Thursday, October 11, 2012

Pud Ped Gaprao -- Thai Hamburger Helper

Americans might think of pud ped gaprao, or pad gaprao (which means stir fry with holy basil), as the Thai equivalent of hamburger helper, meaning that it is very simple to prepare and cooks in seconds, using a short list of ingredients that are usually on-hand. It’s the kind of dish that almost anyone or any restaurant can quickly throw together, and is also one of the favorite comfort food dishes of the Thai people. If it is not on the restaurant menu, odds are the kitchen can make it, and it is often available at fast-food, curry-rice shops (rahn kao gkaeng). It can be cooked with pretty much any minced meat (chicken, turkey, duck, pork, wild boar, water buffalo, or beef), sliced squid, whole shrimp, shellfish (mussels, whelks, razor clams, clams, etc.), mixed seafood (crab, scallops, firm-fleshed fish, mussels, shrimps, etc.), or even tofu or mushrooms for vegetarians,  if necessary. The smaller the protein ingredient is chopped or minced, the greater the surface area there will be that is coated with the flavors of the aromatic herbs and sauce, and the bigger the flavor the stir-fry has. 

It is basically a simple stir fry; one of those many dishes that originated in Chinese cuisine, and got morphed into the Thai culinary realm as its own creation. Originally it would have been stir-fried using lard, which always boosts the flavor, but today you’re much more likely to see vegetable oil or rice bran oil being used. It is seasoned with lots of pungent Thai garlic, piquant Thai chiles, and holy basil, with secondary flavor coming from shallot and a good blast of fish sauce, a splash of rich stock, and from here, recipes diverge. Some substitute Thai basil for holy basil, but that is not the traditional preparation, and a big no-no. After all, “gaprao” is the Thai word for holy basil. It’s like trying to make tom kha (spicy coconut milk soup with galangal) without the galangal; believe me, it’s not that uncommon here in the States.

Gaprao daeng, "red" holy basil, from Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages

Holy basil ( Ocimum tenuiflorum, gaprao daeng; daeng means “red”) has a reddish-purplish pigment to the leaf and the leaf bract. There is a variety of holy basil that is light green (O. sanctum, gaprao khao; khao means “white”), without the purplish pigment; there is also a hybrid between the two varieties. All three varieties work in the dish, but if all are available, the gaprao daeng is preferred. The young leaves are the best to use, as they have concentrated flavor and are the tenderest. Holy basil is always added during the cooking process, but towards the end of the cooking, especially in stir fries, so that it gets wilted and completely infuses the dish with the flavor and aroma; it is never eaten raw. Using holy basil will amplify the spiciness of chiles and aromatics used in the dish.

Gaprao khao, "white" holy basil, from lilithsapothecary.wordpress

Some chefs add very finely minced Thai lime leaf; again, not traditional, but excellent. Some add a small amount of sweet black soy sauce or Golden Mountain sauce and a dab of white sugar, while the old traditional recipe adds ½ teaspoon or so of palm sugar instead, with no sweet black soy. Some cooks add a bit of Maggi sauce, a soy-like sauce made from vegetable protein, with MSG; others add a bit of oyster sauce and/or soy sauce. It is all a matter of preference. Ideally the flavor balance of the finished dish will be heavy on the holy basil, with assertive fish sauce, and the spicy heat of the chiles paired with pungent garlic and sweet shallots nestling in just below those two; it is a spicy dish, but the heat can easily be moderated to assuage the lightweights.

Pud ped gaprao is always served with (or over) fragrant, nutty jasmine rice, normally with some sliced cucumber on the side of the plate, and a garnish of sprigs of cilantro, holy basil, or minced garlic leek or scallion. Depending on how spicily the kitchen prepared it, a Thai would sprinkle on some roasted chile paste (phrik pad), dried powdered bird chile (phrik pon), or even better, and preferred by most, some fish sauce and a bit of lime juice loaded with finely minced Thai chiles (naam plaa phrik). Some take the dish further still, adding sliced mushrooms to the mix, which contrasts nicely with the minced meat texture. In Thailand sometimes you’ll see some sliced long beans added, which add crunch. Ideally the dish comes topped with a kai dao, or crispy-fried sunny-side-up egg, with a crispy edge and a runny yolk that spreads out over the meat when broken, adding additional richness; at the local Thai restaurant you need only tell the waiter to add one.

Pud Ped Gaprao Moo Kai Dao -- Pork and Mushroom Holy Basil Stir-Fry with Fried Egg

We have the Chinese to thank for this dish: 1. they brought domesticated pigs, 2. they brought woks, 3. they knew how to get lard from aforementioned pigs, to stir fry with, 4. they introduced the use of chicken eggs (before the Chinese arrived in force, eggs were a lot more valuable as future chickens than they were as a food source). As with all adapted Thai dishes, the early Thai cooks took a foreign dish and made it uniquely Thai by using indigenous ingredients and the magical skills of Thai culinary alchemy.

The variations to the recipe modify it little; the finished taste is a perfect amalgam of savory deliciousness, and perfectly balanced between spicy, aromatic, salty, and richness. It’s the kind of comfort dish that can instantly transport you back to Thailand with the first bite.

Mick Vann ©

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