When I think of Thai curries I tend to think of two things: fish sauce and coconut milk. So when I first heard of kaeng pa, or jungle curry, I was intrigued. Unlike other Thai curries I’ve tried, this one contains no coconut. That’s because jungle curry originates from the forested areas of Thailand, where access to coconuts is limited.
The base for it does however contain the usual ingredients one would expect: makrut lime leaves, lemongrass, cilantro, galangal and of course chillies, all combined to make a very fragrant paste. I started mine off in a mortar and pestle, however after adding the dried chilies I quickly realized that I had torn them up into too large of pieces. The skins from the peppers refused to break apart and I ended up finishing the paste off in a food processor. Next time I plan on slicing the peppers into small pieces either before or after soaking them and hopefully eliminating the need for the extra step.
If you don’t own a mortar or pestle, or simply don’t want to put in the necessary elbow grease to make the paste, you could just toss all the ingredients into a food processor to begin with. The results likely won’t be as good though, as a processor would just chop rather than crush the ingredients, releasing fewer liquid and flavour.
Once the paste was complete, I prepared the rest of my ingredients. I should add a little disclaimer here, I did not use what one might consider authentic kaeng pa veggies. Ideally I was planning to use some combination of thai eggplant, chinese long beans, and maybe baby corn. Unfortunately I was unable to find any of those, leading me to use corn kernels and green beans instead.
In the future I would like to try this recipes with bell peppers, bamboo shoots and tofu in place of the chicken. I think there is lots of room to play around with the ingredients here, as long as they will all cook at a similar rate, or you adjust your timing when you add them to compensate.
If you have everything prepped before hand cooking this is easy, it’s just a matter of throwing the ingredients in the pan at the appropriate time. Although traditionally kaeng pa is made without coconuts, if you simply can’t do without that flavour in your curry, you can sub in coconut oil. It adds a bit of the taste but without all the richness that comes when you use coconut milk.
When cooking the chicken, I wasn’t looking to brown it like you would see in much of western cuisine, I simply waited for the outside to be cooked. To help thicken up the curry and give a bit more body I added some cornstarch to the stock, however if you prefer a thinner curry omit that step.
Unless you’ve cooked with fish sauce before and have a general idea for how much you like, I would recommend starting with 2 Tbsp. When tasting for seasoning later you can always add more. Fish sauce also contains a lot of salt, so avoid salting the chicken and veggies too heavily at the start of cooking.
I serve this dish with more basil and some limes, I find the acidity they bring really rounds out the flavour in Thai curries. Alternatively, cilantro or scallions would also make a good garnish.
You can find the recipe here.