Sunday, January 25, 2015

Thai Red Vegetable Curry

Thai red vegetable curry and rice

Herbs and spices are used to enhance flavour in many types of cuisine across the globe.

Many of us know from travelling abroad, dining out or cooking at home that there’s considerable variability in the amount, type and combination of herbs and spices used in different types of cuisine.

Thai cuisine, for example, is famous for its aromatic and spicy dishes created using herbs and spices such as lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, basil, galangal, ginger, garlic, chilli peppers, cumin, coriander and peppercorns.

Thai herbs and spices

Usually these variations in use of herbs and spices are attributed merely to cultural preferences.

But is this the only reason?

Each herb and spice has a unique aroma and flavour, which derive from compounds known as phytochemicals or “secondary compounds”, because they are secondary to the plant's basic metabolism.

These chemicals evolved in plants to protect them against herbivorous insects and vertebrates, fungi, pathogens, and parasites [1].

Most herbs and spices contain dozens of secondary compounds, including glucosides, saponins, tannins, alkaloids, essential oils, organic acids, and others, many thousands of which have been described in the literature [2,3].

Before the advent of modern medicine, herbs and spices were used in most cultures to prevent and treat a variety of health conditions, either incorporated into food or in specific preparations. Indeed, in many places, herbal medicine is still an important part of healthcare.

Scientific studies are generating more and more evidence to support the medicinal properties of herbs and spices.

Many of the phytochemicals or “secondary compounds” in plants have been shown to possess powerful anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-hypertensive, anti-cancer, anti-depressant, anti-anxiety and cholesterol-lowering activity [4-6]. Herbs and spices frequently contain high concentrations of these substances.

As many herbs and spices have considerable anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-parasitic activity, it’s likely that their traditionally high use in hot climates is no accident. People found by trial and error that food kept longer and/or caused fewer stomach upsets if herbs and spices were incorporated [7].

This recipe for Thai-style red vegetable curry contains a range of herbs and spices rich in phytochemicals known for their medicinal properties.

The vegetables, herbs and spices used in this recipe contain high levels of antioxidant activity.

Antioxidants protect your body from damage caused by highly reactive molecules, called free radicals, produced as a normal by-product of metabolism.

Damage caused by free radicals contributes to aging and the development of chronic disease.

The picture below shows the antioxidant content of one serving of this Thai Red Vegetable Curry compared with one serving of a Burger King Double Whopper and Cheese with a medium portion of French fries.

The antioxidant content of the Thai Red Vegetable Curry is almost 5 times higher than that of the burger and fries.

The dish is also high in vitamins A, C and K; and contains substantial amounts of vitamins B1 and B6, as well as the minerals magnesium and manganese.

Lemongrass, for example, has been shown to have activity against the fungus Candida albicans [8] as well as anti-bacterial activity [9].

It’s also reported to have anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-mutagenic, hypoglycaemic and anxiolytic properties [10].

Kaffir lime leaves contain volatile oils and other phytochemicals [11].

Traditionally, kaffir lime leaves have been used for treatment of colds, congestion, and coughs. In addition, they’re recommended for alleviating flatulence, treating indigestion and treating menstrual disorders.

Kaffir lime phytochemicals have also been shown to have anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-hypertensive properties, which may be useful for preventing cancer and heart disease [11].

Kaffir lime leaves

Modern scientific investigations of coriander (also known as cilantro) have focused on its antimicrobial properties, anti-anxiety action, and cholesterol-lowering effects.

Its cholesterol-lowering action is the result of coriander stimulating the conversion of cholesterol to bile acids within the liver, an effect that would likely improve digestion of fat.

Turmeric is reported to have numerous health benefits due to the anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties of its phytochemicals, particularly curcumin.


Makes 4 servings

  • 1 red onion (150g/5oz) (finely sliced into half-moons)
  • 1 clove garlic (crushed)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 pinch sea salt
  • 1 medium carrot (cut into matchsticks)
  • ½ red bell pepper and ½ yellow bell pepper (finely sliced)
  • 240g/8oz cooked beans – you could use green lentils, black eye beans, butter beans, haricot beans, cannellini beans, edamame, flageolet beans, pinto beans or whatever you have available. You can use canned beans or cook your own dried beans (see below). You could also use tofu (cut into small cubes) instead.
  • 1 strip dried kombu sea vegetable (optional - see instructions for cooking your own beans below)
  • 2 tablespoons Thai red curry paste. I made my own (see below for instructions) or you could buy a jar from the shops and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • 1 can coconut milk or make your own by adding 2-3 tablespoons coconut powder to 1 cup water (making your own from coconut powder is cheaper than buying cans of coconut milk. Coconut powder is available online or in certain supermarkets and international food stores). Coconut contains a high percentage of saturated fat, so it's best not to use it too frequently in your cooking.
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 4 kaffir lime leaves
  • 40g baby leaf spinach
  • Small bunch of fresh coriander/cilantro


Cooking your own dried beans

It's fine to use canned beans to save time.

If you're cooking your own dried beans, you'll need approximately 3/4 cup dried beans and 4-5 cups water to cover them completely to a depth of 2 inches/5cm, depending on the size of the pan you use.

You can also add a strip of dried kombu sea vegetable, as this adds valuable minerals, and helps to tenderise and enhance the flavour of the beans.

If you soak the dried beans overnight in cold water before cooking, this will reduce the cooking time. Drain and rinse the beans before cooking. If you forget to soak them first, it doesn't matter, they may just take a bit longer to cook properly.

I usually cook dried beans in my slow cooker, as I can put them on and forget about them whilst doing other things, safe in the knowledge that they won't dry out and burn.

You can use a regular cooking pot but be aware that if you need to cook the beans for a long time, the water will evaporate. You'll need to keep an eye on them and top up the pan with boiling water if necessary.

Cooking time depends on the type and age of the beans.

The smaller and fresher the beans, the less time they'll need.

Large and/or old beans typically take longer.

Green lentils, for example, will probably be soft within an hour; pinto beans may take 2 to 3 hours. If your dried beans are past their "best before" date, they may remain like bullets however long you cook them for. Hard beans are very indigestible and create more intestinal gas, so I recommend that you use dried beans that are as fresh as possible.

To test if they're cooked, remove a small number of beans and press them between your fingers and thumb; they should squash easily.

Preparing the curry

Add olive oil and salt to a thick-based pan and gently sauté onion and garlic for 5-10 minutes until soft and translucent.

Add carrot, peppers, beans, Thai red curry paste, coconut milk, turmeric and kaffir lime leaves and simmer for 15 minutes until the vegetables are cooked.

Add baby spinach leaves and some fresh coriander to taste and simmer for a further 5 minutes.

Serve with brown rice and garnish with fresh coriander/cilantro.

How to make Thai red curry paste


  • 1 stalk fresh lemon grass (finely chopped)
  • 2 large red chilli peppers or 2 small birds eye chillis if you want it to be hot (seeds removed and finely chopped)
  • 2 cm piece fresh root ginger (peeled and finely chopped)
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground paprika
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1-2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce or Ume Plum seasoning if you are vegan
  • ¼ red onion (finely chopped)
  • 2 cloves garlic (finely chopped)
  • 2 tablespoons tomato puree
  • 1 tablespoon rice malt syrup
  • 2 tablespoons coconut milk


Blend all ingredients using a hand blender or food processor. Freeze what you don’t use in portions, so you have some ready prepared for future meals.

Alternatively, you can buy pre-made Thai red curry paste. This isn't as fresh but is very convenient.


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Nutrition information


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