Thai Name: Kung Gratiem Phrik Thai Sot
The chillie has become an icon of Thai cooking but the fruit is not native to Thailand. Food historians chart the journey of the chillie from the Americas to Asia by Portuguese or Spanish explorers in the 1600′s.
Before the arrival of the chillie, Thais were living on rice, fish, vegetables and fruit – a nutricious but somewhat bland diet. So, they invented a paste to enliven their food. One such paste is a combination of peppercorns, coriander and garlic pounded in a mortar. This resembles a Thai version of the traditional Italian “pesto” paste, except Thai cooks don’t use cheese in their cooking, but I like the way it sounds anyways.
Despite the rise in popularity and availability of chillies, this paste is still used but is not often seen in Thai restaurants outside of Thailand.
For this recipe, I substituted dried white peppercorns instead of the fresh green peppercorns that are commonly available in Thailand. Both white and green peppercorns give the paste a spicy taste; since fresh green peppercorns are sometimes not available, the white peppercorns are a great substitute. Green peppercorns that are preserved in brine make this dish sour; black peppercorns make the paste look like it has little ants in it, so the white peppercorns are preferred if you cannot find fresh green peppercorns.
- vegetable oil, 2 tablespoons / 30 ml
- peppercorns, white dried peppercorns, 20 corns, approximately 1/2 teaspoon
- garlic, 1 tablespoon / enough to fill a 15 ml measuring spoon
- coriander / cilantro. 1 cup loosely packed (see note below on coriander / cilantro)
- fish sauce, 1 tablespoon / 15 ml
- shrimp, ten (see note on shrimp preparation below)
CORIANDER OR CILANTRO – A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME
Coriander and cilantro are the same plant – just a different name but I include both as the name can vary depending on the country where it is sold. The highest concentration of flavor in the plant is in the root and stems, not the leaves.
In Thailand, the plant is sold with the roots on, while in other countries the roots are trimmed off. If you can get coriander with the roots on, you are blessed. Rinse off any dirt, and scrape off the outer brown layer and the small tendrils – then you will have concentrated coriander flavor for the paste. If coriander is sold without the roots, you can use the lower stem to give flavor to the dish.
- shrimp, ten medium in size, head and scales removed, inner veins removed and the spiky thorn removed from the the tail. You can retain the tail of the shrimp in case your guests want to eat the shrimp with their hands. Alternatively, you can remove the tail and serve the pesto covered shimp using a toothpick or on a bed of steamed jasmine rice.
- Place the peppercorns in the bottom of a mortar. Use the pestle to firmly crush the peppercorns until they are partly cracked – if you pound with too much vigor, the peppercorns will fly out of the mortar and tears will fall like rain from your eyes.
- Add the garlic and press into the bottom of the mortar – again, start with pressing into the garlic with the pestle so the garlic gets crushed and doesn’t leap out of the mortar. Once the garlic is crushed, then begin to pound so the garlic and peppercorns become a uniform paste – this takes about a minute.
- Add the coriander / cilantro leaves, stems and roots to the mortar and slowly press the pestle into the mortar to crush the contents. Once you are satisfied that the coriander will not escape, begin the process of pounding the stiff coriander into the peppercorn and garlic. You want to achieve a smooth paste, so keep pounding the coriander and pause occasionally to scrape the sides of the mortar with a spoon. The result you want is a smooth paste, so keep pounding until the coriander stems and leaves blend into the peppercorns and garlic. The result is a vibrant green paste.
- Heat a wok over medium heat for 30 seconds. Add the vegetable oil and swirl it in the wok. Add the paste and mix it with the oil so the paste breaks apart. We want the paste to evenly coat the shrimp.
- Add the shrimp to the wok and mix in with the paste and oil. Turn the shrimp often in the paste in paste and oil, making sure each part of the shrimp touches the hot pan.
- The shrimp should cook until they are a uniform white/pink color. You can check that the shrimp are done by artfully cutting into the center of a shrimp to check the color.
- Once the shrimp are cooked, turn off the heat in the pan and add the fish sauce. Mix the shrimp and fish sauce and then arrange the shrimp on a serving plate.