Nohpa Gaao Sour Curry Gaaeng Nohp Pha Gaao
nohpa gaao (แกงนพเก้า) – an aristocratic sour curry of nine ingredients, infused with the delicate fragrance of Asoka tree flowers that evoke the Royal Gardens – is truly a reflection of life inside the palace walls.
Part 1 – Article
Nohpa Gaao Sour Curry
(c1908) ‘Maae Khruaa Huaa Bpaa’ by Lady Plean Passakornrawong
แกงนพเก้า แม่ครัวหัวป่าก์ โดย ท่านผู้หญิงเปลี่ยน ภาสกรวงศ์ พ.ศ. 2451
gaaeng nohp pha gaao
Nohpa gaao – an aristocratic sour curry of nine ingredients, infused with the delicate fragrance of Asoka tree flowers that evoke the Royal Gardens – is truly a reflection of life inside the palace walls.
Personal care, embellishment, and beautification were a constant occupation for the ladies of the court. Dressed in outfits tailored from the finest fabrics, they nourished their skin with the rarest and most expensive powders, tinctures, and balms. They bathed in scented waters and surrounded themselves with the ambrosial fragrances of lush perfumes.
Members of the Royalty and the Nobility wear silver and gold jewelry set with precious gemstones as decoration, as well as a reflection of their hierarchy and status. The wearers of these gemstones are said to benefit from the stones’ spiritual energies.
Especially powerful is a piece of jewelry set with nine auspicious gems. Called nohpa gaao, donning this piece during important ceremonials promised its wearer increased power and control, as well as enhanced charisma, expanded wealth and fortune, and greater respect from others. In addition, wearing the piece allegedly increased longevity, induced happiness and a good mood, offered a shield from danger and protection from attacks by dangerous animals, and guarded health, while also providing immunity from harmful diseases.
Words in the Thai language are single syllable, with new compound words created by combining two words to reflect a different meaning. Both nohp and gaao mean the number nine – a number that phonetically sounds like the Thai word for progress (ก้าว vs. เก้า) and symbolizes growth and longevity. As a combined word, nohpa gaao accentuates the symbolic meaning of the number to an auspicious magnitude with mystical properties.
In the classical Siamese culinary repertoire, there are a couple of dishes called nohpa gaao. To cook them artistically, one cannot merely add nine random ingredients but must be sensitive and aware of the subtle traits and the touch of grace that permeate the dish’s layers like veins of gold flowing under the ground.
We will examine and interpret the nohpa gaao sour curry recipe of Lady Plean Passakornrawong, as recorded in her culinary bible of classical Siamese cookery “Maae Khruaa Huaa Bpaa (MKHP)”, written in 1908.
The curry paste
A glance is enough to understand that the paste composition offers an ordinary starting point for this multiplayer curry. It is made of dried chilies, salt, garlic, and shallots with two umami-rich ingredients – fermented shrimp paste (kapi) and smoke-dried fish.
MKHP doesn’t decisively tell us how to treat the chilies, and one can use them either dried or rehydrated. By rehydrating the chilies, we intensify the color saturation of the dish and also restore the rawness of the fresh chili flavor. We will cook this rawness away, but its shadow will remain in the taste. I am using rehydrated bang chang chilies for their body, color, and aroma, and I top the original recipe with some dried bird’s eye chilies to punctuate and sharpen its heat point.
I slice the chilies, soak them in hot water to soften, then wash away the seeds and squeeze away as much moisture as possible.
MKHP uses equal quantities by weight of garlic to shallots. Nevertheless, I will use eight shallots, peel and slice them and visually approximate the garlic amount so that it is a little bit less than that of the shallots.
We will use almost equal quantities of fermented shrimp paste (kapi) and smoke-dried fish meat, with a slight advantage by volume to the fish over the kapi.
I start by pounding the chilies and salt in a pestle and mortar and, once I get a smooth paste with no large pieces of chilies visible, I add the garlic and shallots. I gradually add the smoke-dried fish, which I separately pounded down to a powder, to help soak up the moisture and enable effective pounding. Once I am satisfied with the paste texture, I add the grilled fermented shrimp paste (kapi). When the paste aroma rounds up, losing its sharp edges, I know the paste is ready.
Diluting the paste
I transfer the paste to a cooking pot and gradually dissolve it with chicken stock to my preferred consistency. I bring the curry to a boil and cook away its rawness. MKHP used water, but I am using chicken stock instead. I made the stock from boiling a chicken carcass with coriander roots, garlic, and white peppercorns.
Preparing the proteins
We use four types of protein sources – smoke-dried fish, semi-salted and sun-dried fish, shrimp, and pork belly. Once again, we see how the cooks of the aristocracy fortified the umami foundation of a dish by employing diversified sources of protein from both land and water animals. This is a concept I used with the original recipe, by adding chicken stock rather than water, to also include the character of a bird symbolizing the air.
I collect the meat of the smoked fish, discarding its bones and abdomen. The abdomen of the smoked fish could host freshwater parasites or introduce bitterness to the dish via bile contamination.
I filet the semi-salted and sun-dried snakeskin gourami fish, slice it into bite-size pieces and wash it thoroughly.
I peel, devein and cut the shrimp into bite-size pieces.
Last, I slice the pork belly into thin elongated pieces.
When the curry is boiling and the paste is cooked and has lost its rawness, I add the four proteins. I add the pork meat first, as it takes the longest to cook. Then I add the sun-dried fish and shrimp, which cook quickly. Finally, I add the smoke-dried fish, which requires almost no time to soak up water and rehydrate.
We season the dish before adding the vegetables
We season the curry to a sour roof, salty and high sweet floor flavor profile using fish sauce, tamarind paste, kaffir lime juice, and palm sugar.
I use equal parts by volume of fish sauce, tamarind paste, and palm sugar. This ratio gives us a bold three-flavor profile.
As always, I begin by seasoning the salty ingredients first; only when I am satisfied with the saltiness do I add equal amounts by volume of tamarind paste and palm sugar. I will add the kaffir lime juice later, when the cooking is finished.
Preparing the vegetables
Yardlong beans, morning glory, cucumber (or watermelon rinds), water mimosa and Asoka-tree flowers (ดอกโศก) are the five members that complete the composition of the nohpa gaao team.
Thai traditional medicine, influenced by the Indian Ayurvedic tradition and holistic Chinese medicine, advocates living in harmony with nature as the key to longevity and healthy life. Thus, to offset the heat of the chili-based curry and proteins, all of which are considered to possess hot internal energies, MKHP wisely selected cooling vegetables to balance the energies and facilitate a healthier and tastier dish.
I cut the yardlong beans and morning glory to equal-size pieces with a sharp diagonal edge. I soak them in water to freshen until the time comes to add them to the curry.
I cut the unpeeled cucumber into bite-size pieces.
I handpick the soft mimosa leaves and discard the tough stems.
Unfortunately, the blooming season of the Asoka-tree is over, so I will use young Asoka-tree leaves instead. While I will miss the fragrance of the Royal Gardens, the Asoka’s delicate sourness will still resonate. I can always choose to decorate the curry with flowers to preserve the intention of the blooming ornamentation.
Adding the vegetables
I add the morning glory and allow it to soften. Then I add both the yardlong beans and cucumber; I wish to preserve their crunchiness, so I keep the cooking time very short.
Once I turn off the heat, I can complete the seasoning by adding kaffir lime juice.
Serving the dish
I arrange the water mimosa leaves in a serving bowl, pour the hot curry over this, and top the dish with thinly sliced young Asoka-tree leaves and garnish with edible flowers.