One of the menu offerings was steamed vegetables and brown rice with Thai peanut curry sauce. I'm no purist. I am always drawn to Thai curry, even if it’s not served in a traditional way. Well, traditional it was not. I expected something spicy and savory-sweet with a little coconut milk and peanut, but what I got didn't resemble anything Thai. It tasted like curry powder and peanut butter in yogurt or sour cream or some other tangy base. Yuck.
Anyhow, the whole episode got me thinking about Thai food, particularly curries, and what’s considered healthy. If there is any doubt, let me tell you that Thai curries would be close to the bottom of the “good for you” list. Blame it on the coconut milk. Lite coconut milk will cut out some of the fat, but I have a hard time enjoying curries made with the lite milk. To me the curries taste and feel too diluted. I crave the artery-clogging richness of regular coconut milk. However, in the interest of proving that healthy can be tasty, I wanted to try making a curry sauce using lite coconut milk. I can imagine mom rolling her eyes at that one.
Making a Thai curry, whether it be a traditional red curry or a trendy peanut curry sauce, requires a special first step. All it entails is cooking the coconut cream with the curry paste until the oil begins to separate out. Can you skip this step? Sure, but the curry will never be as good as it can be. And therein lies the problem with using lite coconut milk. There generally isn’t enough cream and the milk is too watery to achieve that separation.
To settle it once and for all, I did a side-by-side comparison of 3 lite milks as well as a half-and-half mixture. The three lite brands were A Taste of Thai, Thai Kitchen and Trader Joe’s. My favorite as far as taste and texture was the Thai Kitchen brand. None of the three had the characteristic solidified cream, but Thai Kitchen had a distinct thickness the other two lacked. I put all three in the fridge before using them and I was able to scoop two or three tablespoons of thick milk from Thai Kitchen. That’s just enough for this recipe. The worst of the three was Trader Joe’s in both taste and texture. It tasted and felt like poor quality coconut flavored water. I recommend that you not use TJ’s lite coconut milk for anything. Ever.
The other alternative, and one I found to be a good middle ground in both taste and texture, is to use a mix of the regular and lite coconut milk. For this recipe, use about 3 or 4 oz of the solidified cream from regular coconut milk and one 14oz can of lite milk. Conveniently, Asian markets sell small cans (about 6 oz) of coconut milk and almost the entire can is solidified cream. Some regular supermarkets may also sell them. If you can't find any in the Asian foods section, try the Hispanic foods. Just make sure there aren't any added sweeteners. Any unused cream can be frozen.
Thai Peanut Curry Sauce
Makes about 1 1/4 cup
- 1 oz smooth peanut butter or chopped peanuts (to taste) if you're into chunky stuff (optional)
- 1 to 2 oz panang or massaman curry paste (use less for less heat)
- 14 oz can lite coconut milk, "cream" and milk separated (recommend Thai Kitchen brand)
- sugar (palm sugar if you can find it!), to taste
- fish sauce to taste
- tamarind paste or lime juice, to taste (optional, if you want a sour component)
In a small bowl, mix the peanut butter, curry paste and coconut cream to a uniform mixture. ( If you put the can of coconut milk in the fridge a few hours before, it will be easier to scoop the thick stuff off the top.) Pour the mixture into a wok or skillet over medium heat. Cook , stirring frequently, until the oil starts to separate out of the mixture.
You’ll start to notice the texture of the mixture change, pictured below. Be sure to watch the heat because it will burn.
At this point, slowly add the coconut milk while stirring to get a uniform sauce (you may want to switch to a whisk). Add sugar and fish sauce to taste. Add the lime juice or tamarind puree here too, if using. Allow the sauce to cook a little to thicken, about 10 or 15 minutes. The sauce will also thicken a little as it cools.
That’s it! Easy, right?
How could you use this sauce? How about drizzled atop vegetables and brown rice? Or as a dipping sauce for tasty fried things. Or for dipping raw carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, if you’re more health conscious.
Here are some other (relatively) healthy Thai dishes you may enjoy:
laab (ground pork or chicken with fresh herbs)
som tom (spicy papaya salad)
tom yum soup (hot and sour soup)
Thai beef salad
Spicy shrimp and pomelo salad