Chicken Curry Help!
Why is my chicken curry so dull? I have tried many variations, many different ingredients, and I just can't get any depth of flavor....
I like thai/malaysian style coconut curries. I use store bought coconut milk, fish sauce, curry powder, and curry paste. I I try to amp up the flavor with chicken broth concentrate, chili powder, cardamom pods, soy sauce... I have even tried throwing in 2 tablespoons of jar marinara I have in the fridge!! I have tried cooking chicken thighs with skin in the curry as well... I just can't get a rich, fulfilling flavor to my curry... any suggestions?
I was taught that "fat carries flavour". With Indian or Mexican food, you often "bloom" the spices in oil (or butter, or ghee, or coconut oil I suppose) to get a bigger depth of flavour. So look at the method, and find recipes that use the base spices, (not pre-blends) where you saute in some form of fat.
Also remember that sometimes it's best to give a a hit of spice at the end of cooking so that you don't cook all the heat/flavour out. I think this works especially well with pouch flavours, (butter chicken, for example), curry pastes & powders, and minced fresh garlic.
Buy the freshest spices you can in small quantities, store them in a dark and cool place. I buy whole spices in bulk, but would also recommend McCormick brand from the grocery store---their quality has always been better than generic, IMHO.
Oh, and surf a lot. So many food blogs, so little time......
Although you mentioned your preference for the Thai/Malay spectrum of "curries", as an Indian, may I offer my 2 cents? If you are cooking with chicken, the best thing would be to find a fresh poultry outlet and have them dress you a chicken without skin, curry cut, or even a guinea fowl. Failing that, my personal preference are the drumsticks, skin removed, and the end bone cut off. If you cut this bone off, the skin becomes easier to remove. Score the meat and try to push it towards the knee joint in a semi-lollipop style, Reason for this follows.
Next, the other cut that offers very good flavor is the first joint/drummette of the wing, skin-free if possible. Skin-free neck is great, if you relish the soft bones, and also some backs and ribs. Bones makyth curry! So do gizzards and hearts! Note I have not included thighs!!!!! If you use cornish hens, use everything, very very good!
So you have 1 kg of this stuff collected, washed and dried off as much as possible. Rub them with a tiny bit of sea salt and good turmeric, which will coat and form a seal. Now fry them in a goodly amount of hot peanut oil, until the surfaces turn white and begin to turn gold. Do not overcook or dry out. Remove.
You have sliced some hard yellow onions, very very thing, along their North-South pole, root to shoot axis, say a couple of cups. You gently slide them into the oil, add a Tb sugar and cover, lower heat, and buy yourself by either grinding on stone fresh ginger and fresh garlic or using your Thai stone thingie. Please no blender. It is much preferable to use your cleaver and smash-chop ginger & garlic than the blender which muddies flavor beyond repair. By this time the onions will have turned gray and exuded water, so stir and keep them covered until they form little islands of sodden rags amidst pools of oil. Now raise the cover & the flame, and very carefully begin to "brown the onions to a pale gold. You have 2.5 alternatives now: 1) Either remove the pale gold onions and smash them in your Thai thingie to a coarse paste; 2) grind them in your blender (!) with some water or chicken stock and keep aside; 3) turn flame down very low and keep in the cooking vessel, which should not be a thin-bottomed one.
You are going to push aside the onions, if (3), and gently fry your garlic first, and then your ginger, but only a little for both. Just get the raw smell out, don't cook them hard, please. Now you can add your jarred curry paste, or if you want, turmeric, before the paste. cook a tiny bit, to release the aroma just a little bit, keeping an eye on the flame. You may add the brown onion paste now, if you already have not had the onions in. You may wish to have added a spoonful of chopped green thai chillies after the garlic & ginger went in. So, ok, now your onion paste in in, cook it briefly, as all the masalas are cooked and you do not want to lose your curry paste flavors, and drop in your chicken parts, and begin to gently fry them in this masala. Protein laden juice will come out of the meat and you want to dry this up, caramelize it ON TO the meat, to give it the MAILLARD REACTION taste, the fond taste. You need to get some experience of this bhunao or kosha technique, because in the Indian manner you can lengthen or shorten this. In the massaman curry, you should do this carefully to get great depth of taste. Even in other thai curries, like Panang, there is a way to cook them twice. First cook, say a bone-in duck with No.2 or 3 coconut milk and a light version of masala + bhunao. You now have this cooked duck ready as either a panang, or red curry bhunaod duck, So, when you want to finish, go ahead and do the classical Thai way, Panang or Red curry style, except now you are using a cooked duck that has been given the once over, and already has a rich gravy base sitting under it. You will notice the difference immediately. Trust a stupid Indian, and try it!
Ok, so we were up to the bhunao of your chicken. Now you are going to add hot chicken stock in small increments, and cover up the meat, letting it get tender. never dump liquid in a curry, but add in small increments, and simmer. You can use very light coconut milk or add coconut milk No.1 at the finish, according to your taste for coconut. You may also add some souring agent, or eat the curry with some lime or sour element. It really helps to add whole black peppercorns to such curries, because they balance the flavor, and a sprinkle of very fine julienne fresh ginger over the finished dish, that cuts the richness. Just a tiny bit, please do not overdo this touch. Curries mature if left alone for a few hours, or even overnight, but you can always eat them immediately. I don't know if things have been obscure above. please add sea salt or fish sauce after you begin adding the simmering liquid. Adding cubed fried potato is good. Nyonya even add cubed cantaloupe or honeydew at the end, and briefly cook the fruit, for a novel taste and sensation. Since in India watermelon is curried, this is not that big of a leap. Experiment according to your taste, with bamboo shoot, taro, winter melon and other things. Remember, use your awareness and taste to guide you in the proportions of spices and aromatics, depth of browning, amount of coconut milk etc. because each person's preference is unique. Steaming jasmine rice, fresh cut limes, fresh cucumbers, scallions, all make such curries all the more enjoyable. Happy adventures.
My suggestion is buy David Thompson's book Thai Food, make one of the curries from scratch (including the curry paste), and see what you think. My hunch is there's no way you will call the result dull.
It seems you're skimping on the ingredients here. Store-bought curry paste, sounds like a big mistake. I've never used store-bought curry paste myself, but I doubt that it could be anywhere near as good as freshly made curry paste. Would you buy jarred garlic paste? Jarred shallot paste? Jarred cilantro paste? Jarred green chili paste? Etc. Hopefully the answers are no--and therein lies the problem with jarred curry paste. It's bound to be grossly inferior.
Another possible problem: coconut milk without coconut cream probably isn't rich enough to make a fabulous coconut-milk-based curry. It's going to be too thin.
Then, there is the method. I suppose the most important thing is to saute the curry paste before adding the liquids. If you just mix the paste with the coconut milk and simmer the chicken, you won't get a good taste.
That's what I've found. The Thai brand I buy is actually better than what I can make myself from scratch, as I can't easily get fresh lemongrass, lime leaves or galangal, and when I do find them, they're really not actually all that fresh. The ingredient list is like a recipe - chilis, cilantro, garlic, galangal, salt, spices, etc.
It's not as good as the fresh curry pastes I experienced in Thailand, made each day from fresh local ingredients and a mortar and pestle, but I can't match that in my own kitchen.
Of course, this assumes you can get good quality curry pastes, which may not be true.
Here is my base ingredient list:
1/2 cup coconut cream
1 can coconut milk
1 tbsp red curry paste
2 tbsp green curry paste
1 tsp turmeric
1 stalk lemongrass sliced
1 cup chicken stock
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp fish sauce
1/2 red onion- large chop
handful of cilantro leaves- chopped
To that I have tried to cook chicken thighs in the sauce to increase flavor... I have tried to add tumeric, cardamom, and garlic powder to boost flavor. Maybe I am adding too much, or not cooking the base long enough. I have concocted this recipe from various recipes on the internet and it's quite possible I need to strip some of it down. I think that maybe making my own curry base, as opposed to using powder/paste might be better too...
I find the prepared Curry Pastes are really short on the aromatics and high on the salt and chili.
If you are willing to make your own that will yield the best tasting curry.
Short of that I often use the premade paste as a base and beef it up with more of the aromatics ie. Lemongrass, Galanga, Spices (depending on style of curry) Shrimp paste, onion and Garlic.
Also make sure that you are cooking your paste till the oil breaks back out of it before adding your coconut milk.
Using bone in pieces cut through the bone and sweating the chicken in the paste for a few minutes before adding the liquid also helps with flavor, not to brown it but to stiffen the meat slightly.
It occurs to me that you might be actually adding too many ingredients, so the flavour is getting muddy, as paulj said. For example, I use either red *or* green curry, depending on which kind I use, no stock, no soy sauce, and I add herbs depending on the paste. My usual recipe, for pre-made green paste is
1 can coconut milk
1 package green curry paste (~2T)
~3 large or four small chicken breasts, skin off
~4 long asian eggplants
handful of basil.
Saute curry paste in a bit of neutral oil. Add the coconut milk, cut up chicken and cut up eggplant. Simmer slowly until the chicken is cooked, eggplant is nicely soft, and coconut milk is slightly separated. Stir in the basil, cook a few minutes. Add a dash of fish sauce, and a squeeze of lime, to taste. Serve with rice. The result is an intense, balanced flavour.
The paste I use is really good - a Thai brand that reads like an ingredient list, not a chemical experiment. If your paste isn't good quality, then it might be worth making from scratch, and freezing it for later use.
I've tried quite a few of them, and I always keep coming back to Maesri Red as my canned favorite, but that's not why I asked the op which brand (if any) they are using.
Since not all red and green curry pastes are the exact same, I wonder if the op's curry pastes are the issue causing the lack of depth of flavor.
I agree that you need more aromatics and then need good cooking technique. I would first saute shallot (1/3 c or so), diced small, then add 2 T ea minced garlic and ginger. stir a couple minutes add coconut cream--thick part from top of unshaken can of coconut. Add curry paste and spices (I would definitely omit turmeric. I personally don't think it adds much, plus to me it is more Indian than Thai. Cook slowly for at least 10 minutes. add lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves, minced, if you can get them, rest of coconut can, meat. cook slowly. I would use boneless strips of meat. Add fish sauce lime, and sugar (brown but white is just fine). 2 T-1T to start. no soy. correct seasoning. add cilantro.
What is your reference point? 'depth of flavor' is a vague target.
One possibility is that you are adding too many things (soy sauce, marinara etc), and the result is just a muddy taste, where nothing stands out.
Canned coconut milk, fish sauce, and Thai curry paste gives plenty of flavor - to my thinking.
I made this Beef curry (Randang) from Molly Stevens' original recipe and loved it. This version is very close and should do well and gives you the technique for chicken although have not done this with chicken. I did cook it very slowly. I love the sauce.
Can you describe the cooking process a little more? That can make such a difference in the flavor of curry-as boogie baby mentioned, sauteing spices make a huge difference. Freshness of spices (e.g. getting from a place with high turnover) also makes for good curry.
Anyway, more info might help with troubleshooting!
I can't speak for thai curries, but Malay curries have a good base to them -- onions, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, lots of fresh red chilli, etc. You saute those, then add your spices like ground coriander, ground fennel seed, turmeric, star anise, etc and then add your meat. Cook the meat for a bit in the base, then cover and cook some more. Then add some water and coconut milk, and cook some more.
Slow and steady makes for a good Malay curry.