Monday, December 15, 2008

Regional Recipes Thailand: Spicy Pork Stir-fry

Without my wok, I might starve.

Okay, so that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I really do use my wok a lot.

I know I've already used this picture, but I really do love my wok and take every opportunity to show it off.

People probably think I learned the art of stir-frying (yes, it is an art!) from my mom. It’s a nice thought—culinary traditions being passed down from mother to daughter, preservation of traditional foodways and all that quaint stuff.

The truth is mom didn’t do much stir-frying. She’s from the northeastern part of Thailand, where the regional food (Isaan food) doesn’t rely heavily on the technique. Isaan food is really nothing like what you’d find at Thai restaurants in the US. It’s saltier, more sour and less sweet than other Thai food. It’s more about grilled meats and fish, sticky rice, and spicy dipping sauces. We ate a lot of meat and fish salads, fried eggs and omelets, simple soups and curries (usually without coconut milk). And let’s not forget the infamous pla ra, which is fermented fish, the juice of which is used to flavor just about everything. Mom always had a jar of it in a plastic bag, ripening, hidden way in the back of a cabinet. It’s quite an acquired taste, and if you didn’t grow up eating it, you may never acquire the taste for it. Of course Mom would occasionally make the more well known stir-fries, but I never really paid much attention when she did the actual cooking.

If I didn’t learn the art of wokking from my mother, then where?

I've been cooking for my own family for a few years, and I would do the occasional stir-fry, but it wasn't something I did often. That changed about 3 years ago, when a friend gave me a cast iron wok. That single event changed my life. Okay, another exaggeration, but it did change the way I cook. Being able to work with a well-seasoned cast iron wok was a real pleasure, so I used it often. Practice, practice, practice—that’s how I learned the art of stir-fry.

So I guess the moral of this story is that it doesn't matter how late you learn to cook or use a particular technique. With the right equipment and enough practice, anybody can become a good cook. I truly believe it!

Spicy pork with Thai eggplant

Pad phet (pronounced like pet) is a typical Thai stir-fry that’s fairly easy to make and the flavor is fantastic. It’s spicy (Hubby says I really need to emphasize this point, although I didn't think it was that spicy), due to red curry paste and either chili paste (naam prik pao) or fresh chilies. The chili paste is sweet-spicy. If you decide to use it, cut down on the sugar a bit. Mom prefers it with just the fresh chilies. In any case, the difference is minor and both will give tasty results.

A very delicious version of pad phet is made with deep fried catfish nuggets, but I wasn’t in the mood for deep frying this time. Instead I used pork, which is also very common, but chicken, or even tofu will do. My preferred vegetable is Thai eggplant, but green beans, bamboo shoots, green bell peppers, cabbage, and zucchini are also good choices.

This time I used bamboo shoots and cabbage.

Spicy Pork Stir-fry (Pad phet muu)
serves 3
  • 12 oz pork (see note)
  • 1 ½ tbs red curry paste
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 1 tbs naam prik pao and/or fresh Thai chilies to taste
  • 1 tbs palm sugar (light brown sugar is okay), more to taste
  • fish sauce, to taste
  • 8 to 10 Thai eggplants, quartered (or vegetable of your choice)
  • leaves from one bunch Thai basil
Note: Pork belly is commonly used for this type of dish, but I prefer to use pork butt. It has just enough fat without feeling too fatty. If you’re more health conscious, then you’ll probably want to use something like sirloin or tenderloin.

Whenever I stir-fry with pork butt, I like to tenderize it in one of two ways. I slice it into approximately ½ inch steaks, use the tenderizing side of a meat mallet to pound it down by half, then slice it for stir-frying. The pounding helps break down the meat fibers a little so it’s not so tough. Another trick, when appropriate, is to roughly mince the pork by hand. Start by dicing it into very small cubes, then use a sharp knife to mince it roughly. This also works to tenderize the meat. Either of these methods is good for this dish.

In a mortar, pound the garlic, a handful of the basil leaves and chilies (if using) until you get a rough paste. If you don’t have a mortar, do it in a food processor or mince by hand. Mix this paste with the red curry paste in a small bowl. If you are using naam prik pao, mix that in too. Set aside until needed.

Get your wok nice and hot over high heat. Add about 2 tbs oil. When it’s hot, quickly fry the meat until it’s seared, but not cooked through. Remove it to a bowl, leaving as much oil in the wok as possible. If you are using pork butt, some of the oil should have rendered, and you probably don’t need to add more oil. If you don’t have any oil left, add about another tablespoon or two then add the Thai eggplants (or whatever vegetable you're using). Stir-fry them for about 1 minute, then add the spice mix. Continue cooking for about 1 minute, turning the vegetable to coat in the spice mix, then add about ½ cup water. Cover the wok and allow the eggplant to cook for about 5 minutes or until the eggplant is softened a bit (adjust time according to the vegetable you’re using). Add the sugar (if you used naam prik pao, add only about ½ of the sugar, as the chili paste already adds sweetness). Adjust the flavor with fish sauce and more sugar, if necessary. Add the meat back in and the rest of the basil. Cook just until the meat is cooked through, about another minute or two. Serve with steamed jasmine rice.

For other Thai or stir-fry recipes, check out the category links in the right side bar.

Blazing Hot Wok This is my submission to Regional Recipes, a blogging event that celebrates national/regional cuisine. This time we’re spotlighting Thailand. There's still time if you want to participate. I'm hosting this month and will accept entries until the 20th, which is when the round-up will be posted (sometime that evening). Send your entries to blazinghotwok(at)gmail(dot)com.


QGIRL said...

OMG, am I the first to comment?? What do I win??
The dishes look lovely. Can't wait to try them.
I really liked reading about your mom and your heritage. very cool.
seriously, what do I win??

Dee said...

Mark must be losing his touch. LOL

You win a dinner to any restaurant of your choice whenever you come to visit Portland. That's my standard prize package :-)

I don't write too often about my mom because she doesn't like being "made public", which I respect. But she never reads my blog, so she'll never know. Hehe.

Manggy said...

Hey! No fair posting during my sleeping hours! :P
With the right equipment and enough practice, anybody can become a good cook.
Hear hear! Baking too of course ;)

My vote is for the bamboo shoots and cabbage... Yum! I'm still on the fence about eggplant, heh heh ;) (unless of course with lots of tomato sauce)

Dee said...

manggy, Thai eggplant is different than the more familiar large purple eggplant. It's quite tasty and can be eaten raw or cooked. But the cabbage and bamboo shoots turned out great as well.

Anonymous said...

brown sugar? brown sugar?!

That's heresy!

Anyone who thinks brown sugar can be substituted for coco palm sugar needs his/her tongue examined by a medical professional.

Just kidding.

I don't really think brown (cane) sugar can do justice to the complex sweet flavor of palm sugar.

It's Southeast Asia's best kept secret, and could give maple syrup/sugar a run for its money.

Dee said...

coco sugar, I like your passion!

I agree that palm sugar is hard to substitute for, but as it's not readily available at the local Safeway, I like to give alternatives.

It is true though, it's the little things that make a difference.

Mike of Mike's Table said...

Interesting bit about the other styles of Thai cooking--shows how much I know. As for this dish, it looks amazing (and got my stomach growling). I don't own a wok and have done no stir frying...looks like one more thing for the kitchen wish list!

Dee said...

Mike, yes, get thee a wok! And a cast iron one at that!

Every country has regional food, and Thailand is no different. I actually miss the Thai food I grew up on, but it's just not as popular, or they make it different to fit the American palette. That's okay too, but there's nothing like mom's laap made with pork and tripe with a side of sticky rice! Or fermented Isaan-style sausage. Or bitter melon soup. Or sour fish soup. I better stop there before I get myself all worked up! LOL

Just Cook It said...

That looks so tasty.

eatingclubvancouver_js said...

Looks yummy! Reading over the ingredient list, I'm drooling here.

For some reason, we're not big wok users either. My mother's preferred dishes are dump-into-a-pot braises or soups. I'm not at all adept at using a wok but I always admire those who can work a wok with so much skill and ease.

Dee said...

js, to be honest, having the cast iron has made it so much easier to put out a good stir-fry. Getting the wok hot enough and holding on to the heat is the trick. So I guess it's not all about the user, but the equipment too :-)

Todd Vodka said...

I'm still having problems with my wok. It weight about ten pounds and I'm wondering if this requires me to let it sit on the flame and really really heat up.
The other problem I'm having is cleaning it. There is a plethora of condradictory advice out there and I think I may have scrubbed some of the early seasoning from my pan, though of course I did not use soap.
I appreciated your past advice, would you happen to have more?

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Informed said...

There is a Thai restaurant in Portland next to Portand State University that I have been going to since 2004 that makes THE BEST pad Phet...but it was always too spicy - even when I beg them to make it as mild as possible. There pad Phet just tastes better than all the other Thai restaurants. I used this recipe last night for dinner with some friends and it was amazing. I used bamboo shoots and green bell pepper, halved the garlic, and threw in 1.5tbs of the secret ingredient: kaffir lime leaves cut very thinly.

Thank you so much for this post and good to see you're in Portland too!