The last time I went to Phuket, my husband took me to what looked like a secluded selection of shanties set over the water, accessible via a small dirt road. I was starving and, obviously, grumpy, but our beachside breakfast — gaeng som with rice — reminded me why I love Thai food, its strong clear flavors and its honesty, communicating everything that in regular conversation is all-too-often too nuanced for me to pick up.
I sought to recreate this experience — sans Phuket sand, glimmering ocean and dozing old man at the next table — in my own kitchen. With store-bought nam prik gaeng som (I know, I know), it was criminally easy, but if you want to make your own chili paste base, mix a handful of red bird’s eye chilies, shallots, garlic cloves, a pinch of salt and a few lemongrass bulbs, galangal and kaffir lime leaves into a paste. Some people add a dollop of shrimp paste as well.
Gaeng som (sour curry) (serves 4)
– 4 Tablespoons nam macaam piek (tamarind syrup)*
– 6 knobs of grachai (wild ginger)
– 1 firm, white-fleshed fish such as pomfret, boiled in half a pot of salted water (save cooking liquid)**
– 1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
– 4 Tablespoons fish sauce
– 2 bunches cha om (acacia leaves)
– 4 heaping Tablespoons gaeng som paste (see above)
1. Chop grachai into small pieces and pound into a paste with mortar and pestle.
2. Deflesh fish from the bone, add to mortar and pound further. Add your nam prik gaeng little by little, mixing carefully so that you don’t get any in your eye (again), which is very painful. It will look like this:
3. Add paste to fish cooking water on the stove along with palm and granulated sugars and fish sauce. Bring to the boil.
4. When boiling, add tamarind juice.
5. Add your white fish pieces. Do not stir, or gaeng will become “fishy”.
6. Taste to correct seasoning, adding if necessary more tamarind juice (for acidity), sugar (for sweet) and/or fish sauce (for salt) as you see fit.
7. Allow to boil for another 10 minutes. Your gaeng is finished!
8. As your soup boils, chop cha om with scissors into bite-sized pieces.
9. Heat 4 Tablespoons of cooking oil in a big frying pan.
10. Whip eggs as you would an omelette and add half the cha om. It will initially look like this:
11. Over medium heat, cook in hot oil until puffy, then turn over and cook until golden-brown. Take out and drain on a paper towel.
12. Serve omelette by cutting into squares, placing at bottom of bowl and ladling your gaeng som on top, accompanied with rice.
*You can make your own tamarind syrup by steeping a tamarind pod in hot water for at least 10 minutes. A tamarind pod looks like this:
** Obviously, you can substitute the fish for anything else you would prefer — shrimp, chicken, and/or some blanched mixed vegetables.