Thai Red Curry Chicken

Love at First Thai

That childhood taunt, “Why don’t you marry it!” might actually be worth listening to if the love professed is a kind of food. Things seem to be working out well for Nick Sherman, a Maine-born salesman for a residential building company, who loved cooking and eating fusion food. When living in Seattle, he followed the fusion master Tom Douglas’s every move through his Seattle Kitchen cookbook. But three years ago last April, back in Maine working long hours in preparation for a vacation, he didn’t have time to cook, so he went out nightly at Chinese, Korean and other Asian restaurants. “It was fast and good,” He said about the food. One might say the same about the relationship he was about to discover.
In his single, dining-out adventures, he crossed paths with a striking Asian woman, the tallest he’d ever seen. She was 5’8’’ and lean, with straight, long, black hair, an open demeanor, and an outwardly curved nose. He introduced himself, and discovered her signature high voice full of rough but sweetly brave English. Her name was Rattana. She was a textiles engineer from Bangkok, Thailand, who was traveling in the U.S. for six months, visiting friends and extended family. He asked her out on a date. She was sorry, she was leaving Maine the next day to live with a friend in Chicago, but he could drive her to the airport if he wanted to.
It must have been one car ride. A month later, over phone and email (her writing was fluent), they decided she should fly from Chicago back to Maine to go on another date. They went to a lighthouse. Then she cooked Thai for him in his condo. I can’t say how love made it’s way so quickly through the language barrier, but I can tell you that the red curry chicken Rattana made for me was good enough to merit some kind of proposal. Mine is “Cook for me again, Rattana?” His was slightly different.
Inside her pretty white china bowls with a periwinkle pattern of hexagons along the outside rim, the generous sauce around the rice is the lightest shade of pink, made not of dairy and tomatoes as in Indian curry, but light coconut milk, simmered with red chili curry base, eggplant, fish sauce, palm sugar, chicken, kaffir lime leaves and at the last minute, whole leaves of fresh basil. The triangles of eggplant (in my mind a texturally challenged vegetable) are somehow gracefully soft and yet full of structural integrity.
She showed me some tricks. Dunk whole basil leaves under the simmering coconut milk, and they don’t turn black, but an even brighter shade of green. She gets the ingredients from the Asian market at the intersection of Congress and St. John St., where the coconut milk is the right texture and sells for 79 cents a can (as opposed to $2 at the supermarket), and the red curry base is good (as opposed to “not good,” like the kind she tried from Shaws). She picks kaffir lime leaves, unavailable even at the Asian market, from a potted plant her Auntie sent her from Virginia, which has been flourishing, surprisingly, in her Maine dining room.
The taste of it all radiated in my mouth, into my belly and into my head with paradoxical rich openness. I look around: Rattana and Nick’s beautiful new house, built by the company he works for, is decorated with Buddha statues, gold-flecked Thai linens, and pictures of two lovebirds: on their second date in front of a Maine lighthouse, and then, three months later, in wedding gown and suit.

Thai Red Curry Chicken

Serves 4

1 c. white rice
1 can coconut milk (Chaokoh brand preferred)
1-2 Tbsp red curry base (Maesri brand preferred)
6 fresh kaffir lime leaves, sliced thinly
¾ small-medium eggplant, skin on, cut into 1/2” thick triangles
1 can Asian cultivated sliced bamboo shoots
1 lb. bite-sized raw chicken pieces
2 Tbsp palm sugar
15 basil leaves
2-3 Tbsp fish sauce (Squid brand preferred)
1 tsp salt

Cook rice as you would normally (in saucepan or rice cooker). Put coconut milk into medium saucepan on medium heat. Add curry base and stir until incorporated. Add kaffir lime leaves. When simmering, add chicken pieces, eggplant, bamboo shoots, palm sugar, fish sauce, 1 Tbsp water (if desired for thinning). Once chicken and eggplant are cooked, add 15 whole basil leaves, making sure to push each under the coconut milk. Add salt and more fish sauce to taste. Serve in bowl with lots of sauce over white rice.