A couple of months ago, my boyfriend and I visited Oxford. It’s only the second time I’ve been back since finishing my Masters in 2011. The entire weekend was a glorious succession of sunshine, revisiting old haunts, catching up with friends, aching nostalgia, beautiful scenery and incredible food. While I diligently tried to return to as many of my favourite restaurants as possible, I also decided to try somewhere new. I’d read rave reviews on the internet of a place simply termed ‘Oli’s Thai’, and so we found ourselves tucked into this tiny restaurant on a sunny Saturday afternoon experiencing some of the best south east Asian food I’ve ever eaten…including that in south east Asia itself.
This isn’t a restaurant review, though – you’ll have to look elsewhere on the internet for that; or, better still, get yourself down to Oli’s Thai and stuff your face with the incredible hot hot hot papaya salad, the zingy pad thai, the delicate lemongrass beef…and the panang confit duck curry, which is what I want to talk to you about right now.
Imagine the most luscious, sweet, thick, creamy coconut sauce you could possibly encounter. Imagine it fragranced with those zesty, heady ingredients that make Thai food so moreish: lemongrass, lime leaves, galangal, chillies, fish sauce. Imagine its gentle assault on your tongue as it sends sharp explosions of chilli heat racing around your tastebuds before softening its blow with the sweet balm of coconut and palm sugar.
But then, here’s the bit that might just make you swoon: imagine that sauce of dreams draped luxuriantly around the tenderest, meatiest, richest slow-cooked confit duck leg you could ever ask for, its crispy skin splitting in shards under the gentle pressure of a fork to yield melting, butter-soft shreds of succulent meat.
It was, genuinely, the best south east Asian curry I’ve ever encountered. I never expected something eaten in Oxford to knock Cambodian amok or Indonesian jackfruit gulai off the top spots, but there you go, such is the joy of our modern cosmopolitan food culture. We almost licked the plate clean; every last shred of sauce and meat was assiduously mopped up with fluffy forkfuls of rice (and the odd fingertip…ssh) and we spent the rest of the weekend reminiscing about it. It was promptly termed ‘delicious duck curry’, and has remained thus ever since in our minds.
Last week, I tried to recreate this beauty of a dish in my own kitchen. Few cooking experiences have satisfied me as much as the loving preparation that went into it. I rubbed salt and pepper into the duck legs and left them for a day, so that the moisture would be drawn out resulting in a crispier leg. I browned them in a hot pan, until they started to release their delicious fat, before cooking them in the oven for two hours until tender and so crispy the skin sounded hard under the tap of a knife. I could have confited them properly, in duck fat, I suppose, but I couldn’t be bothered and I didn’t want to end up with something horribly fatty. This worked just fine.
I sautéed slivers of shallots in rapeseed oil until golden, adding garlic, fresh lemongrass, shredded lime leaves, and then turmeric and Thai red curry paste (I didn’t make this myself, but I used the Mae Ploy brand, which I spied piled up on the shelves in Oli’s Thai, so I figured it was an acceptable substitute). Next, chicken stock and coconut milk: the thick, creamy, full-fat kind is essential to get that mouth-coating deliciousness. Finally, a splash of fish sauce to season, the juice of half a lime, and more sugar than you’d really think possible in a savoury dish. I used palm sugar that I brought back from Cambodia a couple of years ago, probably around 3 tsp. It’s essential for that moreish, tempering sweetness.
After the duck had rested, I poured this glorious thick, creamy, fragrant sauce over the top, sprinkled with coriander (although I’ll use Thai basil next time, as the stuff I planted a few weeks ago is nearly big enough to use) and served it alongside a bowl of fluffy rice and some stir-fried pineapple with garlic, ginger, chilli and greens (see
for recipe). The pineapple is excellent alongside the meaty duck, enveloped in that gorgeous sauce.
It may be a few weeks since I tried the original ‘delicious duck curry’, but I genuinely think this is just as incredible. For me, it has the perfect balance of hot/sweet/sour/salty, all wrapped up in that luscious creamy coconut sauce. Better yet, it is really easy to make and you don’t need any fancy ingredients; you can get all of this in major supermarkets or Asian grocers. If you’re vegetarian, I reckon the sauce would be great with some pan-fried tofu or roasted aubergines. If you’re not, enjoy the amazing pairing of sweet, fragrant coconut with crispy, rich duck. If I had to make a ‘top 10’ of recipes from this blog, this would be up there in the first three. It’s amazing and I am super-proud of it. Make it.
‘Delicious duck curry’ (serves 4):
- 4 duck legs
- 2 tbsp salt
- 3 tbsp rapeseed oil
- 6 shallots, sliced
- 4 garlic cloves, sliced
- 1 lemongrass stalk, finely chopped
- 3 fresh lime leaves, shredded
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 2 tbsp red curry paste (I use Mae Ploy brand)
- 200ml chicken stock
- 400ml full-fat coconut milk
- 3 tsp palm sugar or brown sugar
- Fish sauce, to taste
- Juice of half a lime
- 4 tbsp chopped coriander or Thai basil
- Lime wedges, to serve
First, prepare the duck. The night before, or the morning you want to make the curry, rub the salt into the duck legs and place in the fridge for as long as possible. Two hours before you want to eat, pre-heat the oven to 190C. Rinse the duck and dry well on kitchen paper. Get an ovenproof frying pan very hot, then brown the duck on all sides – take your time over this, you want it to be quite crispy and release some of its fat. Put the duck in the pan, skin side up, in the oven, covered with foil. Then cook for an hour and 30 minutes. Remove the foil and cook for another 30 minutes, then leave to rest.
Meanwhile, make the sauce. Heat the oil in a large frying pan and sauté the shallots over a medium heat until golden. Add the garlic, lemongrass and lime leaves and sauté for another couple of minutes. Add the turmeric and curry paste, and cook for another couple of minutes until all is fragrant.
Add the stock and coconut milk, then cook gently for around 15 minutes until thick and creamy. Add the sugar and then the fish sauce (taste as you go – depending on the brand of chicken stock you use, it might be quite salty already) and lime juice. Taste and check for seasoning – you might want it a bit sweeter or saltier. Finally, add the herbs.
To serve, spoon the sauce over the duck legs. Serve with rice, lime to squeeze over, and – if you like – cubes of fresh pineapple stir-fried with some chopped garlic, chilli, ginger and greens (see here for recipe).