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I think one of the greatest gifts of a city as big as New York is that even long-time residents can discover new things here. Not just new restaurants opening every day but treasures that have been hiding, tucked down a little street or just one subway stop farther, for years and even decades. I love how new the city continues to be to me, even five years in.
One of my best friends recently returned from three amazing weeks on honeymoon in Thailand. They sunbathed and explored and took a cooking class that included a guided tour of the unfamiliar fruits and vegetables of an outdoor market as well as instruction on ten thai specialties. I am jealous, to say the least. Upon her return, she imparted this bit of wisdom to me: "Thai cooking," she said, "isn't especially hard, in terms of technique. You really just need the right ingredients."
That was enough for me to finally get in gear. I knew there was a Thai market in Manhattan's Chinatown. I think I even poked around it once several years ago, on a Chinatown trip during which my roommate bought two teeny-tiny (probably illegal) turtles. She was determined to race them in the bathtub of our first apartment. At the time, I wasn't ready for kaffir lime leaves.
But older and wiser, I looked at a map and wandered down below Canal to a quiet stretch—a steep block that I hardly remembered was there. My walking companion worried that we were lost. But there it was. Dreaming of the flavors of green curry, I returned to Bangkok Center Grocery determined to find the right ingredients, the real stuff. The shop is tiny but packed with goodies. The sweet young man who was minding the store pulled kaffir lime leaves from the refrigerated section for me, and I scored a knob of galangal and a bunch of thai basil—they even had two different kinds!
The scent of kaffir lime leaves is transporting. Fragrant doesn't even begin to describe it. Track some down where you live, and soon. Toss the paired leaves (they remind me of stick-on mustaches) in a pan with veggies of your choice and they'll infuse your dish with musky lime flavor with a hint of bay. The leaves enliven jarred curry paste and elevate an everyday stir fry to something special.
It's no honeymoon in Thailand, but it did make me appreciate my city.
Green Curry Stir Fry
Adapted from Ken Hom
Note: this is really just a method, good for whatever stir-fry ingredients you are craving. Feel free to adapt further with other vegetables or add meat.
1.5 tablespoons vegetable oil
2-3 tablespoons Thai Green curry paste (I used Thai Kitchen brand, but you can also make your own.)
1 large onion, sliced
1 block tofu, pressed to rid of excess liquid and cut into squares
1 tablespoon prepared lemongrass (from a jar)
3 tablespoons chopped garlic
1 tablespoon finely chopped galangal or ginger (I actually prefer ginger and find galangal a little mustardy)
4 kaffir lime leaves
1 tablespoon fish sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large globe eggplant or 2-3 japanese eggplants, sliced in one inch slices
2 carrots, sliced in 2" long, thin planks
1 small can bamboo shoots
14 fl oz can coconut milk (I used light)
3 tablespoons water
1 small can water chestnuts, sliced
2 red peppers, sliced
large handful fresh thai basil leaves
lime wedges for serving
When the vegetables are sliced, heat a wok or large frying pan (sometimes I do both so as to not crowd the vegetables and steam them) and add the oil. Make sure it's quite hot. Add the green curry paste and stir-fry for two minutes, then add the tofu and stir fry for another minute. Add the onions, lemongrass, garlic, galangal or ginger, kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, sugar and salt, and stir fry for another 2 minutes. Add the eggplant, carrots, and bamboo shoots and stir fry one minute, then add coconut milk, water, water chestnuts and red peppers. Turn the heat down and simmer for 20 minutes or until eggplant is cooked and silky. Stir in basil leaves and serve at once.