Hot Jungle Curry
Appetizer. Phangga Jungle Curry, Pork spare ribs with Thai eggplant. Crying Tiger Beef.
The only thing I really remember from this restaurant was that it was SO good and SO spicy. I don’t think it was intended as a joke to misleadingly name on of their dishes “crying tiger beef.” (Funny part was that the crying tiger beef wasn’t even the spicy dish). The jungle curry on the other hand…the next day wasn’t pleasant, that’s for sure. You know what they say; if it burns going down, it’ll burn coming out.
Whenever I read “curry” on a menu, whether it’s coconut milk based, or broth based, a proper curry should always have order to the madness that ensues. Usually, there’s a specific order in which the components are brought together. Aromatic spices are toasted off first, and then formed into a paste, with the addition of onions, tomato paste, garlic, chiles, nuts, ginger (all fairly foundational). Depending on the type of curry, one can add or subtract certain items from this list. The paste is sweated off nicely in some neutral-tasting oil (or ghee, which is clarified butter), until it becomes pasty, and the vegetable matter has broken down. This concentrated paste is what imparts a delicious, full-bodied flavor later on when the cook has added coconut milk or broth in order to create the right conditions for cooking the meat and vegetables.
Is the order important here? What happens if we cook the broth, and then add coconut milk, and then throw the spices in?
Hint. It’s not the same. Why damnit? Why can’t things just be combination style, and not a permutation?
We explore some things to keep in mind when cooking, keeping “order,” and “goal” in mind. We’ll use some pragmatism.
From my experience, the presence of moisture prevents adequate formation of complex products of the Maillard reaction. Since water has such a high specific heat, much of the initial heat in a pan can be potentially absorbed by water. Thus, we need a dry environment to develop Maillard products, which ultimately expose the flavors of the key ingredients we’re using.
I like to think about three things when it comes to moisture.
- The relative moisture of the foods we’re cooking. (Plant cell vacuoles and water content of meat… how much do we want out of the matter (e.g. to make a stock), or how much do we want to keep in? (crunchy vegetables, juicy meats)).
- Whether or not the foods we’re cooking will exude moisture. (Mushrooms basically use your pan as a toilet; anything you were trying to get some good browning on would now just be boiling).
- The amount of moisture we want to keep around, or is already present in the cooking device. (Type of cooking vessel; does it promote evaporation (flayed sides), or do you slap a lid on it?)
4. How the food is prepared. Surface area. A whole potato bakes/cooks out differently than cubed potatoes, than mashed potatoes. More surface area for contact, and moisture loss/gain.
Cooking method. (Heat transfer analysis)
- Baked (heat all around)
- Broiled (heat from top)
- In pan (from bottom, and kind of around).
- Poached/boiled (from water)
- Lots of others, but we’ll just cover these basics.
Quality of heat and cooking vessel.
1. Cast iron. Cast iron offers no protection from the…well…iron of the pan. Trace amounts of iron can come off and affect the subsequent flavors. Cast iron pans also need to be seasoned, as the pan is porous, and needs a layer of polymerized fat (usually lard) to saturate the surface so that you have a viable, non-stick cooking surface.
2. Teflon. Non-stick pans are essentially normal pans that have been coated with polytetrafluoroethylene (poly- multiple, tetra-four, fluoro-fluorine, ethylene- two carbon backbone). The high electronegativity (electron-lovin’) of fluorine mitigates any significant Van der Waals interactions, as PTFE has a structure that cancels out such dipoles (polarity to molecules, like a battery). The carbon-fluorine bond is also toted to be the strongest single bond between carbon and fluorine. Stability and strength of these bonds is what allows it to be “unreactive” to other compounds it touches. Carbon is also effectively shielded by fluorine; since fluorine acts like the secret service for carbon, no interactions are allowed to take place with carbon, and therefore, no sticking occurs (fluorine’s bond with carbon is also so strong it won’t give it up for anything else, so don’t try your moves on fluorine either). Water doesn’t even get absorbed by this type of pan. Great for eggs, but not so great for making sauce reductions, as sauce reductions require fond (burned stuck-on bits on the bottom of the pan from cooking meat), and well…PTFE-coated pans won’t have much fond to begin with. No fond, no flavor, boring sauce. (Now how much fun would it be to have a can of Teflon, a boogie board, and a big ol’ hill?)
3. Charcoal/woodchips. Smoke and ash can impart flavor, as well as carcinogenic compounds (sorry to rain on your BBQ, or urinate on the fire for your BBQ… Okay I’ll stop). These compounds are called heterocyclic amines (HCAs), found on overcooked protein sources, or acrylamides, found on overcooked carbohydrate sources. Plenty of research that supports regular consumption of said compounds aren’t too hot for health.
Bold flavors, weak flavors. We want to add weak and delicate flavors last and the bold flavors first. The in-betweens will be added in the middle, as heat or moisture may degrade flavor compounds. On the other hand, sometimes heat is needed for flavors to develop (caramelization and the Maillard reactions). Toasted spices can develop smoky flavors and release their essential oils. Onions, under heat lose their sulfuric spiciness, and instead, become sweet, as their starches break down…etc…etc.
Think of cooking as a big ol’ brawl. You’d throw shrimpy looking dudes (parsley, cilantro) in a minute before the brawl is broken up, not at the beginning of the 15-minute fight, so they last…hopefully. Others more “fit,” may be beaten down (onions, carrots), and others could get a second wind, and start kicking ass (spices, ginger). Half-terrible analogy, but fun nonetheless.
It’s always important to think, when cooking, the properties of the foods, the type of cookware, and the methods of heating. Watching moisture, and understanding some basic chemistry can confer some super delicious food. More on these techniques in the future.