Thai Curry: Cooking with Kids from Start to Finish

I really love Thai curries with all their sweet/spicy, coconutty, vaguely fishy splendor.  I didn’t grow up eating Thai food though.  Like many confused, young college students, I went through an experimental phase.  My experimentation involved revisiting the foods I’d tasted and turned down as a kid as well as the foods I never would’ve even given a chance.

My quest to expand my palate led me to a table at the only Thai restaurant that existed in Jackson, Mississippi at the time.  The flavors in their dishes didn’t seem like they should mix.  Everything on the menu suggested that spiciness could be paired with peanuts (which, in my experience, were linked solely to grape jelly).  Add in the delicious-but-not-quite-identifiable-to-me-at-the-time savory base that turned out to be an innocuous sounding product called nam pla in Thai, and which, it turns out, is actually the incredibly intimidating product called fish sauce in English, and I was hooked.

What's not to like about fish sauce?  I mean, it's a sauce made out of fish!
No one can resist the seductive allure of fish sauce.  I mean, it’s a fish AS A SAUCE!

Anyway, fish sauce aside, Thai curries will rock your socks off.  According to GrubHub, I can have Thai food delivered to my door by no fewer than 49 different Thai restaurants.  However, since I’m always on the lookout for ways to make my life more complicated, I decided that the time had come to learn how to concoct this spicy, soupy manna from heaven myself.

No!  Too easy!
No! Too easy!

BONUS: By getting the kids involved in the cooking, I hoped to brainwash them into giving it a fair shake instead of immediately dismissing it as a non-french fry.  So here’s the plan in a few easy steps:

Version #1

  1. Find the recipe
  2. Find the ingredients
  3. Cook the curry with the kids
  4. Enjoy watching the kids learn about a new, exciting taste sensation

Version #2

  1. Find recipe
  2. Find some of the ingredients
  3. Get the kids psyched up about cooking with me
  4. Begin to cook the curry with the kids
  5. Get bored and make random alterations to the recipe
  6. Finish cooking the curry myself after the kids get bored of helping
  7. Watch the kids claim to enjoy the first bite and then peter out over the next few bites as the fact that curry isn’t a french fry sets in
  8. Enlist Wendy to help me eat all the curry
  9. Make offhand comments about how “some people” don’t know what they’re missing

So, here goes.

Step #1: Find Recipe

Okay.  Remember how I said I’m always on the lookout for ways to make my life more complicated?  That’s true, but it would be too simple to just consistently live my life that way.  So I looked for an easy starting point.  After all, I’m adventurous, but not unrealistic.  I don’t need to start this culinary journey with a recipe from someone’s grandmother that has been passed down verbally for centuries.  So, I just googled “Thai curry reipe”, realized that reipe isn’t a word, and then googled “Thai curry recipe”.  I then immediately focused on the page 1 entry whose tagline said “Easy Asian Recipes” because I like easy.  Thank you for recognizing that easy is good.  Click the link for the recipe.  You won’t regret it unless your parents really taught you some kind of screwy moral code that suggests you should feel guilt for looking at recipes.

FYI, apparently I have a problem with authority because I’m constitutionally incapable of following recipes as they’re written.  Chalk it up to a screwy moral code?  This time, I stuck it to the man by adding pineapple, replacing shrimp with tofu, switching out red curry paste for green curry paste, throwing in some peanut butter, borrowing from another recipe from, tossing in some mushrooms I found while shopping (see Step #2 below), substituting an entire lime in place of the kaffir lime leaves that I didn’t find while shopping, and generally being thoughtless about all my measurements.

Step #2: Find the Ingredients

I went to Hong Kong Supermarket at 1095 Commonwealth Ave., Brighton.

Hong Kong Supermarket in all its splendor!
Hong Kong Supermarket in all its splendor!

Quick review of the Pro’s and Con’s:

Pro’s –

  • Lots of interesting things (foods?) that are unpronounceable (by me) in a wide variety of different ways.
  • A whole aquarium section in the back where you can pick out the fish you want to buy, kill, and eat based on the strength of its swim or the gleam in its eye, whichever suits you.
  • This is repeating the first pro, but seriously, there’s a whole lot of foods in this place that you won’t find in your typical grocery store.  For example, lotus roots were probably one of the least exotic items on the shelves.  And I really had no idea how many consistencies fish can have.  It can be a paste, a powder, a sauce, a drink.  It can be live or dried or frozen or pickled.
  • There’s a sort of food court-ish area that you have to go through to get to the supermarket part that invites you to rethink your grand plans of cooking a bunch of food you’re not used to cooking and just stick with the eating it.  Cue foreshadowing: Perhaps I should try that next time?
  • It’s crazy cheap!
I wish I'd gotten a picture of the smell.  It's just out of frame to the right.
I wish I’d gotten a picture of the smell. It’s just out of frame to the right.

Con’s –

  • Um.. It smells funny.  Kinda like a place that sells a lot of different variations on fish might smell.
  • There are those who would doubt the cleanliness of the store.  The previously mentioned aroma probably accounts for part of this.
  • They were apparently out of kaffir lime leaves.
  • The staff may not have the firmest grasp on the English language.  I realize that this is an ethnocentric statement on my part, but, since you’re reading this in English, I anticipate that it may be a problem for you, too.  In my case, I didn’t see anything that seemed like a kaffir lime leaves section.  When I asked the woman stocking the produce section if she knew where they might have it, I ended up having to mime it by showing her the lime I’d already picked up and then showing her the basil leaves.  Her reply was, “No more!”  I assume they’d run out, but it’s also fun to imagine other explanations (“No more!  These westerners and their GMO’s!  I refuse to sell lime crossbred with basil ever again!”).

I’d still say it’s worth going if you’re looking to cook some kind of asian meal.  And the food court area smelled pretty tasty!

Steps 3-?

All that's left if to make him responsible with fire and I'll be done with cooking forever!
All that’s left is to make him responsible with fire and I’ll be done with cooking forever!

Both kids were eager to help.  Here are the main things that I’ve found help them to enjoy helping in the kitchen.

  1. They enjoy participating more than just listening to me lecture them about how to do what I’m doing.  So age is really the key factor here.  My son (7) was able to cut the tofu and pour the rice into the pot, for example.
  2. They enjoy exploring each ingredient.  So my daughter loved the smell of the lime.  My son enjoyed smelling (and even tasting) the green onions.  The more experiential, the more they enjoy it.

Honestly, there’s often less of an issue with the kids getting bored of helping than there is of me getting tired of all the acrobatics I have to do to keep everybody from slicing off fingers and dropping plates on the floor.  Basically, as long as you remember that they’d rather be playing with food than be in a cooking class, you’re probably going to have eager helpers.

Under version 1 of these steps, we finish cooking and go directly to enjoying a new taste sensation together.  But, like I said before, I have authority issues when it comes to recipes.  So I started winging it.  I think this is where it all went bad.  Like, Walter White bad.  Like, Shane in season 2 bad.

What I’m saying here is that my virtuoso improvisations may have begun with the best of intentions, but a beautiful carnage occurred.  Here’s what my hands ultimately wrought:

It was a thing of beauty.
It was a thing of beauty.

It smelled divine – with the depth and breadth of a lush Southeast Asian jungle under warm moonlight.  The garnishing sprig of thai basil was placed expertly in the corner of the dish.  It tasted like bile that was dipped in lime and then set on fire.

I should pause to mention that I walked to the grocery for ingredients – about 1.5 miles round trip – in the rain.  Just wanted to let that be known before telling you that I threw every last bit of it away and we ordered delivery.

Professionally made green curry: delightfully not reminiscent of vomit!
Professionally made green curry: delightfully not reminiscent of vomit!

I got green curry and it was delicious.  If you’re ordering Thai food in the Boston area, I recommend ordering from A@Time, which I assume means “A hell of a lot better than you’d cook it” in Thai.  They got it to us in 30 minutes and thanked me when they handed me the bag o’ curry.

So, what’s the lesson to be learned here?  Hell if I know.  Don’t be afraid to fail?  Only eat professionally made food?  Who knows.  But I’ll probably try to make curry again.