Malaysia: Curry Paste Confidential

I’m going to tell you a secret no Western chef wants you to hear; Asians don’t make their own curry pastes. There, I’ve said it and I’m not going to take it back. It’s my blog and I’ll tell the truth if I want to. The notion that we Asians spend our time making wonderfully fragrant curry pastes from scratch is perhaps one of the most enduring culinary fallacies about The Far East, but the simple truth is we don’t. We, like rest of humanity, have busy lives and they are too short to be spent forever grinding away with a pestle and mortar, just to make a paste we can just as well buy ready-made from the local food market…or Tesco, yes you heard me right, Tesco.

Television chefs, in particular, seem to exalt the necessity of making your own curry paste and heaven forbid you suggest otherwise. I recall one famous British chef’s utter distain for such culinary shortcuts whilst filming a segment on Penang Fish Head Curry in Malaysia. The feisty young lady, who was demonstrating how to make this classic dish, unashamedly whipped out a pack of store-bought curry paste and duly added it to the curry. Mortified he asked her why she didn’t make her own, but I think her answer confounded him even further, “Heh? Who makes their own paste? Too busy. Everybody buys from the shop”. Undeterred, he pressed her further, “But wouldn’t it taste better if you made your own?”. Oblivious to his patronising tone, she replied, “No’lah, of course I’m using the best brand for you!”. He did not seem comforted by this; after all, this cavalier attitude towards authenticism just wouldn’t fly back in Cornwall! And anyhow, what did she really know about how Asian food should be prepared, in Asia…by actual Asians.

Now I’m not dissing freshly made curry pastes, far from it. They are utterly amazing and if you have the time (and the required ingredients) to make one then great, jolly good for you, but for the rest of us they are just not really practical or necessary. There are, of course, times you have to make your own, simply because there may not be a ready-made paste available, but this is out of necessity, not choice. Outside of Asia it is easy enough to find Thai or Indian pastes at your local supermarket, but looking to make a nice Sri Lankan curry? Best you get grinding…

Growing up in Malaysia, there was always a myriad of brands to choose from, but without doubt the best ready-made curry pastes were from the local produce market. As a child I would love going with my grandmother, Amah, to the market to get the ingredients for the night’s meal, and if curry was on the menu then we would always make a stop at her preferred curry paste vendor. We would pick our way through the market’s wet concrete aisles; pass the doomed squawking chickens, bypassing the acrid meat section, lingering by the perfumed blooms of the flower stalls; all the while bargaining and buying as we went. When we would eventually make it to the curry paste vendor he would ask us what type of curry we wanted to make, for how many people, hot or not? Our dining plans duly divulged and assessed, the vendor would set about his alchemy, combining various glistening pastes to produce the required finished article. It would be paste-perfection, but this was never in doubt – making curry paste was his life’s work and he did it well.

The curry Amah would dish up that night would, of course, be delicious but nobody ever attributed its success to the quality of the curry paste; great cooking isn’t always about your ingredients but rather what you do with them. I believe that it is far more important that you learn to make a curry well, rather than worry about the provenance of your curry’s paste. Amah was an incredible cook but she, like most good Asian home cooks, would never bother themselves with something as labourious as making their own curry pastes. Such things should rather be left to the professionals…and television chefs.

To discover delicious Malaysian recipes from The Muddled Pantry, please click here


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