If it wasn’t the kilo of Parmesan cheese, it was probably the plastic bag full of dates, welded into a rugged block with crystalline syrup, from a market in Aleppo. Or perhaps it was the log of palm sugar wrapped in dried banana leaves, which I’d cradled while still warm after watching it made before my eyes in a Javanese village. Maybe the Balinese coconut syrup, darker than maple, its bottle festooned with palm trees and bearing a curious resemblance to tanning oil. If not that, it was surely the bundle of white asparagus, albino stalks tied together like a quiver of arrows, brought home from a market in the tiny town of Chablis.
I am fairly certain I flout customs regulations nearly every time I return to the UK. Nestled amongst the tea sets, tagines, silk kimonos, wooden geckos, throws, cushions, bowls and paintings that occupy a substantial portion of my return luggage are always some edible treasures, obscure items procured on a whim from a market that I’m already planning recipes for while still on the plane. Accompanying them are less tangible, but equally valuable, souvenirs: recipes, cooking inspiration, ingredient ideas. Musings about how I’m going to recreate that curry, those biscuits, that loaf of bread. Sometimes I don’t even need to travel further than my own city; if someone cooks or bakes me a particularly tasty dish, I’m diligent in making sure I can recreate it. When I ask you for your recipe, I’m not being polite. I actually want to make it myself. Soon. Tomorrow. Now, so I can have seconds.
Why, though, this compulsion to recreate? To chronicle, anatomise, deconstruct memories of food into their component parts so we can bring them together again, reassemble them in a familiar space, collate our mental souvenirs and render them tangible, tasteable, again? Surely it’s about more than the desire to eat something again because it tasted good. It’s as if by reaching out to those food memories, by reliving them, we also get to briefly occupy some past version of our selves, a version that is always slightly better. Bring some fish offcuts, white wine and saffron into your kitchen and you can, for an hour or so, step back into the sandaled feet of that girl who sat by the marina in the south of France already contemplating dessert. Track down a particular brand of rice noodle, dried shrimp and some peanuts and you temporarily cease to exist within the confines of a Yorkshire winter, and are instead curled over a bowl of steaming pad Thai on a small street somewhere, exhausted but thrilled, the flecks of mud on your ankles the only giveaway that, hours before, you’d been bathing elephants in a river.
I think we recreate dishes not just to replicate flavours, but to reach out to memories that are made real again, briefly, through the act of eating. A lovely meal out with friends. A trip halfway across the world. Dishes our loved ones used to make. It's not just the food we crave, but a return to the treasured past.
And, unashamedly, that’s what this recipe is about. I couldn’t tell you how it makes sense in my brain that smashing the coiled bulb of a piece of lemongrass or running a fingernail down the calyx of a chilli will make me, temporarily, that tourist in Thailand again, but by some curious logic I fool myself every time. Importantly, this curry is also the most luscious south east Asian dish I have ever made (or possibly tried)…but there is, too, an element of wanting to remake myself in the process of cooking, to become a traveller again with the act of tearing a lime leaf in two.
That said, I’m not entirely sure I want to be that girl again. Clad in the ubiquitous travelling harem pants that every traveller dons as soon as they enter south east Asia, covered in pulsating mosquito bites, the concept of mascara a mere memory, the concept of sweat definitely not, and channelling Hermione Granger by being the first one at her cooking class to know the names of the ingredients, practically jumping up and down with excitement at seeing a piece of galangal root and being cross when no one else could recognise a banana flower from three feet away…I think that girl is probably best left in Thailand. And history.
This recipe takes everything that is glorious about Thai curries – that luscious, sweet coconut creaminess balancing a barrage of citrus and spice – and combines it with the soft, collapsing succulence of a braised lamb shank. Have you ever wondered why your Thai cooking at home doesn’t taste as good as the real thing? It’s because you need to add about six times more sugar. I’m not joking. I once read in one of those scare-story articles about how sugar is essentially powdered Satan that we should not eat south east Asian cuisines because they often have a lot of sugar.
Which makes me want to show the author this dish, raise my eyebrows, hand them a fork and wait all of fifteen seconds for their willpower to disintegrate into a million granules that resemble the wicked substance itself.
This is as close as you will get, at home, to that Thai curry of your dreams – spicy, zesty, fresh, sweet, creamy, gloriously meaty and moreish. Add sugar until you think it’s just right, then add one more teaspoon. That’s how you make it the kind of dish you’ll dream about on the plane home and plan obsessively to recreate. No need for elephant harem pants or the smuggling of illicit edible substances through customs.
Braised lamb shanks in Thai red sweet coconut curry (serves 4):
- 4 lamb shanks
- 3-4 tbsp rapeseed or other flavourless oil
- 12 small or 6 large shallots, sliced
- 8 garlic cloves, sliced
- 2 lemongrass stalks, finely chopped
- 6 fresh Kaffir lime leaves, shredded
- 2 tsp ground turmeric
- 4 tbsp red curry paste (I use Mae Ploy brand)
- 400ml chicken stock
- 400ml full-fat coconut milk (from a tin)
- 4-8 tsp palm sugar or brown sugar (taste as you go)
- Fish sauce, to taste
- Juice of a lime
- Chopped coriander or Thai basil, to serve
- Lime wedges, to serve
Pre-heat the oven to 150C. In a large ovenproof casserole, brown the lamb shanks on all sides in half the oil. Remove the lamb, turn the heat down and add the rest of the oil. Sauté the shallots over a medium heat until golden and softening. 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 the coconut milk, and cook for another minute. Return the lamb shanks to the pan, trying to cover them as much as possible in the sauce (it doesn’t matter if some bits stick out, as you’ll turn them during cooking). Put on the lid and place in the oven for 3 hours, turning the lamb every hour or so to ensure it braises evenly.
After 3 hours, remove the dish from the oven. Place the shanks on a platter to rest. Put the casserole on the hob and simmer the sauce over a medium heat to reduce and thicken slightly – about 15 minutes. After this time, taste the sauce and add a splash of fish sauce if you want it a little saltier, then add the sugar, tasting as you go to ensure you get the right balance of salty and sweet – this is very much a matter of personal preference. Finish by adding the lime juice, and taste again to check the seasoning.
Serve the lamb shanks with the sauce poured over, garnished with lime wedges and a sprinkling of coriander or Thai basil leaves.