This is one of the great curries of northern Thailand. Gaeng means curry in Thai and hang lay in Burmese a kind of pork curry. This gives you an inkling of the cultural fusion that shaped this dish’s introduction into northern Thai cooking, particularly here in Chiang Mai.
A little back story is helpful in grasping the close cultural and geographical links in the north and how this dish evolved. Chiang Mai was founded on the banks of the Mae Ping river by King Mengrai in 1296. The northern regions, including Burma, what is now northern Thailand, and Laos were loosely bound together culturally in various kingdoms that were eventually brought together into the Lanna Kingdom in the 15th century. The alliance was disbanded in in 1775 and the northern provinces bordering Siam were eventually annexed to the Kingdom of Siam in 1892, along with the north’s indelible cultural links to its past in tact.
King Mengrai’s foresight was fortuitous. The Mae Ping river flows south into the Chao Phraya river which flows through what is now Bangkok and into gulf of Thailand. This positioned the northern city of Chiang Mai as a major northern trading center and port for goods shipped to and from the north to the gulf. The brisk commerce in the city grew over the centuries and attracted merchants from the Middle East and India who traveled overland through Burma and settle and set up businesses in the city. Along with them came their own culinary traditions as well as spices, herbs, and seasonings such as turmeric, cardamom, and cumin, that were unknown in the region, but slowly embraced and introduced into northern cooking.
From the mid 1800’s to the early 1900’s the teak industry flourished in Burma and the northern provinces of Siam with an influx of ethnic Thai Yai laborers from the Shan region of northern Burma, who settled in and around Chiang Mai. Their culinary traditions also imparted their influences on northern cooking. The Burmese wet tha hin lay curry, which northern Thai cooks adapted to their own tastes and called it Gaeng Hang Lay. Best described as a rich slow cooked pork stew that is spicy hot, sweet, sour, and salty with a melding of flavors and aromas that reflect its evolution.. Gaeng Hang Lay, along with a similarly influenced dish called Khao Soy (see here), are now two of northern Thailand’s most famous dishes.
There are as many variations of this dish as there are recipes. The Gaeng Hang Lay recipe that follows is a traditional northern Thai version to which you can adjust seasonings to your own liking once you get a feel for its nuanced balance of flavors.
Curry in a hurry this is not, but well worth the effort!
There are several ingredients and preparations that may be unfamiliar, but they will be explained as you proceed through the recipe. I have broken the recipe down into two parts; preparing the base curry paste, which is an essential part of many Thai dishes, and the cooking of the dish itself. It really is not as complicated as it appears, so relax, enjoy the process, and you will be richly rewarded with one of the most tantalizing dishes of northern Thailand.
Traditionally, the dish is prepared the day before serving to allow the flavors to develop, so it is an ideal dish for larger gatherings with minimal last minute preparations.
Before you begin: A few things to consider.
Granite mortar and pestle. A mainstay of of Southeast Asian cooking. If you don’t have one, go out and get one! A 5 inch interior diameter will accommodate most recipes nicely. Available at Asian markets. Unlike a food processor which shreds ingredients, using a mortar and pestle melds and emulsifies the flavors of the ingredients. There really is no comparison, and although a little more effort and persistence is involved, the results are far superior.
A helpful tip! Mincing ingredients will make the grinding process much easier.
Chilies? The chilies used in Thai cooking are generally intensely hot. The dried red chilies used in this recipe are about 3 inches in length and score high on the scoville scale of spicy heat intensity. In this case size matters; smaller is hotter, so select your chilies accordingly. You may want to use disposable plastic gloves if you are skin sensitive to capsaicin residue.
Tamarind water? Easy to make.
- 4 oz tamarind with seeds or seedless tamarind paste (available at Asian markets)
- water to cover, about 2 cups.
Place the tamarind in a saucepan and add the water. Set over medium heat and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. The liquid will thicken slightly. Set aside to cool. Transfer the contents of the pan to a fine mesh strainer and strain the liquid into a bowl while using a silicone spoon to press the tamarind against the side of the strainer to extract all the flavor from the pulp. Set the tamarind water aside to cool and discard the pulp.
Ma-khwaen? This is a local ingredient; sometimes called prickly ash. It resembles Szechuan pepper, but with only very slight heat. The aroma is woodsy earthy and the flavor is slightly resinous with a citrus overtone. You may find it in a Thai market. Otherwise omit, as there is no substitute.
All the remaining ingredients should be available in Asian markets.
Thai Red Curry Paste: makes about 1 cup (5 ½ oz)
This is fiery stuff, so plan accordingly. If your heat tolerance is low reduce the quantity of chilies.
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds, toasted
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted
- 1/3 teaspoon white peppercorns, toasted
- 1 ½ teaspoons coarse sea salt
- 6 to 12 small dried red chilies, seeded, soaked in hot water to soften, and minced
- 4 lemongrass stalks, tender inner parts only, minced/6 tablespoons
- 1 ½ ounces Asian red shallots, minced/ 4 tablespoons
- 1 ¼ ounces garlic, peeled and minced/3 tablespoons
- ½ ounce galangal, peeled and minced/2 tablespoons
- 2 teaspoons kaffir lime zest (or lime zest)
- 4 kaffir lime leaves, center rib removed and finely minced
- 1 tablespoon Thai shrimp paste, wrapped in banana leaf or foil, and toasted
Toast the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, white peppercorns, and salt over low heat until the coriander seeds begin to pop and the aroma of the cumin seeds mellows, about 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to the mortar and grind them until they are pulverized.
Slice open the dried chilies lengthwise and remove all the seeds. Place the chiles in a pan with just enough water to cover and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and let the chiles soak until cool. Remove from the pan and squeeze out the water. Mince the chilies and add them to the mortar along with the lemongrass, shallots, garlic, galangal, kaffir lime zest, and kaffir lime leaves.
Begin grinding the ingredients together, working from the center and pulling the ingredients up the sides of the mortar while grinding in a clockwise direction. Push the ingredients down into the center of the mortar and pound them together. Keep repeating this pattern until the ingredients are emulsified and the paste is relatively smooth. This will take about 15 minutes. Feel free to take a break now and again. It is a bit of a workout!
Once the paste is relatively smooth, wrap the shrimp paste into a banana leaf or foil packet and toast in a dry pan for about a minute on each side. This will soften the shrimp paste and intensify the flavor. Scrape the shrimp paste into the mortar and work it into the paste for about 2 minutes. You want to be sure it is completely incorporated.
Transfer the paste to a jar, seal with the lid, and set aside, or refrigerate for later use.
You will have more paste than you will need for the recipe. The remaining paste can be frozen for use another time.
Prepare the day before serving.
Gaeng Hang Lay Moo Serves 6
- 2 tablespoons coconut or cold pressed peanut oil
- 5 tablespoons prepared Thai red chile paste ( or more if you want to increase the heat)
- ¼ cup thinly sliced red Asian shallots
- 3 tablespoons minced garlic
- 2 tablespoons freshly grated turmeric root (or 1 tablespoon powdered)
- 1 teaspoon Indian curry powder (optional)
- 2.2 pounds pork shoulder cut into rectangular pieces
- 3 to 4 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
- 2 tablespoon dark sweet soy sauce
- 1 ¼ oz palm sugar/ 4 tablespoons (or light brown sugar)
- ¾ cup + 3 tablespoons tamarind water
- 4 cups water + about 1 cup more as needed
- 1 ½ teaspoons ma-khwaen (if available)
- ¼ cup peeled thinly sliced ginger cut into thin 1 inch matchsticks
- 20 pickled garlic cloves (available at Asian markets), rinsed (optional)
- 20oz sweet potatoes, golden potatoes, or taro root; peeled and cut into small bite size cubes, steamed al dente
- 8 oz long beans cut into 2 inch lengths, steamed al dente
- sea salt to taste
- fried shallots (available in Asian markets or fry your own)
- fresh coriander sprigs
Heat the oil in a large heavy bottomed pot set over medium heat. When the oil is hot add the prepared Thai red curry paste. Stir to break it up and cook until the paste is fragrant and a slightly deeper red; about 3 minutes. Stir in the shallots and garlic and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the turmeric and curry powder, stirring it into the mixture.
Add the pork to the pot and toss with the ingredients until evenly coated. Then stir in the fish sauce and dark soy sauce, coating the pork evenly. Stir in the palm sugar and continue stirring until the sugar is melted. Turn up the heat a bit and add the tamarind water, stirring everything together until well combined. Then add 4 cups of water and stir. Once the liquid begins to boil, lower the heat until just barely simmering. Stir in the ma-khwaen (if using) and cover the pot with a lid. Cook for 1 hour stirring now and again and adjusting the temperature to keep the liquid at a very low simmer.
Remove the lid and stir in the ginger. The broth will have reduced some what but it should still be soupy. If not add another cup of water. Continue to cook partially covered at a low simmer for about 45 minutes, stirring from time to time. Check the pork for tenderness, keeping in mind it should not be falling apart, but very tender. Skim off most of the fat that has risen to the surface, leaving a little fat to add some flavor to the broth.
Stir in the pickled garlic and steamed sweet potatoes (golden potatoes, or taro root) and cook 10 minutes, or until the potatoes have softened. Add the steamed long beans and cook 2 minutes.
Remove the pot from the heat and let it cool down a bit before tasting. There should be a balance of flavors. Adjust the balance to your liking, including salt if needed, and set aside to cool to room temperature. Cover the pot and refrigerate until the following day, bringing it back to room temperature before reheating and serving.
Reheat slowly, stirring from time to time until just simmering. Taste and make any final adjustments.
Choose individual shallow soup bowls for serving. Spoon the Gaeng Hang Lay into the bowls to one side with plenty of both. Top with fried shallots and sprigs of fresh coriander leaves. Spoon a portion of Thai jasmine rice, or the more traditional sticky rice, into the bowl and serve.
Suggested: Serve with peeled sliced cucumbers, sliced radishes and mint leaves tossed with a squeeze of fresh lime juice.