The Most Spicy Curries of All
Not too long ago, we did a long road trip to the deep south just to revel in a lot of things we have never seen before. By ‘deep south,’ I mean, Songkhla, Hat Yai and Pattani. Of course, in reality, that should include the provinces of Narathiwat and Yala, too, but those will have to be for the next round.
We broke our trip into several stops along the way, just so we were not too exhausted by the long drive. From Bangkok down, our overnight stop included Pranburi – a secluded fishing community about an hour south of Hua Hin. This happens to be our favourite spot when it comes to a total shut-down. So, if you are looking for a quiet long weekend, and do not mind a bit of a longer drive, I would say Pranburi will fit the bill for you.
For those familiar with Thai foods, with all their regional distinctions and all, you will recognise how tastes vary – even in a similar dish – from one region to another in the Kingdom. Visit Chonburi, for example, which is also another seaside city, but on the eastern coast, and you will get another taste, a total difference, if you will. For me, Chonburi’s tastes are more well-rounded, and not too sweet, which I like better. But when you come to the area of Hua Hin, though, you might notice the increase of sweetness, even in some spicy dishes.
But in Pranburi, even with its proximity to Hua Hin, tastes are more blunt, and, I should say, brutal. For Bangkok people who are more familiar with the so-called balanced tastes, with every component carefully complement each other in a gently coaxing way, the tastes of Pranburi are downright straightforward. Oftentimes than not, you will get a full-blown and direct exposure of chillies, pepper and herbs – all exploding in full force – and you will have to take them all in. No supporting tastes to balance them off. Case in point is their Gaeng Pa and Gaeng Som which, as this column’s name suggests, are, for me, the most spicy (spiciest) curries I have had in my life. And it is not for the chillies alone, but all other components that make these two particular bowls much more ferocious than others.
Gaeng Pa – or wild curry – is a type of clear curry without coconut milk, hence a stronger flavours when compared to the ones with the milk. Gaeng Pa, with all its ingredients predominantly including strong herbs such as young peppercorns, chillies, holy basils, fingerroot, Thai eggplants and so on, is usually matched with seafoods with basic strong tastes or any ingredients that carry intense flavours because those herbs are supposed to blend in and make the meats more flavoursome. If you think a Gaeng Pa in Bangkok is already explosive, try the one in Pranburi where if not downright sweet, can be extremely spicy.
Gaeng Som, another type of clear curry, can make another column on its own. While being available everywhere in Thailand, Gaeng Som has somehow been adopted as a staple of the Thai South. This is the type of curry used to measure the ability of the cooks of the region. Ask anyone in southern Thai province for restaurant recommendations, they will base them on the Gaeng Som. If restaurant A, for example, is recommended, it is because their Gaeng Som is good. The reason being that to make a perfect Gaeng Som, the cook will need an acquired taste of good flavouring. Gaeng Som is spicy, but at the same time, sour with addition of tamarind paste. While the balance between spiciness, saltiness and sourness is required, a hint of sweetness can also be acquired — if only a hint — to make the bowl bearable. The gist is that the cook must be able to flavour the curry into a right balance of taste before adding the substances – be it vegetables, seafood or fish. By adding the ingredients later to the finish line, it also means that the cook must be able to foretell how those ingredients will affect the entire tastes of the bowl, too. This is why this particular curry is used to measure the ability of a cook in the South. If you manage to cook a Gaeng Som well, it is a given, or so they believe, that you will be able to manage well other dishes, too.
The story of Thai southern foods always intrigues me, as much as other regional cuisines of my own country. But I will stick to the southern dishes for the next columns or so. Just bear with me.