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By Dave DeWitt
Swimming Chicken Curry
Thai Red Curry Paste
Thai Green Curry Paste
Laotian Catfish Curry
Vietnamese Chicken Curry
The region we now call Southeast Asia was once referred to as Indo-China--so named by the west because the countries ringing the Golden Triangle displayed the influences of both India and China. Although the term "Golden Triangle" often refers to opium production, in this case it means exotic curries
The "Return of the Oil"
Burma (now called Myanmar) has more than a hundred distinct ethnic groups, but Burmese cuisine has mostly been influenced by the cooking styles of India, Thailand, Cambodia, and China--the homes of most of the original immigrants. Tibetan people arrived in Burma in the ninth century A.D., and the Mongol Dynasty from China conquered the region in 1272, so the Chinese influence on cooking is significant. However, since the very first settlers of Burma were the Sakya warriors who migrated from India and settled at Tagung about 250 B.C., it is not surprising that curries play an important role in the cuisine.
Burmese cuisine is a culinary treasure; the dishes are easy to prepare and offer delightful challenges to adventurous cooks. The Burmese often quote a proverb: "You cannot meditate on an empty stomach" to explain their love of good food. The cooking of the country, like that of any other nation, has regional variations. The Shaan people, from neighboring China, use the least amount of spices and use soy sauce instead of fish sauce. The people bordering Thailand make their curries more soupy, and those in the southern region enjoy spicier curries.
According to my friend Richard Sterling, who has reported on Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos as a contributing editor, "The Burmese cook approaches curry in a way as constant as the ancient past or the monsoon cycle." During his extensive visits to Burma, Richard watched many curries being prepared. First, the Burmese make a curry paste out of their five basic ingredients: onions, garlic, chiles, ginger, and turmeric.
Some Burmese cooks use other other spices as well, including an occasional prepared curry powder. But the hallmark of the Burmese curry is its oiliness. The cooks use a combination of peanut oil and sesame oil, about a cup of each in a wok, and heat it until it smokes--this is called "cooking the oil." The curry paste is added, the heat is reduced, and the paste is cooked for fifteen minutes. Then meat is added, cooked, and eventually the oil rises to the top. This state is called see byan, "the return of the oil." When the oil floats on top, the dish is done. The oil is not skimmed off the top, but rather is absorbed by the side dish of rice when it is served.
Fiery Pastes and Carved Fruits
In neighboring Thailand, the people believe that they had more time to evolve their unique cooking because they were smart enough to keep would-be foreign invaders at bay. Thailand is the only Asian country that was not subjected to European rulers; it was rarely overrun by its Asian neighbors, and it has seen relatively very few wars. These unique conditions gave the Thai kings time to spend with their queens and mistresses, to hire the best cooks, and to encourage the cooks to create new dishes and improve the traditional ones.
The Thai curries are extensively spiced with chiles. Contrary to popular belief, there is not just one "Thai chile," but rather dozens of varieties used in cooking. When I toured the wholesale market in Bangkok in 1991, I found literally tons of both fresh dried chiles in baskets and in huge bales five feet tall. They ranged in size from piquin-like, thin pods barely an inch long to yellow and red pods about four inches long. When making substitutions, cooks should remember that, generally speaking, the smaller a chile, the hotter it is. At left, prik chee fah chiles in Bangkok.
It is the fresh chiles that are ground up with other ingredients to make the famous Thai curry pastes, but rehydrated dried chile can be substitued in a pinch. Two key curry pastes are the heart of Thai cooking; a red curry paste, called nam prik gaeng ped, uses red chiles, lemon grass, galangal and a number of herbs. The green curry paste is made with small green Thai chiles, but serranos make a good substitute. It looks deceptively mild, like a Mediterranean pesto, but it very hot indeed. These pastes are easily made fresh, keep well for at least a month in the refrigerator, and add a terrific zing to curries, but some very tasty commercial curry pastes are available in Asian markets. A yellow curry paste, colored with ground turmeric, is perhaps the mildest among all Thai pastes.
A visitor to a Thai home or restaurant is won over not only by the aromatic food but also the elegant way it is served. Commonly accompanying Thai curries are elaborately carved fruits and vegetables, which often resemble large flowers. Rosemary Brissenden, author of Joys and Subtleties: Southeast Asian Cooking, described the art: "Fruit and vegetable carving is traditionally a highly cultivated art. Anyone who has watched the infinite calm of a Thai woman carving a piece of young ginger into the likeness of a crab with its pincers at ready will bear witness to this. Thai salads are also artistically arranged, and food historians believe that such elaboration dates back to the days of royal culinary competitions, when the dishes had to look as spectacular as they tasted.