Thai Panang Fish Curry
Panang curry is my go-to whenever we order Thai food. It is spicy, rich, and slightly sweet, which really does it for me. For me, panang cannot be beat. But for years whenever I tried to make panang (or any other) Thai curry at home, which we often do, I was disappointed in the results. It was just never as flavorful as what I got from the restaurant. It took many rounds of pretty-good-but-not-great curry until I finally figured out the missing pieces. With a few simple additions, you can take your homemade Thai curry up to restaurant quality. But before we get into that secret flourish, let’s focus in a bit on panang curry.
What is the origin of Panang curry?
As with many dishes, there is some debate on the internet about the origins of Panang curry. One common claim is that it is actually from the island of Penang, off the Malaysian coast, which seems logical, given the similar pronunciation. But, once you dig a little bit deeper, you will find that the name panang is actually derived from phanaeng, and originated in central Thailand. The first mention of phanaeng curry is from a late 19th century cookbook and refers to a cross-legged cooking method for a whole chicken. In this traditional recipe, the chicken’s legs would be crossed so that it could be grilled upright and continually slathered in curry paste while cooking, then finished with coconut cream.
But what makes panang curry different from red curry?
Good question. Red curry and panang curry are very similar in appearance and do share many ingredients. The primary differences are that red curry tends to be slightly spicier, and panang curry includes ground peanuts, lending it a slightly sweeter flavor.
Can you make panang curry with store-bought curry paste?
If you want to get deep into a dish and make the very best curry, you should make it from scratch. However, you can still make a really excellent curry with store-bought paste. I typically buy Mae Ploy brand curry pastes. Not only is it a really nice and affordable brand, but it is actually the same stuff they used at our local Thai takeout place in Boulder.
For us, curry is often an easy weeknight meal, so we are disinclined to put in the extra effort to make our own curry paste. Plus, with the little flourish that I share at the end of this post, it will taste every bit as good as your favorite local Thai restaurant.
What protein should you use?
For this recipe, I chose to use cod fillets. Traditionally, panang curry is cooked with meat or poultry, but I think that the sweet and spicy curry is the perfect medium to gently poach a piece of fish. And for those of the vegetarian persuasion, tofu works great. Unfortunately for vegan folks out there, panang curry paste typically includes shrimp paste, as well as most others, so you’ll have to stick to yellow curry for now.
Enough already, what’s the secret flourish?
Alright, thanks for reading through all that other information. You’ve earned the trick. All you need to do to bridge the gap between okay, sort of bland, homemade curry and that magical restaurant-quality flavor is finish it with a few little additions. Adding a bit of peanut butter, fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, and fresh basil at the end, after the curry has been removed from heat, creates those last few layers of depth that really round things out and make this dish something special.
Panang Fish Curry
1 yellow onion cut to eighths and sliced thin
1 green bell pepper, sliced thin
1 red bell pepper, sliced thin
2 carrots, sliced thin
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp panang curry paste (use a good brand)
1 can coconut milk
½ cup water
2 kaffir lime leaves
1.5 lb. fish filets (tilapia, swai, cod, salmon, whatever really)
2 tbsp peanut butter
1 tbsp fish sauce
1.5 tsp sugar
2 tsp lime juice
2 tbsp basil, finely chopped
Sauté the vegetables over medium heat until slightly softened and fragrant. Add the curry paste and kaffir lime leaves, stir together, and allow to cook for another 2 minutes. Add the coconut milk, water, cover, and reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer for around 10 minutes, or until carrots are softened. Uncover, add the fish filets, and poach them for a few minutes until they are just cooked.
Remove the curry from heat and add the fish sauce, sugar, peanut butter, lime juice, and basil. Stir together well. And allow to cool for a few minutes before serving.
Serve over rice.