Going Analog Part II: Thai “red” curry paste

This past summer, my friend Brenda and I took a Thai cooking class at Durham Spirits Company, which hosts cooking classes and other events in a beautiful historical house in Old North Durham. There were about eight of us cooking at different stations in the spacious kitchen, and afterwards, we all sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labor—which was honestly the best Thai food I have had since moving to the Triangle.

One of the menu items that we prepped during the class was a “red” curry paste. The red is in quotation marks because the paste is not actually red; the color comes from artificial food coloring that is added when the stuff is mass-produced. The actual color is more of a deep brown rather than a bright red. You need a bunch of ingredients for this paste, but fortunately you don’t need to chop or mince anything too finely because its all going into the food processor.  This paste is incredibly aromatic and will transform your Thai dishes. However, this stuff is seriously spicy (loaded with red chilies), so handle with care. A little goes a long way!

Coming up soon…two different Thai curries that use this paste.

Note: to keep this purely vegetarian, replace the shrimp paste with soy sauce.

Step 3: dry roast your shrimp paste, coriander seeds and cumin seeds
Step 3: dry roast your shrimp paste, coriander seeds and cumin seeds
The final product: delicious, aromatic, homemade curry paste…for your future enjoyment!


(Courtesy Katie Coleman, Durham Spirits Company)

Prep time: 40 minutes

Makes: about 2 cups of paste


1 cup red chilies (dried is fine, without the stems)

1 tsp. cumin seeds

2 stalks lemongrass

½ cup galangal, roughly sliced

¼ cup garlic, roughly chopped

1 tbsp. shrimp paste

1 ½ tbsp. coriander seed

1 tbsp. coriander stems, chopped

¼ cup shallots, chopped

Zest of one lime

1 cup water (use the water that the chilies are soaking in)

Generous grind of black pepper

1 tsp. salt

  1. Boil some water. Soak the red chilies in the hot water for about 15 minutes.
  2. Wrap 1 tbsp. of the shrimp paste (warning: this stuff smells rank, like a million shrimps died to make this paste) in a small piece of aluminum foil (Make a little boat).
  3. Into a dry saucepan, add in the shrimp paste in its aluminum boat, dry coriander seeds, and cumin seeds on medium heat, letting them brown but not burn.
  4. To prepare the lemongrass, remove the tough, outer layers of the stalk and cut off about 5” inches off the top (not the root area). Give your lemongrass a few good whacks along its spine and chop into about 1″ pieces.
  5. Roughly chop the galangal, shallots, garlic, and coriander stems. (Don’t bother peeling the galangal.  As Nigella says, the skin is just more fiber!)
  6. Using a slotted spoon, being careful not to touch the red chilies with your bare hands, transfer the chilies to a food processor. Save the soaking water.
  7. Transfer all the other ingredients to the food processor as well. Add the salt, pepper, and lemon zest. Add 1 cup of the soaking water.
  8. Process to a fine paste, letting the processor go for a few minutes. Warning: the grinding process is going to release very strong aromas—including red chilies—into the air. Be sure to cover the opening of the food processor so that you protect your throat.
  9. Transfer your paste to a storage container. Refrigerate or use right away!


Breakfast in a Jiffy

Poha is a super easy, very delicious, and highly transportable breakfast dish (makes a great packed lunch). It’s great when you are not in the mood for eggs or bread, but want something savory. Imagine this as a South Indian version of fried rice. The main ingredient is flattened or pressed rice – poha – which is jazzed up with curry leaves, mustard seeds, red onion, turmeric, coriander leaves, and a nice bright acidic kick at the end, which brings the flavors to life. What I love about this dish is also that, unlike many Indian recipes, the different elements remain distinct, making it visually appealing, which is, as we all know, more than half the battle with food. I’m also amazed at how quickly this dish can be ready. This does not take more than 15 minutes to make, from start to finish.

PS—You can see that I used a wok to make this, but feel free to use any large saucepan or frying pan. I will extol the virtues of a wok in some other post…

poha dagdi
This is not the prettiest picture, but I just wanted to show you what uncooked poha looks like
A few of my favorite things: red chilies, curry leaves, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and peanuts



Prep time: 15 minutes

Serves: 2


3 cups poha (flattened rice)

2 tbsp. vegetable oil

1 medium red/yellow potato

2 red chilies, dried

1 tsp. mustard seeds

1 tsp. cumin seeds

1 tbsp. channa (chickpea) dal

1 stem curry leaves

¼ cup peanuts

Asafetida, a pinch

1 tsp. turmeric powder

1 small red onion, cut into half moons

1 cup green peas (optional)

Bunch of coriander/cilantro leaves

Juice of ½ lemon

Salt – to taste

  1. Put the potato in a saucepan, cover with water and boil until soft, about 10 minutes.
  2. In the meantime, put your poha in a large bowl and wash with cold water as you would rice.  Keep rinsing the poha until the water goes from starchy to clear (this will take a few rinses). Strain the water and gently press the poha—don’t squeeze it—to release the remaining water. Transfer the poha to another bowl.
  3. Heat oil in a large saucepan or wok on medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the red chilies, mustard seeds, and cumin seeds.
  4. When you hear the mustard and cumin seeds crackle, add the curry leaves, channa dal, peanuts, and pinch of asafetida and sauté for another minute.
  5. Add the red onion, turmeric powder, and a pinch of salt and sauté for another two minutes.
  6. Once the onions start browning, add the poha into the pan. Mix everything together and lower the heat. Taste and adjust salt if necessary. Add your peas, if you are using them and mix everything together once more.
  7. In the meantime, remove the potato from the boiling water. Once it has cooled, cut it into cubes. Heat 1 tbsp. oil in a separate small saucepan and sauté the potato, until the skin crisps up (about 2-3 minutes).
  8. Add the potato to your poha mixture. Turn off your stove.
  9. Squeeze juice of half a lemon on top of the poha mixture. Garnish with a bunch of coriander leaves. Serve with a slice of lemon.



Salad Niçoise

I know it sounds crazy, but salad niçoise takes me back to my time doing fieldwork in Srinagar, Kashmir. A French friend made it for me one weekend afternoon, after a vigorous game of table tennis in the International Committee of the Red Cross headquarters. Although we were in curfewed Kashmir, what struck me about this dish was how humble and readily available its ingredients are. Tuna, eggs, tomatoes, and green beans are all a staple in our household.  When these everyday ingredients come together, though, I think they produce a truly excellent salad, which by my definition is one you don’t get tired of eating because each bite is different.

Although you could fancy this up by using fresh tuna steaks, the dish also works well with canned tuna, which is must more easily available (and I hear is how people in Nice eat it). Usually I find salads don’t quite fill me up for dinner, but this makes a hearty and healthy lunch or dinner.

Serves: 2

Prep time: 30 minutes

For the vinaigrette: 

¼ cup lemon juice

¼ cup olive oil

1 shallot, minced

2 tbsp. fresh basil leaves, chopped

1 tsp. dried oregano

1 tbsp. Dijon mustard

1 tbsp. capers, rinsed and/or anchovies (optional)

Salt and pepper, to taste

For the salad:

1 can of tuna, preferably sustainable. I like the brand Wild Selections. For this recipe, I like tuna packed in olive oil (a little extra richness is nice for a salad), but tuna in water is fine too.

4 hard boiled eggs, peeled and halved

2-4 small red or yellow potatoes, boiled and quartered

1 roma tomato, cored and cut into lengths

8 oz. green beans, ends trimmed and blanched

¼ cup olives (optional)

  1. Put your eggs and potatoes to boil in separate pots. In the pot with the eggs, bring water to a full, rolling boil. Turn off heat and cover the pan. For firm and creamy hard-boiled eggs, wait 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the eggs to a bowl of ice water. After about a minute, peel and halve. The potatoes will take about 15 minutes to boil and soften.
  2. In another pot, put water to boil to blanche the beans. While you are waiting, trim the ends of the beans. Once the water is boiling, add the beans and blanche for 2-3 minutes. The beans should still be crunchy. Remove from boiling water and rinse with cold water.
  3. While your potatoes and eggs are still cooking, prepare the vinaigrette. In a medium sized bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, capers, shallot, basil, oregano, and mustard. Season well with salt and pepper. Set aside.
  4. Drain the water/oil from the tuna and fork into a small bowl. Pour 1-2 tbsp. of the vinaigrette on top of the tuna and let sit.
  5. Assemble the salad. Make a bed of salad greens and lay each ingredient lengthwise, on top. I think this salad looks beautiful when each ingredient is clearly visible and has its own space on the dish.   As you place each ingredient on the serving dish, pour a spoonful or two of vinaigrette on top, along with a generous grind of pepper. Cut your potatoes last (they should be finished cooking by now) and add them to the dish.
  6. Create a little groove in the middle of the dish to place your tuna at the center. Pour the remaining dressing on top and serve!