My first introduction to Thai food was just a few short years ago. Since that first foray into the world of yellow curry, or coconut-milk soup as I think of it, I’d wanted to try making it but had never had the courage to do so. One day I channeled my inner Gryffindor and had a go. To my surprise, it was a great success! It has now become one of my go-to meals, as it’s relatively easy and can be a one-pot meal.
I found the recipe online and tried it despite the fact that there was no picture (note to all future cookbook creators: most people are unlikely to try a recipe without a photo). The original recipe was not very spicy, but, since Jonji loves spice, I decided to throw a couple more spoonfuls of chili flakes into the “soup” (it’s more of a stew, with the amount of ingredients I throw in there—take it as the Irish version of Thai curry).The result was delicious, but has at times rendered me speechless as I pause to cough every other spoonful. The Irish have never listed “excellent spice-eater” as one of their hidden talents, and I am not about to add it to my own list of accomplishments. However, I have decided that I want to “get better” at eating spicy foods, so chili flakes have now become my friend. My mom, on the other hand, does not have such a friendly relationship with spice. When I gave her this recipe to try, I told her to add more spice than she thought just because it was so good that way. She refused point blank, so I decided to show her, rather than let her miss out, how the spiciness accentuated the flavor. When her back was turned, I threw in a couple more spoonfuls of chili flakes and went about my business.
Come dinner time, I didn’t notice too much coughing, but there were a couple exclamations on the stew’s heat.* Overall, I thought I had gotten away with that bit of skullduggery. A week or so later, however, I told my mom the truth. Expecting to receive a “What?! Well, I guess it was OK,” I was surprised to be met with more of a “Hana! That’s cruel! You can’t do that!” Crazy, but she didn’t appreciate my meddling—even though I just wanted to help them expand into the realm of spicy foods! Sometimes you have to take chances, even if occasionally you fail. Just take the spice-acceptance level of your fellow eaters into account—you can’t force it on those who can’t handle it.
My mom may not have added more spice to the stew, but she did come up with adding butternut squash—well done, Mom!
*My sisters and mom are the biggest wusses when it comes to spice. Bailey, especially, is the reigning queen of hacking and coughing over the mildest of salsas.
Thai Chicken Stew
3 tbsp Thai red curry paste
1 large yellow onion
1 medium kabocha squash, peeled
chili flakes, to taste**
2 medium yukon gold potatoes, peeled (optional)
shredded chicken (from about 2-3 breast halves)
2 cans coconut milk
3–4 cups chicken broth
2 tbsp fish sauce
3-4 small eggplants or 1 large one
1 lb spinach (get a hefty bag full, at least)
salt and pepper
Slice the squash and remove the skin. Cut into 1 inch chunks and set aside. Chop onion. (Goggles can help alleviate the tears that come with onion slicing, but be warned: visibility is not so good, so watch out for stray fingers.) Heat roughly 3 tbsp of oil in a large dutch oven or large soup pot over medium heat. Add curry paste and stir. Add onions and cook, stirring often, for a few minutes. Add the chili flakes, squash, 1 tsp salt, and freshly ground pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until slightly browned (another 6-10 or so minutes). Add the shredded chicken and stir to coat.
Pour in the coconut milk and stir, so as to emulsify the fat. Add the broth and fish sauce. Bring the stew to a boil, then simmer for 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft.
Meanwhile, slice the eggplant(s) into thin rounds or half-moons. Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a medium pan over medium heat. Add the eggplant and stir to coat, adding more olive oil if the pieces look dry. Sprinkle with salt (1/2 tsp should do), and continue to cook until well-browned and soft. Add to the stew whenever the eggplant is done.
After 20 minutes, stir in spinach. The stew is ready when the spinach has wilted, which will only take a couple of minutes.
**I like to use dried chilies de arbol, which are pretty strong. For this stew, I use one whole dried chili, plus extra chili flakes.