Sunday, March 22, 2009

Healthier Peanut Curry Sauce

Last week I had lunch at one those trendy cafes that touts fresh, healthy meals. You know the kind. Most of the meals are vegetarian and organic. The menu is comprised of salads, wraps, burritos and brown rice bowls. Everything is grilled or steamed; nothing is fried. The staff is heavily tattooed and/or pierced, with dreadlocks to complete the dirty hippy look. Don't get me wrong. I've got nothing against dirty hippies and steamed vegetables, as long as they taste good. The vegetables, not the hippies.

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


QGIRL said...

Yeah, I am totally making this.
I love it when the scientist comes out of you. We all benefit! Thanks for the recs.

Mary Bergfeld said...

dp, this is really good information and the recipe is great. Thanks!

Dee said...

qgirl, cooking the coconut milk with the curry paste makes a big difference. The flavors just taste more concentrated. But I think people get put off by the oil. I guess they prefer not to see how much oil they are really eating :-)

mary, I did a panang curry last night using a half/half mix and it turned out pretty good. I'll post it in the next couple days.

Wandering Chopsticks said...

I can't do light coconut milk. It just tastes so wrong to me too. Instead, I'd rather eat foods with less coconut milk, but make it count when I do.

You don't like Chaokoh? That's my favorite brand.

pam said...

I don't like lite coconut milk either. It seems like the dish loses so much of what makes it good. I use full strength and just don't worry about the fat, I don't have it all that often. I also like Chaokoh.

Dee said...

WC and Pam, Chaokoh is my favorite brand and I use it almost exclusively. I've also done taste tests with different brands. ArroyD is a little to sweet and Mae Ploy tastes a little funny coming straight out of the can, but it's fine in stuff. My auntie says she thinks it tastes like soap :-) In the end, all the regular milks taste better than lite milks for sure. Like you guys said, I don't eat stuff with coconut milk very often so when I do, I prefer the real stuff.

I only use the lite milk in ice cream and custards (since I'm already using heavy cream).

Manggy said...

Heh, relatively healthy, I love it ;) I will definitely be on the lookout for lite coconut milk, as I am a big fan of thai peanut sauce. And thank you for the vivid description of TJ coconut milk. Ewww.

dp said...

manggy, TJ should just stop selling that vile stuff!

Anonymous said...

You killed me with the dirty hippie talk! LOL!

I never really thought of coconut milk as unhealthy, but maybe I was just in denial. Does Chaokoh not make a light version?

Dee said...

Marvin, we have a lot of those dirty hippy types here in Portland. I love them for the most part.

I swear I've seen lite coconut milk by either Mae Ploy or Chaokoh, but they didn't have any when I visited my small Thai/Viet store. Next time I'm at the Asian supermart, I will take a look. I'd like to see how they hold up.

momgateway said...

I like peanut curry sauce for sate. Mine is almost identical to yours except I use Thai red curry. Thanks for the alternative.