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How to make my weeknight Thai taste more like restaurant Thai?

Hi all,
My weeknight cooking is limited to about 30 minutes, and is mostly vegetarian (meat probably once a week). I like to rotate rough facsimiles of different ethnic cuisines to keep things interesting (Mexican, Greek, Italian, Indian, etc.) and I've been tinkering with Thai lately. In this thread, I am mostly concerned with capturing the major flavors of the cuisine. (On weekdays, I'll dabble in more elaborate projects, and I'm always interested in _eating_ authentic preparations!!!)
The couple of quick Thai-ish meals I've made have been good, but really seem to be lacking some flavor.
For example-- tonight I made a quick green curry recipe that I found on Epicurious. Ingredients....

1 tablespoon vegetable oil ***(I used olive oil)
3/4 cup sliced shallots (about 5 large) ***(I used a yellow onion)
1 3/4 teaspoons Thai green curry paste ***(I used more like 3 tsp)
1 14-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
2 teaspoons fish sauce (such as nam pla or nuoc nam)
1 pound skinless boneless chicken breast halves, cut into thin strips ***(did veggies instead)
1 large red bell pepper, cut into strips ***(omitted)
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil plus sprigs for garnish ***(used cilantro instead)
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice plus wedges for garnish ***(omitted)

The ingredients in the green curry paste (Thai Kitchen brand) are green chile , garlic, lemongrass, galangal, salt, shallot, and kaffir lime. I felt it was missing something when I served it over rice, so I added a little soy sauce.

What can I do to capture Thai flavor in a short amount of time? What key ingredients/spices/flavors am I missing-- adapted for the weeknight, sometimes improvising cook?

Thanks in advance!!!

http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/foo...

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  1. Thai basil in place of sweet basil. Palm sugar in place of brown or white sugar. Use of dried shrimp and shrimp paste where appropriate as well as tamarind. Bird chilies instead of other varieties

    6 Replies
      1. re: scubadoo97

        +1. Especially shrimp paste (the really funky dryish paste that looks like dirt). Also, buy some fresh lime leaves and lemongrass, freeze them. As needed, you can easily chop thin slices off the bottom of the frozen lemongrass. Adding lime and lemongrass to pre-made curry sauces (like Maesri) adds a lot of freshness and "thai" flavor.

        1. re: sbp

          Forgot about the lemongrass and the kafir lime leaves. Was just thinking those are a given

          1. re: sbp

            Thank you! Great suggestions. I'll have to investigate where to find lemongrass in my area.

            1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

              Find an Asian market in your area and you will be greatly rewarded

          2. I am just ready to cook my dinner but I want to stick my nose in to not only get more facts but go look in my cabinet to find the Thai green curry paste I use that is good but needs a little tweeking. I hope that's okay..... it is Maesri curry paste. They make all kinds of paste and noodle sauces and satay sauces that are good but are only in my Asian grocers. They are really good but miss a little something that the restaurants do. I am interested to know what I am missing... kaffir, lemongrass, fish sauce? What is it and what else?

            1. More salt or fish sauce, but not soy sauce. Check your curry paste, too, some are bland.

              9 Replies
              1. re: jaykayen

                Make your own curry paste, it's simple and very easy to find the ingredients in any bigger grocery store. It's also fun to tweak it to fit your tastes as opposed to what's on the shelve.

                D.

                  1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                    Paste for Green Curry of Chicken from David Thompson's 'Thai Food:'

                    3 tablespoons green bird's eye chillies (scuds)
                    large Pinch of salt
                    1 tablespoon chopped galangal
                    2 tablespoons chopped lemongrass
                    1 tablespoon finely chopped kaffir lime zest
                    1 tablespoon scraped and chopped coriander root
                    1 teaspoon chopped red turmeric
                    3 tablespoons chopped red shallot
                    2 tablespoons chopped garlic
                    1 teaspoon shrimp paste (gapi)
                    10 white peppercorns
                    1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds, roasted and ground
                    1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds, roasted and ground

                    Pound together in this order in mortar and pestle, adding ingredients 1 by 1 until incorporated.

                    1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                      For a truly authentic Thai green curry, you'd probably need to prepare your curry paste from scratch. Try this recipe (translated from a Thai cookbook I bought from Bangkok) when you have the time:

                      Curry paste
                      =========
                      5 dried chillies
                      10 cloves garlic
                      1 teaspoon sliced galangal (blue ginger)
                      1 Tablespoon lemongrass
                      1/2 teaspoon sliced kaffir lime rind
                      1 teaspoon coriander root
                      5 whole peppercors
                      1 teaspoon roasted coriander seeds
                      1 teaspoon roasted cumin seeds
                      1 teaspoon salt
                      1 teaspoon shrimp paste

                      Blend all the above till fine, fry in oil over low heat till fragrant. Add coconut milk (2.5 cups) gradually, bring to boil then lower heat to simmer.

                      Add chicken pieces (1/2 lb) and 2 kaffir lime leaves (tear into pieces). Add 1 Tablespoon palm sugar & 2 Tablespoon fish sauce. Bring to boil, then add quartered eggplants (3 ounces). When chicken is cooked, add 2 stems of sweet basil.

                      Probably a challenge to find all the ingredients where you are, but Asian grocery stores should have them. Well, at least you'll already know what goes into an authentic Thai curry ;-)

                      1. re: klyeoh

                        Thank you adamj and klyeoh. I'll poke around some of our local Asian markets this weekend to see what I can find. Is this the type of thing I could make in bulk and freeze in small portions?

                          1. re: klyeoh

                            I've had my curry pastes keep for months in the refrigerator, this is almost certainly not ideal, but I've never had any molds or off smells. Slight fading of their color, and perhaps frying slightly longer to get to the nice 'fragrant' stage before you add the liquid and everything else, are the only issues I've noticed.

                            I've never tried freezing curry pastes, but I would hesitate because of the 'weeping' you might come across, specifically from the shallots. In my experience Thai curry pastes are pungent and concentrated enough to fight off any of the 'nasties' for much longer than you'd expect, and certainly last longer when mashed together than the raw ingredients do... I find chilis, lemongrass, galangal, coriander root(leaves are usually another story, but being attached to the root helps though), turmeric, keffir limes(not so much the leaves), etc. can usually keep up to a couple weeks in the fridge if they're quite fresh to start.

                      2. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                        Another recipe for Green Curry paste, from Chef McDang (Sirichalerm Svasti) is:

                        -5 fresh green chili peppers, sliced (prik chee fah)
                        -20 fresh small green Thai Chili peppers, sliced (prik kee noo)
                        -1 tsp salt
                        -2 Tbs lemongrass (purple part only), sliced thinly
                        -1.5 Tbs galangal, finely chopped
                        -1 tsp kaffir lime rind, chopped
                        -1 stem fresh cilantro, both roots and leaves, chopped
                        -2.5 tsp Thai shallots, peeled and sliced
                        -2 Tbs Thai garlic, peeled and sliced
                        -1 tsp shrimp paste
                        -1 tsp cumin, roasted and ground
                        -1 Tbs coriander seeds, roasted and ground
                        -.5 tsp (freshly) ground white pepper

                        Pound together in this order in mortar and pestle, adding ingredients 1 by 1 until well incorporated.

                        If you can even find Thai garlic the cloves are tiny, and even coming up with 2 Tbs. will be a major pain in the ass. Our western garlic is more convenient, and pungent, so go scant on the 2 Tbs. if substituting.

                        Use Sarawak Creamy white peppercorns if possible, it sucks to spend all this time and effort on a green curry paste just to f* it (this makes a very noticeable difference) with some nasty cheap, dank, musty white peppercorns.

                    2. re: jaykayen

                      Thanks. I did add more salt and fish sauce but still felt it lacked salt or something. I figured the soy sauce was off the mark but at that point I was starving so.... :)

                    3. Add Thai Panang Curry to your rotation. We use a T or two of peanut butter as well. Although Mr. Shallots won't try tofu, I think there are so many flavors in Panang that the tofu would shine well there.

                      For Thai vegetarian curry, try Karee, which is really also delicious with carrots or potatoes or both.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: shallots

                        Thanks! Do you have any specific recipes you like that you can link to?

                        1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                          I just follow the directions on the side of the can. I do check on heat as somebatches seem a bit hotter than others.

                          If I have the time, I may start off by grating some fresh ginger, some garlic and some onion in just a bit of oil, then add the heavier part of the coconut milk, and then add the paste du jour.

                          I probably shouldn't admit this, but there's something about the Keree paste that I find to be really perfect for my tastebuds, and I could eat it by the 1/4tsp right out of the can.

                          I would try to make these from scratch, but I have never even found fresh galangal within 150 miles of where I live. The other problem is that there are a gazillion chillis out there and I'm not sure if I'd ever use the correct ones (having had a habanero mistake about twenty years ago.)

                          You MUST try the Keree with carrots. I think it's that good.

                      2. The amount of curry paste is too low. This recipe and many others on the internet uses about 2-4 times as much for that quantity of coconut milk.

                        http://www.thaitable.com/thai/recipe/...

                        More generally, your recipe is underpowered and off the mark IMO. I would try to adhere more to the recipe I posted.

                        8 Replies
                        1. re: AlkieGourmand

                          Thank you for the recipe. Looking at that, I see I was missing three elements: spicy (the curry paste is a little spicy but not when diluted with the coconut milk, and I didn't have any peppers), sweet (didn't think to add any sugar), and citrus (didn't have lime-- would lemon have worked?).

                          1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                            The lime leaves are mostly for fragrance, lemon juice will not help. It won't smell the same, but you could finely grate a little lemon zest into the curry just before serving to recreate the fragrant aspect of the dish, it just won't be quite the expected fraggrance. ;)

                            1. re: MikeG

                              And Kaffir lime leaves smell and perfume a dish very differently than the standard Persian lime leaf will

                              1. re: MikeG

                                Thank you. I've never seen kaffir limes but I'm going to try to find them this weekend!

                                1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                                  I have never seen the fruit in Asian markets, just the leaves. You will find them in the refrigerated coolers in most Asian markets. They freeze well too.

                                    1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                                      PS: you can't eat the leaves whole like a vegetable (very fibrous). Chop them up as finely as you can.

                                  1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                                    The Kaffir limes are always the hardest ingredient for me to find, but I'm lucky enough to find them quite regularly here in Arctic Norway! They aren't much bigger than the Asian shallots, and have wrinkly skin. I think their zest smells almost closer to a citronella candle than a regular Persian lime, more astringent. I've substituted the zest of regular Persian limes in the past, and I doubt I would be able to pick out the difference in a side-by-side curry taste test.