Depending on where you are in the world, people mean different things when they say “curry.” The word “curry” is from Tamil, basically meaning “sauce.” Indian “curries” may or may not actually have much in the way of sauce, but often use a blend of spices that is sometimes called curry powder that may or may not contain some combination of coriander, cumin and tumeric. Usually spicy bits like fresh or dried peppers are added separately. In Japan, the stuff they call curry is largely a disgusting brown goo draped over meats on rice. It is related to Indian curry in the same way that Corey Feldman and Sir Alec Guiness are both actors.
And then there’s Thai curry, the subject of this particular post. In a Thai restaurant, when you order a curry you can usually expect to receive some combination of ingredients with a savory sauce. The sauce is made from a curry paste and liquids that might include coconut milk, stock, fish sauce, soy sauce and assorted other goodies. There are a few staples, including yellow curry, green curry, red curry, Massaman curry and Panang curry. Their difference is less about the things that get “curried” (although Massaman usually has sweet potatoes or some kind of starch) and more about what’s in the paste. We like all these kinds, but we are partial to red curry. It’s usually more spicy than the others (with the exception of Panang) and tastes richer to me somehow. So we wanted to see where Montgomery’s best red curry might be. And we went on a lunch adventure.
First stop: Lek’s Railroad Thai. It’s a nice spot, for sure – used to be the main place we’d go for vegetarian food here in Montgomery before we lived here. The decor is nice, the train station is pretty awesome, and it’s easily walkable from downtown. Plus they are really fast at serving what can be a very substantial lunch crowd (even though they may be the only restaurant in town without an obvious system to distinguish between the sweet and unsweet tea and tea pitchers). The lunch specials include a spring roll (pretty good), some soup (didn’t eat it, full of chicken), and your choice of a few items. The red curry costs a few dollars extra for tofu, which is pretty wack – it’s not like you’re getting shrimp or something, but it comes out fast. But it’s just not very good. You get a generous set of tofu pieces, cooked to a medium consistency, topped with a smattering of bell peppers, with a scoop of rice and a fan of cucumber slices. Over the tofu, the curry tastes cloying yet thin, like some canned coconut milk that heard a rumor of curry nearby but only got a passing whiff. It’s lacking all of the depth and flavor of Thai food, coming closer to the overly sweet Americanized “Chinese” food that they serve at horrible places like Ming’s Garden.
Next stop: Ala Thai (Midtown). There are two Ala Thais, but we only really go to this one because it’s closer to our house and reachable for a work lunch. Like Lek’s they can rock a slammed restaurant for lunch. We’ve rolled in with huge parties and gotten out with fabulous food and good service in shockingly good time. There’s lots of good stuff on the menu, and they’ll make it as hot as you want. This particular day, though, we were only interested in the red curry. Which did not cost extra for tofu but which came with either noodles or rice. We chose the rice. When the curry arrived you could have smelled it all the way over in the Shoe Circus, or whatever other awful stores they have in that mega-complex. It was spicy and sweet and deeply flavored, generously soaking in a lot of sauce that ended up merging perfectly with rice progressively ladled into the bowl. There were a number of vegetables, but not so much that it detracted from the perfectly cooked tofu.
Third stop: Green Papaya. We have been meaning to go here for the three years we’ve lived in Montgomery. Now we’ve gone, we’re not sure when or if we’ll be back. The red curry is basically a bunch of deep fried tofu mixed with what seems like pre-bagged veggie stir fry mix (you know, little slivers of red pepper, tiny broccoli florettes, flat and vaguely scalloped carrot wedges). It is not especially savory or unique, making up for flavor by using a full-fat coconut milk. At least the “medium” is spicy (at Lek’s, “medium” seems to mean “insipid), and the the “hot” is sweat-inducingly hot. But it’s generic, and boring, and, well…you could do much better on your own.
Speaking of on your own, I want to say how easy it is to make your own red curry at home. You don’t need to make your own red curry paste from scratch (though I have, and it isn’t hard) – the Taste of Thai stuff they have in the little jars in the “Asian” section at Publix will do perfectly well. I do mine in a wok, but you could just use a big saucepan. With tofu, you press it first, slice it thin, and brown it in a little oil (I like peanut). Take it out and keep reserved. Then a little more peanut oil, and fry several teaspoons of the red curry paste till you can really smell it. Add in onions and whatever veggies you’re going to use. Then coconut milk (I like the light stuff) and some stock, depending on how soupy you want it to be. Add in equal parts brown sugar, fish sauce (there’s some vegan options for this, or you can just omit) and soy sauce. You may want more soy sauce after. Cook it down. The end. Good with some lime juice squeezed at the table and maybe some toasted peanuts to top.