I learned the hard way what a habanero pepper looks like. It was almost six years ago, and less than a year into a new relationship with my current partner. At the time, I didn't cook anything requiring more than three ingredients or fat grams. But armed with a new cookbook and sudden inspiration to make dinner for two, I browsed the produce section of a large grocer for the small red and green Thai chilies I would need for a Thai green curry. After picking my jalapeños, only serrano and habanero peppers remained on the shelf, and I recognized the serrano. I might've chosen the devil I knew. According to the Scoville scale, which measures these things, the hottest Thai chili—better known as bird's eye chili—can be as hot as the mildest habanero. I didn't have that kind of luck, and even so, bird's eye chilies are smaller. I remember looking at the habanero and thinking, "Surely these are fine." I bought a dozen.
The surprise here isn't that the dish was painfully hot, though it certainly was. The story begins in the seconds that came after the first forkful and before the pain kicked in. It was in those seconds that we discovered that the dish was completely delicious. My boyfriend, the fast-food junkie, looked at me with new respect. Our small, shabby kitchen had produced—slowly, with nothing but a paring knife—food that we'd previously had only at restaurants.
It was too good to be true. The moment of elation was followed by half an hour of sniffing, cursing, and long minutes between bites. It was impossible to eat, but we wouldn't stop. There was hard breathing, slow chewing, and not much conversation. Every silly, vulgar name of every hot sauce was etched on our tongues in capsaicin. My fingertips, all of them, ached for hours, since I didn't wear gloves while chopping. It would've been one thing to suffer through this on a dare at a restaurant, but I was only trying to make dinner. Yet there was a surprisingly small amount of food remaining when it was finally time to admit defeat.
That Thai green curry sparked my interest in food. Cooking is now my hobby, the only skill I've devoted myself to developing. I'm a born quitter, but found cooking forgiving. There's always the option of blaming the recipe, fairly or not. Likewise, a good recipe can make you a good cook, at least for a day. My mess of a Thai green curry was promising, something I considered unquestionably within reach, if only I hadn't grabbed the wrong pepper. It turned out to be more complicated.
I've attempted a slightly different Thai green curry at least once every few months for the last six years. What's more, I've never sought out a different recipe. This is as much about my boyfriend's love of the dish as it is about me finally getting it right, whatever that tastes like. If I ever did, I expect relief might override whatever pleasure there would be in the tasting. I'd like to think this whole thing has inspired a streak of perseverance to counter my habit of being easily discouraged. More likely, it's a lesson about the unreliability of memory and the impossibility of flooring a better trained palate in the way I was able to impress our totally ignorant ones half a dozen years ago. But neither of us seems to be giving up the idea that it is, in fact, possible, maybe inevitable. I guess the one thing searching for my Thai green curry has taught me is that even after living together for six years, if I just aim high enough on the Scoville scale, I can still make my boyfriend cry.
Even if I can't make a shockingly good curry, I can still make a good one. They all have a reasonable kick, about a 3.5 on the Thai restaurant scale. My green curry paste will always contain habaneros, because I'm sure I'll never find my perfect curry without them. This summer, I made the final dish with black beans and carrots, two of cilantro's best friends, but it's easy to substitute any vegetables and protein you like. Lord knows I have.
Amanda Mohney blogs about food at Market Street Vegan, marketstreetvegan.com.
Good Enough Thai Green Curry, Summer 2013
1 14-oz. can full-fat coconut milk, divided
1/3 cup Green Curry Paste, recipe follows
1 15-oz. can black beans
¾ lb. (about 5 large) carrots, peeled, trimmed, and cut into 2-inch long x ¼-inch wide baton
2 tsp. brown sugar
1 Tbsp. low-sodium tamari
1 tsp. lime zest
¼ cup loosely packed Thai basil leaves
A few red Thai chilies, to taste, thinly sliced
Pour ½ cup coconut milk into a large skillet over medium heat. Once it boils, reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer undisturbed for five minutes. Stir in curry paste and cook, stirring occasionally, until darker and fragrant, three minutes. Meanwhile, transfer the black beans to a colander or sieve, rinse well, and set aside to drain.
Add carrot strips to the skillet, stir to coat, and add remaining coconut milk. Add sugar, tamari, and lime zest. Stir, cover, and cook over low heat until carrots are tender but still firm, seven-10 minutes. Adjust seasoning.
Add drained beans, basil, and chilies. Cook, uncovered, another three minutes, until warmed through. Serve with rice.
Green Curry Paste
Yield: 1 1/3 cups
1 Tbsp. ground coriander
1 Tbsp. ground cumin
3 stalks lemongrass, trimmed and sliced
¼ cup tightly packed cilantro
3 large jalapeños (4 oz.), stemmed, seeded, and roughly chopped
5 green Thai chilies (1/2 oz.), stemmed
2 habanero peppers (1 oz.), stemmed and seeded
2 shallots (2 oz.), peeled and roughly chopped
1 medium head garlic (eight-10 cloves, generous 1 oz.), peeled and roughly chopped
2 x 1-inch piece galangal (generous 1 oz.), peeled and roughly chopped
1 umeboshi, pitted and minced
3 Tbsp. peanut oil
Puree all ingredients into a paste.