I met the most feisty, lovely Thai woman when we were living on Okinawa. She had grown up the daughter of a good family, well-educated and cultured, with ladyboy bars and tattoo parlors as her backyard south of Bangkok. Even though she was barely 5 feet tall, she drove a tremendous van around the island to her shopping and lunch dates, and once she arrived there was no mistaking her presence. Always stylish wearing a huge smile and carrying a purse far larger than her person, oozing street-smarts and spunk.
I loved that her sense of humor was dry as a bone, her jokes raw as could be and it was most enjoyable that she told them with the drawn out vowels characteristic of a Thai speaker. She seemed to learn about all the best restaurants on the island faster than the rest of us because she somehow could read Japanese lips (even though she didn’t understand a lick of the spoken language) and it was on a lunch date adventure that she took me to a new curry house in our neighborhood and she taught me the distinct nature of Thai curry. A good Thai curry was hard to find in Japan, she said, because the Thai typically use a practical boatload of fresh herbs and ingredients in their fragrant curries. “Jaapaneese kari is too sweet. And not spicee. And is from packaage. Not even real kari. Das crap. Bat iss goood.” she said, using a big spoon so scoop up a mouthful of rice and brown curry (likely not from a package.)
We often had lunch dates when our husbands deployed and the company kept us occupied and accountable for each other. It was on such a lunch date that she inspired me to make curry myself at home, with ingredients that were being grown – literally – in our Japanese backyards. But it wasn’t until a frantic late night conversation that I learned about how not to actually cook the coconut milk (so that I didn’t lose moisture in the recipe.) I had all but burned my rice, was staring at a dry pan of over cooked carrots and rubbery chicken; I was absolutely surprised that something so easy had crumbled to the point of inedible in my hands, but she wasn’t – time, patience, and technique she said were the key to good curry. She says you needn’t have a lot of ingredients, but you want to just be around the pot so that you can smell the ingredients cooking – she said they would tell you when it was time to move on to the next step. This is not exactly a romantic culinary story but a true testament to how easy the process is since it literally translated over the phone and interpreted even in non-native tongues.
In this version of the curry, I use both freshly roasted pumpkin purée and roasted squash chunks. In the photo, above, you’ll see that I most recently used an acorn squash to make this curry but my favorite squashes here are butternut or kabocha. The recipe calls for you to pre-roast the squash (as I tend to have this on hand,) but you could use raw squash chunks as well – just toss them into the sauce pan to cook with the carrots and the potatoes. Likewise, I usually let the chicken cook in the coconut milk but you could bake or roast this ahead of time as well, then adding the coconut milk to the saucepan when you add the other liquids.