BANGKOK, the captial of Thailand, is among the world's finest cities for great eating. Each time I go back there I am impressed by the quality and variety of the food in this Venice of Southeast Asia.
Because Thailand is roughly halfway between China and India, it is these two cuisines that dominate the foreign restaurants of Bangkok. (Almost one-fourth of the inhabitants of Bangkok are Indians, and most of them are Muslims, many from the Punjab in the far North, who demand an extraordinary delicacy and lightness in their curries, whether of chicken, beef, lamb or mutton). Yet the curries of Bangkok will be quite different from those of India. There is something special about a mussaman curry of Bangkok.
I have tasted magnificent specimens, served in luxurious splendor at Bangkok's oldest Indian restaurant, the Cafe India, on Oriental Street, where the walls are covered with brocaded silk, the woodwork is hand-carved by Indian artists and you dine to the soft music of a sitar. Here, at least in atmosphere, you are hardly in Bangkok, but transported to India.
On the other hand, if I want to eat my Indian curry surrounded by the lovely and unique setting of Bangkok itself, I dine on the Riverside Terrace of the greaat Oriental Hotel -- the open-air terrace on the bank of the Chao Phraya River. The Oriental is among the half-dozen or so great hotels of the world.
As you dine, the never-ceasing river traffic passes almost at your feet: small sampans laden with fruit, slow strings of rice barges, ferryboats and river buses. You are absorbed by the dream-like reflections of the navigation lights of the passing ships. You are cooled by the breezes blowing upriver from the ocean. This is one of the most dramatic settings for dining under the stars.
I brought back with me the Oriental's classic recipe for an Indian Muslim curry in the style of Bangkok, and in my own kitchen I find it involves no insuperable problems to prepare. To achieve its delicacy and lightness, you must make your own curry paste, which means getting a few Indian and Thai ingredients, usually available in Eastern markets, Chinese food shops or general fancy food stores.
Even coconut milk is available in cans under a label originating in the Philippines. Tamarind is the citrus fruit of the East. It is available in the West in semi-dried form, either as a thick paste in plastic containers or pressed into a solid slab in cellophane. In either case it needs to be softened with hot water and any skin, bits of stalk and pits are discarded. Once you are armed with the right ingredients, the preparation steps are simple and straightforward.
When you try this rare curry, a product of the interplay of two cultures, I think you will agree that it offers a memorable and subtle Far Eastern taste experience. Classic INDIAN MUSLIM CURRY (From the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok) (4 to 6 servings) Curry paste: 4 whole bay leaves 6 whole white cardamom pods 6 small dried hot red chiles, destemmed, seeded and minced 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1 teaspoon ground clove 1 teaspoon dried powdered ginger About 1/4 teaspoon freshly gound nutmeg 6 cloves garlic 6 cloves shallots 2 teaspoons vegetable oil About 2 tablespoons fresh or dried lemon grass, chopped (about 2 medium-sized stalks) 1/2 teaspoon Thai kappi (shrimp paste) Coarse crystal sea salt, or kosher salt, to taste To assemble: 4 cups coconut milk, homemade or canned 3 tablespoons Thai nam pia (anchovy fish sauce) 2 pounds of boneless lean top round beef, cut into 1/2-inch cubes 1/2 cup roasted unsalted peanuts 6 whole white cardamon pods 2-inch stick cinnamon 2 tablespoons tamarind fruit pulp, softened in 1/3 cup hot water 1 medium lime, squeezed 1 to 2 tablespoons natural brown or palm sugar Chopped green onion, for garnish Boiled white rice
To prepare the curry paste, put into a small skillet bay leaves, cardamom pods, red chiles, cinnamon, clove, giner and nutmey. Toast spices on moderately high heat. Using a wooden spatula or spoon, keep them moving all the time. Watch them like a hawk to avoid the least blackening or burning. You can smell it before you can see it.
When they have a toasty smell and look delicately darkened, remove pan from heat; let it cool a little. Grind spices in a spice mill to a fine powder; put into a mortar.
Meanwhile, saute garlic and shallots in oil until they are just transluscent and slightly softened. Work and pound the garlic and shallots with oil and the lemon grass and shrimp paste into the spice powder until it is as smooth as paste. Use 1/2 teaspoon salt to begin. Taste and balance it by adding more salt or other ingredients. Hold, covered.
To complete the dish, in a wok or large saute pan, pour the coconut milk; blend in anchovy fish sauce. Spread beef in pan and work in the peanuts. Heat to a gentle boil, stirring regularly, until the beef is nicely tender, usually in about 35 minutes. Do not cover; you want some of the liquid to boil down.
Remove beef with a slotted spoon and keep it warm and covered. Boil liquid harder so it reduces to about half. Work in curry paste. During this operation, it should not boil hard, but should bubble gently and lightly. When smooth, return beef, plus the cardamon pods. Bury cinnamon stick in the middle. Let it continue to simmer, gently, to reheat, usually in 4 to 5 minutes. Stir occasionally.
Finally, add the essential citrus acid tang with tamarind. Strain the soaking tamarind pulp in sieve, pressing solids to squeeze out all possible juice. Discard solids. Add the liquid by tablespoons, alternately with lime juice and palm sugar until you have precisely the sour-sweet, tangy balance that delights you. My favorite balance is usually all the lime juice, about 4 tablespoons tamarind and 5 teaspoons sugar. The sugar should remain liquid, but fairly thick. If it is not thick enough, bubble it a bit longer. If it is too thick, add a dash or two more coconut milk. Before serving, remove cinnamon. Garnish with chopped green onion and serve curry on a bed of boiled white rice.