Weeknight Cooking: Thai Yellow Chicken Curry

It’s really only been in the past few years that I’ve tried expanding my culinary horizons. A friend had invited me out to dinner at a local Thai restaurant and, as nervous as I was about going, I accepted. The reason I usually avoided ethnic restaurants was because of strange ingredients, the smell of fish sauce and, most importantly, the fear of spicy food. What can I say? I’m a spice wimp. It hurts my tummy.

The first Thai dish I tried was an Americanized version of Phad Thai, the classic noodle dish served everywhere. People love Phad Thai, I was told. And supposedly I would love it as well.

I didn’t.

I’m not a fan of the glassy noodles because the texture just doesn’t do anything for me. As you’ve probably guessed from the other dishes I’ve posted about, I’m a rice girl. So, when the Phad Thai just didn’t do anything for me texturally, it was suggested that I try a classic yellow chicken curry.

It was everything I was looking for: Meat and potatoes soaking in a delicious coconut-curry sauce, mingling with a variety of vegetables, peanuts and pineapple, sitting on top of a cloud of Jasmine rice. Since that day, my love for Thai food has only grown as I’ve sampled a variety of different dishes from many restaurants, but when I go to a new Thai restaurant, I view the yellow curry as the benchmark. In later years, I have also included the chicken satay as the benchmark. If the curry and satay are good, the rest of the menu has to be decent as well.

A few years ago, I took my first trip to Hawaii. My brother was returning from his first Iraq tour, and was being given shore leave in Honolulu. My parents and I flew out to meet him.

Looking back, I realize that I should have gone all Anthony Bourdain on the island, avoiding the Jimmy Buffet explosion and searching for authentic Hawaiian cuisine — well, something other than Spam, but I didn’t. My parents and I wanted to partake in all of the cheesy touristy activities, including the goofy luau with extremely salted pig.

On our way down to the beach from the hotel, we passed a jazzy looking little Thai restaurant called Keo’s. My parents had never eaten Thai, so I insisted that we try it out.

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Photograph courtesy of Keo’s.

Everything we tried was delicious. I didn’t know this at the time, but it turns out the owner, Keo Sananikone, has gained recognition in the culinary world with his dishes. Bon Appetit voted Keo’s “American’s Best Thai Restaurant”, Gourmet named it one of “America’s Top Tables”, and Newsweek described his restaurant as “One of the choicest dining spots in Honolulu”.

After eating at his restaurant, I was interested in obtaining recipes for some of the dishes. So, as a Christmas gift, I was given a copy of Sananikone’s cookbook, Keo’s Thai Cuisine. Of course, I took one look at the ingredients and processes and, completely intimidated, I shelved the book for a few years.

Recently, I forced myself to get over it and was incredibly surprised with how easy it is. So let’s start with Keo’s classic Yellow Chicken Curry dish.

This is a two-parter, hence my initial reservation. In the cookbook, there are recipes for all of the curry pastes — there will be no purchasing curry pastes from your local department. He shows you how to do this right.

Before you get intimidated and decide this isn’t the dish for you, consider that the curry paste only has to be made once. Dump all ingredients into a food processor and combine. It makes enough paste to make a thousand yellow curry dishes, and the paste will keep in a glass container in the refrigerator for a few months. To make the dish itself, you only need 1 1/2 teaspoons of the paste so a little goes a long way.

Yellow Curry Paste
5 – 10 fresh yellow chile peppers, seeded
1 stalk of fresh lemongrass, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup thinly sliced shallots
2 Tbsp. coarsely chopped garlic
1 tsp. coarsely chopped kra-chai or ginger
1 tsp. coriander seeds
1 tsp. caraway seeds
1 tsp. curry powder
1 tsp. dried mustard
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 Tbsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil

Combine all the ingredients in a food processor and process until smooth. If a mortar and pestle are used, then add oil after all other ingredients are ground.

Simple as that. Because I am not good with spicy food, I only put 5 chilies in my paste. This may still seem like quite a bit, but remember that when you make the curry, you only need 1 1/2 teaspoons of paste to make the dish.

The curry dish itself is equally as simple. I like to let my chicken and potatoes sit for a bit longer in the sauce so that the potatoes really soak up the coconut-curry sauce, but I don’t want to sacrifice the amount of sauce to put on my rice. I have changed the recipe to account for that.

Keo’s Yellow Chicken Curry
1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 2 breasts)
2 potatoes, peeled, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 1/2 tsp. Yellow Curry Paste
1 1/2 cup coconut milk
2 Tbsp. fish sauce
1 1/2 tsp. brown sugar
1 – 5 chile peppers seeded and chopped (optional)

Get your rice going. I use Jasmine, but Basmati would be fine, too. Thinly slice chicken into bite-sized cubes. Cut potatoes into 1/2-inch cubes. I have made them 1-inch cubes, but they take a longer time to cook.

In a saucepan, heat oil and curry paste on high heat, until curry paste bubbles.

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Add chicken, potatoes, coconut milk, fish sauce, brown sugar, and yellow chile peppers. Peppers are optional – this is where the “spicy” level is decided. I don’t put them in at all. Also, let’s talk about the fish sauce for a second. I know what you’re thinking: “Fish sauce? That stinks up the kitchen!” It is sometimes listed as optional in Americanized-recipes, but it does add a bit of needed saltiness to the dish. If you aren’t comfortable with putting in that much fish sauce, cut it in half.

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Stir well and cover with foil, allowing it cook for about 7 – 12 minutes or until chicken is cooked. Stir periodically, making sure your potatoes get dunked in the sauce. Accompany with hot steamed rice.

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There’s a short, interesting bio about Keo Sananikone at Honolulu Magazine. Scroll down to the second bio.

If you’re interested in purchasing Keo’s Thai Cuisine book, it is available for a decent price at amazon.com. Above I mentioned both the yellow curry and the satay being my benchmark and, in case you’re wondering, Keo’s satay is in the book and quite tasty, too.

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