When you have a taste for Thai food, usually you simply order for delivery, right? Pad Thai, Green Curry Chicken, Red Curry Beef, Tom Yum Soup, Satay with Peanut Sauce all can be delivered within about 30 minutes for a taste bud tingling, and usually inexpensive dinner from your favorite local Thai restaurant. They are plentiful in most big cities with a diverse population, which is certainly the case in Chicago as well as London, where we lived for 5 years. London was ahead of the US in food delivery, with any type of ethnic food readily available for delivery when you had a taste for something a bit exotic and didn’t feel like cooking . . . Thai, Indian, Middle Eastern, Chinese, you name it in the cultural melting pot that is London, could be at your door quickly and easily with a quick phone call. And if you felt like going out for it, there were no end of choices, from casual spots to Michelin starred restaurants.
Our favorite local pub in Kensington, the Churchill Arms, has a fantastic Thai kitchen. Dennis lived in Southeast Asia for 4 years and he said the Green Curry Chicken was the best he had outside of Bangkok or Hong Kong, and the bonus was it was inexpensive at 5.50 GBP, which was a big deal when we lived there since the exchange rate hovered around 2 US to 1 GBP, meaning everything was double in dollars, which was how we were paid. The trick was, they were a little bit like the Soup Nazi made famous in an episode of Seinfeld. . . you had to have secured a table in the pub or the small dining room before ordering your food. We learned this the hard way in our early days in London and received quite the bollocking from the server who brought out our dishes to find we were standing at the bar and eating there was a No No. She found us a table, but we clearly crossed the line of etiquette and we never made the mistake again.
So, why would one go to the effort to make curry pastes from scratch at home? The ingredients require a bit of determination to source, since lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal and shrimp paste are not exactly readily available at the local grocery store. Garlic, shallots, cilantro, jalapenos, sure, but fresno chilies, Thai green and red chilies, not so much. Well, we moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina from London and were surprised to find that the supposedly most cosmopolitan city in South America had a surprisingly bland palate. The staple is Carne (beef) and lots of it, typically accompanied by Papas Fritas (fries) and Ensalada (iceberg lettuce, onion and tomato with oil & vinegar). The main seasoning was salt, and black pepper was not even placed on the tables. Don’t get me wrong, the beef is delicious, but one can not live on beef alone, and after London our taste buds were craving more flavor. We heard about a Thai restaurant that was supposed to be quite good but found, to our major disappointment, that the flavors had been watered down for the Argentine palate. Our verdict, not worth it.
Determined to add some spice to our diet, I learned from a friend who teaches Indian cooking classes (which I took) about the Asian markets in the Belgrano neighborhood of Bs As. It became a ritual on Tuesdays after golf that my driver, Pablo, would ask “mercados de los Chinos?” and I would make my weekly pilgrimage to collect the ingredients I was after, sometimes having to visit 3 or 4 shops as one would be out of chilies, the other didn’t have cilantro or lemongrass, and usually galangal wasn’t available, so I would have to settle for ginger. There was an added bonus that they had peanut butter, which we usually asked visitors from the States to bring us. I started dabbling with various cookbooks I had to come up with the red and green pastes that are the basis for curries and other Thai dishes. While I can buy those pastes at the store now, I have found the fresh flavor of making them at home is worth it. It’s a labor of love, as it makes a huge amount so I can stock my freezer and share with friends. I made a double batch last weekend and made some deliveries, which was a great excuse to get in a car and feel human during this time of quarantine.