands as soon as you have finished this stage – better still, wear plastic kitchen gloves while handling the chillies and peppercorns. You may scoff, but I ended up burning my hands so severely that on the night I made this I was compelled to stay up until 3 in the morning soaking my hands in a bowl of milk.

I didn’t know you could actually burn yourself with cold food either. You can. It really hurts. And milk doesn’t really help.

2. Grind together – or Magimix, whatever – the white peppercorns, roasted coriander seeds, cumin seeds and mace, and put to one side.

Do NOT get crushed white pepper ANYWHERE NEAR your nose or mouth. Before I realised I’d burned my hands, I was trotting to the bathroom every five minutes to dip my face into a sink full of cold water.

I should never be allowed to cook unsupervised.

3. Now make the body of the paste.

If you’re using a food processor, you might want to add a little water to help things along. If mixing by hand, remember to stay hydrated. You have a long day ahead of you.

Start with the chillies. When they are completely mashed, start adding the other ingredients from the hardest to the softest: galangal, lemongrass, coriander root, garlic, red shallots, kaffir lime zest (or lime zest and finely chopped kaffir lime leaves). You are aiming to make a smooth, uniform paste with no lumps or fragments. Sexy.

4. Stir the spices mixture and the salt into the paste.

The paste is now FINISHED. If you still have the upper body strength, put it to one side and freeze any excess.


1. Simmer your coconut cream over a low heat with a small amount of vegetable oil until it cracks. Stir regularly.

If you’re using cream skimmed from the top of milk, this should ‘crack’ (separate into solids and oil) after about 15 minutes.

If you’re cheating and using half the amount of tinned coconut cream, and it shows no sign of separating or reducing – don’t panic. When I first made this, I radically misunderstood what was meant by coconut cream and ended up with a wet curry instead of a dry one. It was still delicious – it just lacked the deliciously gritty texture of Joe’s version.

You’re already doing better than me because your curry is half as wet. Relax.

2. Turn the heat up and add the paste.

Fry the mixture, if you can, until it smells phenomenal  (approx. six seconds, but give it a minute).

3. Add the palm sugar, fish sauce and ground peanuts.

Fry for a further minute or two. Joe says that the colour of the mixture should deepen as the sugar caramelises. It didn’t for me, but then by this stage, I wasn’t so much frying as poaching. It still smelt lush.

4. Add the chicken and fry until cooked through, continually stirring to make sure that the sauce doesn’t turn. Add water to the mixture if need be.

Add gin to the chef if need be. If serving with Thai jasmine rice (and why would you not?) put this on now.

5. When the chicken is cooked through, toss in the julienned ginger and chilli, shredded kaffir lime leaves and holy basil.

Have yourself a little tastelet and season with fish sauce and palm sugar if you need to. Joe says that the curry should taste ‘salty, spicy, fragrant with holy basil and slightly sweet’: I say that you should be prepared for the depth and complexity of flavour to so utterly blow your mind that you will not be able to remember words like ‘salty’ or ‘fragrant’.

6. Serve with Thai jasmine rice and cold beer.

Bask in the admiration of your dinner guests, who will all want to have sex with you later.

I hope you’ve washed your hands.

EDITED at 22:55 on 06/09/12 because mace comes in blades, not sheaths. IDIOT

About Christina Kenny

Christina Kenny is a music journalist based in London.
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