As I’m sure is apparent, I’m not a big advocate for prepackaged processed foods. This includes everything from canned beans to pre-ground spice mixes and sauces. But there is something I’m willing to make an exception for: the little 89-cent tins of curry paste you can find in Asian markets. Have you ever tried to buy curry paste at the supermarket? Because I have, and it’s not pretty: $4.25 or more for teeny tiny jar containing a white-person approximation of the real thing, which is so watered down you have to use almost the entire jar for one meal. These little tins may not be available in your area, but they’re easily found online (at Amazon.com they’re $1.25 or so, and if you spend $25 you get free shipping). They might not be 89 cents, but they’re still cheaper than $4.25. Plus, not only do you get more paste, it’s stronger stuff, so you only have to use a tablespoon or two. Once you open a can you can put the contents into a plastic bag, freeze it, and carve chunks off of it whenever you need some. Usually I can get about 3-4 meals out of a single can, bringing the average cost per meal to about 26 cents. This, believe it or not, is cheaper than making it yourself. I know, because I’ve done it, and not only was the homemade stuff more expensive, it had weird textural issues from the coriander seeds and lemongrass that no amount of blending or processing seemed to be able to fix.
It’s perhaps the quickest, most uncomplicated recipe on this entire blog—protein of your choice, a can of coconut milk, a few tablespoons of curry paste, some fish sauce and sugar, cooked rice, some cilantro, and you’re done. I like to make this with restaurant-style fried tofu, but it’s a great vehicle for leftover cooked chicken, pork, or beef.
As below, it makes 4 servings.
• A few tablespoons of the curry paste of your choice (I used green): 26 cents
• 8-12 oz. leftover meat of your choice (or 1 package of extra-firm tofu): $1.99
• 2-3 T fish sauce, to taste: 10 cents
• 1 T brown sugar: 5 cents
• 2 kaffir lime leaves (I buy these in bulk at the Asian market and keep them in the freezer) (optional): 18 cents
• 1 can coconut milk (Chaokoh brand is best, if you can find it): $1.99
• 1 1/2 cups dry white rice: 12 cents
• 1/3 of a 49-cent bunch of cilantro (leaves only, chopped; you could also use Thai basil instead of or in addition to): 16 cents
• 1 cup canola oil, for frying tofu (if you’re using tofu): 24 cents
TOTAL: $2.84/2 = 71 cents/serving
If you haven’t pre-cooked the meat you’re going to use, do it now. If you’re going to fry tofu (it has to be extra-firm), take it out of the container, rinse it, put it on a plate, put another plate over it with something on top as a weight, and leave it for at least half an hour. (If you have a big enough plate to cover the whole tofu, great. I usually have to put the plate on one half of the tofu for half the time, then the other half for the rest of the time.) It needs to expel quite a bit of water so it becomes crispy, not greasy, when fried.
Remove from the plate and cut into cubes or triangles. I prefer triangles for reasons explained below, but if you happen to have a real deep fryer, by all means go with cubes.
Cook the rice however you usually cook rice. (You could also use noodles, but rice is more absorbent.)
To fry the tofu, if using: Pour the canola oil into a large skillet with high sides or, preferably, a 3 1/2-quart Dutch oven. Heat oil to about 375 F (I use a candy thermometer). Working in batches, carefully place the tofu in the oil with tongs. Make sure they aren’t touching, because they’ll stick together. Fry one side for a minute or two until golden (you can lift it up and check underneath), then fry the other side until golden. If they’re especially thick-cut pieces, fry the edges, too. (This is why I always cut mine into triangles—fewer edges.) Remove to a paper towel-lined plate and repeat until all the tofu has been fried. It should be fairly dried out and crispy.
Pour the coconut milk into a medium saucepan, add the lime leaves (if using) and bring to a low simmer. Stir in the curry paste a little bit at a time—1 to 2 T to start—and allow to simmer for a couple minutes before tasting. Once it has reached your desired level of spiciness, add sugar and fish sauce to taste. Simmer for a few more minutes. If it has become very thick, add a little water or chicken stock to thin it before adding the meat or tofu.
Add the meat or tofu, simmer for a few minutes to heat through. Serve over rice with cilantro (or Thai basil) to garnish. If you didn’t use lime leaves, a wedge of lime squeezed over the top is a nice touch.