Panaeng is a slightly sweet, thick Thai curry that is not as spicy as others. It is characterized by the presence of peanuts in the curry paste, and optionally, in the finished product. One can happily substitute beef, other meats, or even vegetables for chicken, although cooking times should be adjusted to account for the change.
This recipe has earned me quite a reputation amongst my friends and family, who often request it and usually fight over seconds when I make it. One friend told me that this was the best thing anyone has ever cooked for him, and other proposed marriage to me after eating this dish. (My friends are lovely, dramatic people.) It is quite time consuming to make a curry paste from scratch, but there is nothing time-sensitive in doing so, so it can be a several-hour joy that can be spread across the day and savoured as the different ingredients are prepared and release their wonderful, diverse bouquet of aromas in your kitchen.
Curry paste can be prepared in advance and will keep in the fridge for several days, but does lose some of its flavour and can dry up. It is best tightly wrapped in plastic wrap to maintain freshness.
Once the paste is prepared, the curry itself is quite easy to make. It is most frequently served with jasmine rice, but I prefer to eat it with fresh rice noodles (ho fen, as one might use in preparing Pad See Eew), which provides a deliciously slurpy – if not somewhat messy – base for the rich and luxurious curry sauce.
- 1First we prepare the curry paste: place the peanuts in a small saucepan and cover with a generous quantity of water. Turn stove to high heat, and when boiling, reduce slightly. Cook at a steady boil for 60 minutes to soften and sweeten.
- 2One at a time, roast the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, white peppercorns, and freshly grated nutmeg in a small pan over medium-high heat until darkened, but not burnt. This should take about a minute (with the exception of the nutmeg, which will take seconds), during which you should stir gently from time-to-time to ensure even roasting. When finished, grind all the spices together using a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle.
- 3To prepare the lemongrass, remove a couple of the outer leaves. Chop away the top 2/3rds of the stalk and reserve for lemongrass tea. Remove the nub at the bottom. Slam the remaining 1/3 of each lemongrass stalk with the blunt edge of a knife along its length to break it somewhat, and then slice it into very thin rounds. It is important to slice as thinly as possible, as lemongrass is difficult to break apart when processing the ingredients into curry paste. Furthermore, it is the peel (avoiding the pith as best as possible) of the kaffir limes that you want: the actual limes themselves may be used for other purposes.
- 4Add all ingredients to a food processor in approximately the order above (the idea is to have the smaller or oiler ingredients on top to ensure even blending). Blend on medium speed for around 5-10 minutes or until desired consistency is reached (the mixture should be resemble a thick paste). Stir occasionally by hand to help the blending process. Alternatively, if one does not have a food processor, a blender can be used, or if one is ambitious, preferably, the procedure can be done by hand using a mortar and pestle. A food processor often leaves identifiable sliced ingredients, which is not optimal, and slicing as opposed to crushing does not release the maximal amount of flavour. One good time-saving option is to blend in the food processor and then finish by pounding in a mortar and pestle until a fine paste is achieved.
- 5We now prepare the curry: in a wok over high heat, bring one cup of coconut cream to a rolling boil, and add the curry paste. Fry the paste in the cream for five or six minutes, boiling steadily, until the mixture is thick. (It is optimal if the oil separates from the coconut cream during this process; however, this is unlikely to happen in canned creams as they may have been homogenized. This can be assisted by adding one tbsp of, preferably, palm oil, or alternatively, vegetable oil to the cream.)
- 6Add the fish sauce, lime leaves, and sugar, and stir for one minute or until sugar is entirely dissolved.
- 7Add some more coconut cream to thin the mixture slightly, and mix in the chicken and allow to cook for five minutes, stirring frequently. Add the remaining coconut cream (you may use more than the two cups for a thinner curry) and stir, returning to a boil. Add the peanuts, the red pepper, and the chillies if using, and cook for one more minute. Stir in the basil and remove from heat.
- 8Garnish with lime wedges, sprigs of Thai basil, red pepper slivers, shredded lime leaves, or a couple tablespoons of coconut cream. Serve immediately with jasmine rice or fresh rice noodles that have been boiled for about 10-20 seconds.
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