Coconut curry in the ascendant

'Kaeng khio wan' made with chicken, beef or fish balls has steadily gained in popularity with Thai diners, and if you taste the varieties served up at a top shop you'll understand why

Surveys of current food preferences reveal that even if it hasn't managed to dislodge tom yam kung from the top spot, kaeng khio wan gai is in second place as Thai favourite in the soups and curries category.

kaeng khio wan’ in beef and chicken versions.

This spicy, coconut cream-based curry ranks above kaeng daeng (red curry), which has dried chillies as a main ingredient and is the dish that has traditionally represented curry for many Thais. There are many other kinds of curries and soups in the Thai repertoire, many probably older than kaeng khio wan gai, that it has surpassed in popular favour.

Thai kaeng daeng dishes include versions made with pork and chicken, kaeng pet pu ma kap yawt maphrao (a sea crab version with heart of coconut palm), kaeng pla chon kap fak (a variant made with snakehead fish and gourd), phanaeng nua (beef in a thick, mild, curried coconut cream sauce), and various curries of the kaeng khua type, including kaeng khua pla sawai kap naw mai dong (made with a freshwater fish and pickled bamboo shoots), kaeng khua saparot kap khai maeng da thalay or hoy malaeng pu (made with pineapple and either horseshoe crab eggs or mussels), or kaeng khua moo sam chan kap luk taling pling (made with pork belly meat and a type of sour fruit), as well as kaeng pad pet yang (a mild curry made with grilled duck meat).

A central ingredient in the curry paste for kaeng khio wan is fresh green and red chilli of the prik chee fa variety. In its original form, the curry was made only with beef, and the recipe is an elaborate one that requires time and skill.

Although the variety of chilli used to make kaeng khio wan is prik chee fa, cooks who want to up the heat can add fiery prik khee nu ("bird's eye" chillies) as well, but a certain skill is needed to determine how much to use. Other ingredients include garlic, shallots, kaffir lime zest, galangal, lemon grass, kapi (shrimp paste) and very importantly, coriander and cumin seed. These last two ingredients are absolutely essential, as they give the curry its fragrance and mask the odour of the beef.

The beef used to make kaeng khio wan has tendons and fat attached, and is not an expensive cut. It is likely to be tough, and must be simmered in water or diluted coconut milk until it is very tender. Most cooks use the diluted coconut milk.

The curry paste is then fried in a pan with some of the diluted coconut milk that was used to cook the beef.

After the curry sauce is fully cooked the beef is added together with sliced chillies (prik chee fa); small, pea-like aubergine; and kaffir lime leaves. The curry is seasoned with palm sugar and nam pla, and then thick coconut cream is put in. As soon as it begins to boil, fresh basil leaves are added and it is taken from the heat. When kaeng khio wan is made properly, the oil does not separate out. There should be none floating on top.

Sometimes kaeng khio wan is made with minced fish meat, and is then called kaeng sap nok. In the past, Thais used fishing equipment that caught fish of all kinds and sizes, including very small ones. These little fish were not thrown away. The heads were cut off and discarded and then all of the fish, minus the heads, were chopped so fine that there was no need to remove the fins, bones, or tails. The curry seasonings used to make curry from them were exactly like those used for the beef curry.

The character of kaeng khio wan began to change when the popularity of beef declined in Thailand. Versions of the dish made with pork and chicken appeared. One type that became so popular that every shop and stall that offered prepared food was sure to offer it was kaeng khio wan luk chin pla krai, made from the meat of a type of flat, freshwater fish formed into balls.

These places did not pound their own curry paste but bought it ready-made in the market. The vendors who sold the paste knew what was needed to make proper kaeng khio wan _ to give the dish the right aroma they added extra ground coriander and cumin seed.

With time, prepared curry paste caught on and was sold in large quantities. It was now packaged in plastic or glass containers, or in plastic-lined envelopes. But with this way of doing things, customers had no way to voice their preferences and make demands. The pastes for kaeng khio wan and kaeng pet became standardised, with the spiciness and intensity of the flavour unvarying.

The result is that although curry shops may give the customer a choice of kaeng khio wan made with beef, chicken, pork, or luk chin pla krai, the curry sauce flavouring the meat will almost always taste the same. Even the beef version, which when properly made requires different seasonings than the others, almost always adheres to the standard.

The changes that have overtaken the dish are not limited to the curry paste; the cooking technique is different now, too, especially for the chicken versions. Sources such as cooking websites and YouTube recommend frying the curry paste in vegetable oil, then adding the chicken followed by coconut cream. Seasonings are put in, followed by small aubergine (makhuea poh variety), kaffir lime leaves, chillies and fresh basil. The emphasis is on simplicity, and on presenting it as a dish that anyone can make, perfect for when it is important to save time.

This may be part of the reason why the chicken version of kaeng khio wan is more popular than the one made with luk chin pla krai. Chicken meat is always the easiest kind to find, especially when outside of Thailand.

There are still a number of food shops that sell good kaeng khio wan nua, the beef version of the dish. One choice example is in Muang Phetchaburi on Tha Karong Road roughly across the street from the Esso petrol station. The shop has no name, but sells beef noodles as well as curry and rice. Kaeng khio wan nua is available every day.

Good shops in Bangkok include Ran Khun Ya at Wat Trimit in Hua Lamphong, as well as Khrua Aroy-Aroy near the mouth of Soi Wat Khaek off Silom Road. In Nonthaburi there is the shop called Nat Phop, past Wat Khema on the Bangkok-Nonthaburi road. The last recommendation is a floating restaurant at the Sampran Riverside Hotel. Along with the nameless place in Phetchaburi, the Sampran Riverside deserves a gold star, although the beef at the Petchaburi restaurant can be a little tough at times.

About the author

Writer: Suthon Sukphisit
Position: Writer