Nat retreats to Chiang Mai for a relaxing weekend of fish curry, French movies and some poolside lounging. — Veronica
If I could live anywhere in Thailand, it would be Chiang Mai. The old city retains its traditional, square layout, with a surrounding moat and restored medieval gates which lend an atmosphere of history that is absent in most of Bangkok. Chiang Mai is over 500 years older and the people seem commensurately more kind and relaxed. Nowhere is it more apparent that Chiang Mai is culturally different than in the wats, or temples which have decidedly less gold and glitter and more delicately carved wood. Bangkok feels rushed, brash and taxing in comparison.
The laid-back attitudes are more like those of a small town and, with an effective public transportation system of red pick-up trucks that will take you anywhere in the city, life itself is much more accessible. Within the city walls, one can walk from a spa to a good restaurant and then to the week-end market on the walking street. It is not unusual to attend an ordination ceremony in the afternoon, go home for some dinner and then head out to a French film festival or concert later. Three events in one evening? In Bangkok, that would be a pipe dream.
The best part about Chiang Mai, however, is the food. Aside from Thai and nouvelle Thai, not only are there award-winning French and Italian restaurants but also Tex-Mex, English pub food, crepes, steak and more. For all the cosmopolitan fare, however, the greatest cuisine to be had is local.
Unlike central Thai cuisine, which often incorporates coconut milk, northern Thai food is lighter, with an often distinctive, herbal fragrance. The nam phrik, or salsa-like dips, take precedence over curries and the only coconut-based dish of popularity is the khao soi or curried noodle soup. Even then, the broth is much lighter than a central Thai curry. Much of the coconut cream is diluted with soup stock.
The drawback is that Chiang Mai, being far from the ocean, lacks the seafood dishes of central Thai cooking. Most of the meat dishes here are made of pork or chicken.
The starch of choice is sticky rice. It is, yes, sticky and much heavier and less porous than long-grain white rice. White rice tends to soak up sauces and gravies, marrying spectacularly with saucy dishes like green curry. Because they are braised in water, curries in the north tend to be dryer than in central Thai cooking.
Hung Lay Curry is a classic northern Thai dish. Yes, the name can elicit an initial giggle but, no matter what the name may sound like to English-speaking ears, it is a rich, complex-tasting pork curry which has been slow-cooked to succulence.
Recently, I was in Chiang Mai and had dinner at the restaurant in Rachamankha, a boutique hotel that recently became listed on the Relais & Chateau guide, where a unique variation of Hung Lay Curry was on the menu: one made with fish.
Unlike pork, which can stand to be braised for hours, fish needs to be cooked quickly or it will fall apart. The result was a dish that had the flavour of traditional Hung Lay Curry but more the consistency and freshness of bouillabaisse. It was glorious.
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Hung Lay Curry
In central Thai curries, the meat is first stir-fried with curry paste and coconut milk is added at the end to make sauce. Hung Lay Curry, however, is slowly braised. Prolonged cooking is not a good idea with coconut milk-based curries because the oil and the cream separates into a greasy mess, with a thick layer of oil on top and creamy solids burning on the bottom.
A purist will tell you Hung Lay Curry needs to be done in a clay pot on a charcoal burner so that the flavours meld and the pork becomes exquisitely soft. A clay pot and the slow, steady heat of a charcoal burner surrounds the meat with from all sides with a constant low cooking temperature and allows the evaporating juices to drip back down and baste the dish on its own.
Traditional calls for a combination of pork belly and sirloin — fat from the belly should gradually melt and tenderise the sirloin. However, I don’t find that this creates a uniformly tender dish. Not only is the pork belly appallingly bad for you, the sirloin never reaches the same tenderness as the belly. I prefer pork shoulder, which has enough fat to make the dish tender without hardening your arteries too much.
My recipe is adapted to modern, western kitchens with the use of a large, cast iron pot. Placed in an oven at a steady temperature, it works just as well as a charcoal burner to maintain a steady, surrounding heat and requires much less effort.
Of the many recipes I’ve come across for Hung Lay Curry, many call for esoteric ingredients, from pickled garlic to fermented chilli paste and even to ketchup, which sounds awful. Don’t try to substitute Indian curry powder for the hung lay powder. The ingredients are different and you will end up with something that has an overwhelming taste of turmeric and chilli.
Flouring the pork before browning it is my own addition. I find it helps the pork to caramelise. Most traditional recipes call for marinating the meat beforehand but I find a long, slow braise of about two hours is good enough.
All of the ingredients should be available at Asian supermarkets.
Hung Lay Powder
4 tbs coriander seed
.5 tsp powdered turmeric
.5 tsp black pepper
.5 tsp cumin seed
.25 tsp salt
1. Roast all the ingredients in a dry frying pan until fragrant.
2. Grind in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.
Hung Lay Curry
1 lb pork belly
1 lb pork sirloin or 2 lbs pork shoulder
.5 cup dark soy sauce
1 tbs kapi (fermented shrimp paste)
1 tbs tamarind juice
5-8 dried chillies
2 oz galangal
1 stalk of lemon grass, cut into ¼ inch slices
.5 cup flour
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 cup (or more) water
1 head of garlic, peeled but not smashed
1 tbs hung lay powder (sometimes sold as hin lay powder)
.25 cup of shelled, peeled peanuts
2 oz fresh ginger, julienned
10 pearl onions
salt, to taste
1. Pre-heat the oven to 275F
2. Cut the pork into 2-inch cubes (If pork shoulder is available in chops, I don’t even bother with this.)
3. Blend the second set of ingredients in a bowl, set aside
4. Toss the pork in flour and brown in oil, remove from pan and set aside
5. Deglaze the pan with water, adding more water, if necessary
6. Add the pork and the second set of ingredients followed by the fifth set of ingredients (The liquid should come up no higher than halfway up the side of the meat.)
7. Bring to a boil
8. Cover and braise in an oven for two hours, turning the meat occasionally (I usually cover the pot first with a piece of baking parchment, pushing it down almost to the top of the meat before covering it with the lid.)
9. Add salt to taste, serve immediately with rice (The staple in Chiang Mai is sticky rice but this dish can also be served with white rice.)