Thai-style Jungle Seitan Curry
Serves 3 to 4
Piquant and richly textured Thai curries are nearly standard weeknight takeout fare in many urban areas. Bathed in a silky broth, these satisfying curries taste complex but secretly can be a snap to make at home starting with a spin of the food processor and a medley of aromatic herbs and spices that go into making curry paste, the fresh and feisty heart of Thai curries.
Jungle curry may very well be my first love in the sprawling realm of Thai curries. Unlike most popular curries this one stands apart with two interesting twists: the absence of coconut milk for lighter dish and sharp herbal heat from brine-packed green peppercorns, the unripe fruit from the same plant that produces black and red peppercorns. Compared to the heaviness of coconut-based curries, jungle curry is a bracing broth, bathing an assortment of vegetables such as eggplant, green beans and in this jungle-animal friendly version, chewy seitan torn into bite-sized chunks. Homemade jungle curry is a favorite weeknight meal of mine this time of year: it’s a lighter but boldly spiced meal that will the kabosh on winter chills.
An ingredient sometimes encountered in this curry is the Thai or “apple” eggplant, a small round eggplant with a seedy, crunchy texture unlike the spongy western varieties. Apple eggplants may be hard to locate outside of ethnic groceries, therefore this recipe features more common soft Japanese eggplant plus zucchini, when lightly cooked toward the end of the curry’s simmer adds that certain succulent crunch and fresh flavor not unlike Thai eggplants.
Jasmine rice or steamed sticky rice is classic choices to accompany this curry. Or get unconventional and serve it with Indian-style roti bread, long grain basmati rice or red Bhutanese rice. Jungle curry is irresistible freshly prepared but save some for lunch the next day; the flavors will continue to meld overnight and be further enhanced the next day.
Look for green peppercorns packed in brine either in jars or small tins; occasionally the peppercorns will still be on the stem, just pluck them off or toss in an additional whole stem into the curry as it simmers (there’s no substitute for the green peppercorns, so make sure to find these before anything else!). Kaffir lime leaves can be found fresh or frozen and have a tropical lime aroma; or substitute with a 1/2 inch wide piece of lime peel. Spicy Thai basil is preferred but regular fresh basil leaves are okay in a pinch.
The green peppercorns and hot chilies are generously measured for spicy food aficionados, but if you prefer to play it mild instead of wild reduce the peppercorns to 1 tablespoon and chilies to just 1 pepper (or leave it out entirely). Any food processor will make grinding the curry paste a breeze, though if you’re industrious and want to build some upper body muscles use a mortar and pestle for a rustic curry paste.
- 2 tablespoons brine-packed green peppercorns, drained and any stems removed
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled
- 3 large shallots, peeled
- 1 inch cube fresh ginger or galangal root, peeled (try scraping with a spoon to peel)
- 6 inch stalk fresh lemongrass or 2 teaspoons dried lemongrass
- 1-3 fresh, thin hot chili peppers such as Thai or red Serrano, stems removed
- 3/4 teaspoon sea salt
Vegetables for the curry:
- 2 tablespoons unrefined coconut, peanut or grapeseed oil
- 8 ounces prepared seitan, cubed or torn into shreds
- 1 small Japanese eggplant
- 2 1/4 cups mild vegetable broth (avoid heavy, cabbage-tasting broths)
- 1 rounded brown sugar
- 4 teaspoons fresh lime juice
- 4 Kaffir lime leaves
- 1/2 lb. green beans
- 1 small zucchini
- 1 cup coarsely chopped cilantro leaves
- 1/2 cup Thai basil leaves, coarsely chopped
1. Make the curry paste first: in a food processor blend peppercorns, garlic, shallots, peeled ginger, fresh or dried lemongrass, chili peppers and sea salt. Process until a smooth paste forms, scraping the sides of the bowl often with a rubber spatula.
2. Trim ends of eggplant and zucchini and slice both on a diagonal into 1/2 wide slices. Trim ends of green beans. In a heavy 2 quart pot (enameled cast iron or stainless steel is best), heat coconut oil over medium high heat. Stir in curry paste and fry for 1 minute, then add seitan and fry for another 3 minutes. Add eggplant and fry, stirring occasionally for 4-5 minutes until slightly softened. Add broth, stir in brown sugar, lime juice, Kaffir lime leaves and green beans. Bring mixture to a boil, reduce heat, partially cover the pot and gently simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in zucchini and simmer for another 8-10 minutes or until zucchini is somewhat tender but still firm and bright green. Remove from heat, stir in cilantro and chopped basil. Let cool for 10 minutes then serve with hot jasmine rice.