Taste Scene

Michael Devlin

Just like umami used to make

Have you ever spilled fish sauce on your clothes? I did on Saturday night and before I realised what had happened, I thought there was something wrong with me.

Sniffing and wondering and sniffing some more, I thought I’d developed that fish malodor syndrome or I’d stepped on an alien object and it had stuck to my shoe.

It was like that night I ate asparagus for the first time. When I went to the toilet I thought my plumbing had malfunctionened. Flush-flush!


Fish sauce is potent gear, there’s no doubt about it – as anyone who has ever tasted it neat (or has spilt it on their clothes) will comfirm.

A few drops go a long way and there is probably no better way to utilse this lusty condiment that in the classic Thai red curry.

It’s that umami tang that gets me with fish sauce. High in glutamate, fish sauce is practically liquid MSG, only it’s real and it stinks to high heaven.

Apparently it’s made from either krill or fish and after being salted, fish sauce is fermented for up to two years. After the words, ‘beer’ and ‘carbs’ and ‘breakfast bagel’, ferment is up there with my favourite utterances in the English language.

As with most areas of my life, I tend to go a tad overboard with fish sauce in curries with the result that they are often as puissant as they are spicy. Also, my tom yum soup is probably unfit for normal human consumption.

For this one though, I’ve toned down the potency with the result that the aromatics have a chance to shine and shine they do. Making curry paste from scratch might sound like a bit of a mission although I can assure you, it’s anything but, so long as you have all (or at least most) of the right ingredients.


And compared to the stuff that comes in a jar… well, there is no comparison. Which is why I make the paste ahead of time.


Last I checked galangal isn’t readily available locally, nor is shrimp paste but with extra fish sauce and ginger as substitutes, this Thai curry always comes up a winner. Beautifully fresh and with the distinctive sour, sweet, salty, spicy hallmark of a lot of Thai dishes, it’s impossible to throw out the left-overs. God, I’m making myself hungry just thinking about it.


4 cloves of garlic, peeled

1 stalk of lemongrass, hard outer shell removed

2 red chillis, roughly chopped

1 shallot, peeled and halved

1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled

tsp of ground cumin

tsp of chilli powder

tbsp of Sriracha

half tsp of ground coriander

2 tbsps of fish sauce

1 tbsp of tomato puree

1 heaped tsp of brown sugar

pinch of white pepper

pinch of cinnamon

tbsp of coconut milk

the juice of half a lime


vegetable oil

2 chicken fillets, sliced

six plum tomatoes, quartered

the rest of the tin of coconut milk

rice, fresh coriander and some chillis to serve


It’s deceptively easy to make. Dump all of the paste ingredients into a blender and blitz until smooth. Hey presto, Thai red curry paste. After that’s done, the paste can live in the fridge for a week or so but I’d recommend going the whole hog and making a curry right away.

In a frying pan, add a touch of vegetable oil, about a tablespoonful and turn the heat up high. Fry about two thirds of your paste (more if you want the curry stronger) for about a minute, then dump in the sliced chicken. Give it another minute and then dump in the coconut milk. Turn the heat down so that it simmers and cook and stir for five minutes and then add the tomatoes. After another three or four minutes, the chicken should be cooked through and the sauce thickened. Check the seasoning (another touch of fish sauce mayhaps? Or a squirt of lime?) and it’s time to serve.

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