Some people prize living in Asia just because they’re close to the authentic tastes, flavours and ingredients of the dishes they love. This Thai recipe is typical of food that’s best savoured as close as possible to its source. However, you can certainly manage if you have a good supply of mussels to hand, and an Asian store or market so that you can get hold of the fresh lemongrass that this recipe calls for. (You can also make do with the dried kind, but first you’ll need to soften it quite a bit.)
If you’re in Thailand, you can be assured of finding fresh mussels. They’re very popular in many dishes, and if you don’t know their salty taste, you should give them a try. They go extremely well with coconut milk and Asian herbs. There are plenty of variations on the coconut and basil theme, and if you’re at all familiar with Thai food, you’ll no doubt be able to create a few recipes yourself. It’s hard to go wrong. This recipe is a fairly basic one, but has all the ingredients you’ll need to make a very satisfying dish.
You can have fun at the local market getting your supplies together – there’s definitely no need to shop at a supermarket. Make sure the mussels are fresh. At the market they should be on ice or packed in ice. They shouldn’t have a very fishy smell to them, and they should be alive when you buy them. It’s important that they come from unpolluted waters, but it’s
well-nigh impossible to be sure about this.
Once you have your mussels, head to a stall where they’re grinding up coconuts to produce both the milk and the flakes. This shouldn’t be difficult on Samui as coconuts are everywhere – and so are the big steel machines that are used to process them. Ask for a bag of milk.
Alternatively, use boxed coconut milk that you’ll be bound to find at one or other of the stalls. It’s no surprise that Thai food relies so much on coconuts, but the popularity isn’t just to do with the taste, they’re extremely healthy too. Coconuts are thought to strengthen the body – their liquid can be used instead of sports drinks for replacing electrolytes – and extracts of coconut are favoured by Ayurvedic doctors for yeast infections. Basil will also be prominently on display, and again it’s not just tasty, it’s actually good for you. It acts on both the digestive and nervous system and is great for easing stomach pains. It also has sedative effects and is used for a range of maladies including irritability, worry and anxiety, as well as helping you to get a better night’s sleep. You can even use the leaves as a balm for mosquito bites as it helps to take away the discomfort.
• 2 kilograms of mussels
• Dried red chillies or 2 tsp of dried chilli flakes
• 2 stalks lemongrass
• 3-4 cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
• 1 ½ tsp cumin, ground
• 1 ½ tsp coriander, ground
• Salt and pepper and sugar to taste
• 2 tbs or more of fish sauce
• ½ cup of rice wine
• ½ cup of water
• 1 cup of coconut milk
• 2 tbs of good quality cooking oil
• 5 shallots, sliced very thinly, after smashing
• 2 ½ cups of Thai holy basil or sweet basil, cut into thin strips
• 1 tbs coriander leaves to taste, if required
The most important step is the very first and should be done thoroughly. Hold each mussel in turn and tap it against a hard object or surface. It should close, but if it doesn’t, then throw it away. Make sure you remove any sand or objects clinging to the mussels, along with the beard. Thoroughly wash them in running water and then soak in cold water. You can leave them
in the fridge until you’re ready to cook them.
Next, chop up the chilli peppers, lemongrass and ginger until it’s turned into a coarse mix. Add the remaining seasonings. You can use a blender for this or a food processor, if you wish. Set the mix aside. Mix the rice wine, water, coconut milk and
fish sauce together, and then add the sugar.
Use a heavy pan with a fitted lid for the cooking. Add the oil and heat until it’s sizzling. Soften the shallots, which will take no more than four minutes. Then add the seasonings that you’ve chopped and fry for about 15 seconds; you should be able to detect a subtle, delicious aroma. Next, pour in the coconut milk and bring the entire mix to a boil. Let simmer and then
after several minutes add the mussels. Now cover the pot and leave it to keep cooking. Give it a shake occasionally. In ten minutes, or just under, the ensemble should be ready. Check that most of the mussels have opened and if most haven’t then keep cooking, but only for another minute maximum. Throw out any mussels that haven’t opened. The danger is that the mussels become overcooked, in which case they’ll be very chewy to eat.
In the final step, add the basil and gently distribute it throughout the mix. The idea here is not to vigorously stir the pot at all. Once the basil’s gone in, then serve the ensemble right away, sprinkling with the coriander leaves, if required. It’s a dish you can simply enjoy by itself, as an amazing appetizer, or eat with some simple accompaniments, such as a green salad.
If you want to depart from Thai traditions, slice up some French baguette; your guests will be happy to use the bread to soak up the juices on their plates. You can also steam the mussels in white wine before adding to the pot, but in this case, you’ll need to reduce the time the mussels are cooking. The mussels taste great if accompanied by a white wine. Choose one that has some sweetness, as this will balance out the spicy flavours. Above all, this is a dish that’s made for sharing round a kitchen table, and one that’s ideal for inviting friends and family to savour.