Why It Works
- A coarsely pounded paste gives the curry an assertive aromatic punch.
- Pla ra, a sauce made from fermented freshwater fish, adds intense savoriness with a hint of sweetness
- The sweetness in the pla ra is complemented by the nuttiness of toasted-rice powder.
- Cooking vegetables in stages ensures they don’t overcook.
- Stirring in a generous amount of fresh dill off-heat gives the curry its signature refreshing aroma.
The cuisine of Isan, the northeastern region of Thailand that borders Laos and Cambodia, has become more popular outside of Thailand in recent years, thanks to dishes like the papaya salads known as som tum and fiery, minced-meat salads known as laab (or “larb,” as you often see it written on menus and online).
These are iconic dishes and are well worth celebrating, but there are also plenty of other lesser-known but equally outstanding regional specialties that deserve attention, like this bright curry loaded with fresh herbs and vegetables, which I like to think of as the perfect chicken soup.
Unlike rich gaeng khiao waan gai or gaeng massaman neua, both of which are made with coconut milk, gaeng om gai is a much lighter, water-based curry that highlights the refreshing qualities of its components. The tender-crisp bite of cabbage, yu choy, and Thai apple eggplants; the tender pieces of chicken; the savory funk of fish sauce and pla ra, a thick, murky, fish sauce made from fermented freshwater fish; the cooling aroma and flavor of fresh dill; and the aromatic punch and chile heat of a coarsely pounded curry paste.
If you’re not familiar with Thai cuisine’s diversity, gaeng om may seem a little odd. Like most Isan dishes, it doesn’t offer you the familiar comforts of palm sugar or coconut milk, and in fact it’s more representative of a traditional gaeng (curry) from centuries in the past. Its sauce is is a combination of three key elements: a coarsely textured aromatic paste, water or stock, and pla ra.
While nam pla, the fish sauce that has become a staple in kitchens all over the world, is made from anchovies and salt, pla ra is made from freshwater fish, khao khua (roasted-rice powder), and salt. It has a more intense funkiness than nam pla, and a subtle sweetness; even in Thailand, pla ra is considered an acquired taste.
The coarsely pounded paste is another element of the recipe that may require you to throw away preconceived notions of how Thai curries are made. Unlike the finely textured paste used in dishes like panang curry, gaeng om uses a coarsely pounded paste, similar to something you might make for a stir fry: chiles, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, and makrut lime leaves are crushed in a mortar and pestle, but just until they’ve release their natural oils and fragrance.
Once the paste is prepared, you fry it with the chicken pieces until it smells amazing, and then you loosen it with chicken stock and bring the sauce to a simmer. You then add vegetables in stages, to cook them through without sacrificing their crisp bite, and a healthy pinch of khao khua helps to thicken the broth while also adding some nutty, toasty notes. Finally, off-heat, you add some more makrut lime leaves, green onions, and dill; adding these elements right at the end and reducing the temperature maintains the freshness of the herbs and allows their flavors to infuse the sauce slowly, similar to making a tea.
If you want to experiment by adding other ingredients to this curry, here are a few suggestions that I think are appropriate for its flavor profile. You can switch the protein up by using pork or fish; you can use other vegetables, like pumpkin, long beans, or mushrooms. You can also use other herbs: culantro (sawtooth coriander) and sweet (a.k.a. Thai) basil work very well in the curry, as does Thai lemon basil (bai maenglak), if you can find it. (While Thai lemon basil is traditionally included in this dish, it’s seasonal and hard to come by in the US, so I chose to omit it from the ingredient list.)
Once prepared, this curry pairs perfectly with Thai sticky rice.