In shadowy old shops up in the north, you’ll still find ancient-looking ready-to-use spice mix sachets for gaeng hang lay; they seem to have been there forever. Perhaps they may one day be opened and savoured by archaeologists. The point of all this is that sachets – so popular with other curries – just aren’t necessary when it comes to gaeng hang lay; most people like to make their own. And it turns out to be quite easy.
Perhaps the hard bit is deciding which recipe you should use. There are oodles of different versions of gaeng hang lay, and in the north some cooks will use soy, while others prefer shrimp paste. Then there’s a popular option about substituting black pepper for the chillies. But here’s a basic recipe that gives you the lowdown on this fantastic dish that you may never have heard of before.
Gaeng hang lay is Indian in origin – you can see this from the choice of spices used – and made its way into Thailand, or Siam as it used to be known, via Burma. The Thais then adopted it and, as with many another dish, adapted it to their own tastes.
It’s a favourite dish in the north of Thailand, though it’s less commonly seen in the south. Unlike red, green and yellow curries that are so conveniently colour-coded and globally famed, gaeng hang lay is more obscure and a fairly turgid brown. OK, so it’s not good-looking, but it makes up for that in its sublime tastiness. If you like curries with the thickness of massaman curry, then gaeng hang lay is certainly going to appeal with its salty, sweet and sour notes. There are so many tasty components in the sauce that it’d be an achievement to ever get bored with this dish. And you can even change the type of pork too; if you wish pork shoulder chops can be used instead, while some cooks prefer chicken. Whatever you do, a golden rule is to make sure you have some fat on the meat, though, as otherwise the dish will probably end up tasting
on the dry side.
To really enhance all the flavours, make it a day ahead. But above all, make enough to keep some for another time – it’s absolutely ideal for freezing. The preparation time is very short (under half an hour) making this an ideal recipe if you’re a busy mum or dad. The cooking time is a long and languid two hours of simmering, so this gives you plenty of time to get on with other tasks while the pork simply cooks away. If you’re making the dish outside Thailand, then you’ll need to go to an Asian supermarket for items such as tamarind concentrate and dried shrimp paste, but they shouldn’t be hard to find.
Ingredients (serves six):
• 1 kg boneless pork belly, with or without rind kept on
• 12 small shallots, peeled
• 8 cm ginger, peeled and sliced
• 2.5 tbsp concentrate of tamarind
• 2 tbsp palm sugar
• jasmine rice, to serve
• 2 tbsp cumin seeds
• 2 tbsp coriander seeds
• 1 tbsp fenugreek seeds
• 1 tbsp black peppercorns
• 3 tsp whole cloves
• 4 cinnamon sticks
• 2 tbsp ground turmeric
• 1 small nutmeg, grated
• 12 long red chillies, dried variety only
• 6 lemongrass stalks, sliced
• 3 big shallots, chopped
• 6 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
• 2 cm galangal, peeled, chopped
• 2 tsp dried shrimp paste
First start by preparing the spice mix. Take the cumin, coriander, fenugreek seeds, peppercorns, cloves and cinnamon, and place in a dry frying pan. Heat gently and toast all the ingredients. This will take a couple of minutes only. Turn off the heat if the pan starts to smoke or if the spices burn. Don’t let them get brown. When the mix has cooled, add in turmeric and nutmeg, but don’t reheat. Set aside.
Next, make the curry paste. Start by soaking the chillies in about a quarter litre of hot water for about 15 minutes or longer. Then drain them but keep some of the liquid. Using a mortar, process chillies, lemongrass, shallots, garlic, galangal, shrimp paste and some salt. Now turn into a smooth paste using the chilli water you’ve reserved.
Now take a sharp knife and cut the pork into largish cubes. Place these in a bowl and mix in the curry paste. You can do this with your hands, kneading it all the while. After a minute add a teaspoon of salt and the spice mix you’ve prepared. Continue kneading for a further minute.
Use a pan with a solid base and add the pork and cook on high heat until it’s lightly browned. This will take under ten minutes, but turn the mixture occasionally. Next add a litre of water and bring to the boil. There should be enough water to
cover the meat. Now stir in the shallots and ginger, reduce the heat to very low and simply cook for the next two hours or until the pork is extremely tender. Lastly season the dish with a tablespoon of salt, tamarind and sugar, and it’s ready to serve alongside the jasmine rice. Your curry should have a robust taste, quite tangy but alleviated with an engaging sweetness. Since there’s no coconut milk used, the taste will be very different from the more commonly found Thai curries, untamed yet very moreish. Many people fall in love with gaeng hang lay at first bite.