Recipe: Gaeng Om (Northeastern Thai Curry)

I appreciated this Zen description from my host, A-Nong: "It's not really a soup and it's not really a curry... it's om."Gaeng om is often eaten in concert with larb or grilled meats as a cleansing herbal tonic. Where I live in Bangkok, it's often served in Chinese hotpot fashion, on the table above a small charcoal pot. It is supposed to be seasoned with pla raa, the fermented fish sauce of Laos and Isaan—a freshwater fish based condiment that is fierce in its pungency. But conventional fish sauce works fine too and is gentler on the palate. In this dish you can use any meat—fish, chicken, pork, beef, or game.

• 4 long, red chilies
    • 4 stalks lemongrass
    • 5 cloves garlic peeled
    • 5 small shallots, peeled
    • 1 kaffir lime leaf smashed in the paste, and another 4 to 5 in the pot
    • 10 apple eggplants (makrua plop). If you can't find these, substitute with long purple eggplants cut into 1-inch chunks.
    • 1 very big handful lemon basil (bai meng lak)
    • 1 large bunch of dill, cut into 1-inch strips, stems included
    • 250 to 300 grams of meat, cut into bite-sized pieces
    • 4 tablespoons fish sauce (or 3 tablespoons pla raa)

Remove outer sheath from lemongrass and slice into very thin discs. Smash this in mortar and pestle into a paste, then add one thinly sliced lime leaf and chilies and continue to smash, and finish paste with shallots and garlic (this can also be done in food processor all at once).

Add fish sauce to spice paste and stir. Then, work this paste into the cubed meat and let sit for five minutes or up to an hour.

Fry the meat and spice mix in a pot with 2 tbs of pre-heated vegetable oil or animal fat until the meat is cooked through and the paste is very fragrant (about five minutes.)

Then, cover the meat with 2.5 cups stock or water and simmer for five minutes (add more liquid to taste). Then add herbs and continue to cook for three minutes.

The gaeng om should be thick and soupy; it should also taste pungent, spicy, and herbal. Adjust the saltiness with fish sauce, and serve with rice.

To read Jarrett's account of how he learned this recipe in northeastern Thailand, click here.