The taste of love

Thai red curry's secret is in the leaves
By LINDSAY STERLING  |  October 24, 2007
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SECRET INGREDIENT: Rattana Sherman grows fresh kaffir lime leaves in her dining room.

That childhood taunt, “Why don’t you marry it!” might actually be worth listening to if the love professed is of a kind of food. Things seem to be working out well for Nick Sherman, a Maine-born salesman for a residential building company, who loved cooking and eating fusion food. When living in Seattle, he followed fusion master Tom Douglas’s every move through his Seattle Kitchen cookbook. But three years ago last April, back in Maine working long hours in preparation for a vacation, he didn’t have time to cook, so he went out nightly at Chinese, Korean, and other Asian restaurants. “It was fast and good,” he said of the food. One might say the same about the relationship he was about to discover.

In his single, dining-out adventures, he crossed paths with a striking Asian woman, the tallest he’d ever seen. She was 5’8” and lean, with straight, long, black hair, an open demeanor, and an outwardly curved nose. He introduced himself, and discovered her signature high voice full of rough but sweetly brave English. Her name was Rattana. She was a textiles engineer from Bangkok who was traveling in the US for six months, visiting friends and extended family. He asked her out on a date. She was sorry, she was leaving Maine the next day to live with a friend in Chicago, but he could drive her to the airport if he wanted to.

It must have been quite a car ride. A month later, over the phone and e-mail (her writing was fluent), they decided she should fly from Chicago back to Maine to go on another date. They went to a lighthouse. Then she cooked Thai for him in his condo. I can’t say how love made its way so quickly through the language barrier, but I can tell you that Rattana’s red curry chicken was good enough to merit some kind of proposal. Mine is “Cook for me again, Rattana?” His was slightly different.

Inside her pretty white china bowls with a periwinkle pattern of hexagons along the outside rim, the generous sauce around the rice is the lightest shade of pink, made not of dairy and tomatoes as in Indian curry, but light coconut milk, simmered with red chili curry base, eggplant, fish sauce, palm sugar, chicken, kaffir lime leaves, and — at the last minute — whole leaves of fresh basil. The triangles of eggplant (to my mind a texturally challenged vegetable) are somehow gracefully soft and yet full of structural integrity.

She showed me some tricks. Dunk whole basil leaves under the simmering coconut milk, and they don’t turn black, but an even brighter shade of green. She gets the ingredients from the Asian market at the intersection of Congress and St. John Street, where the coconut milk is the right texture and sells for 79 cents a can (as opposed to $2 at the supermarket), and the red curry base is good (as opposed to “not good,” like the kind she tried from Shaw’s). She picks kaffir lime leaves, unavailable even at the Asian market, from a potted plant her auntie sent her from Virginia, which has been flourishing, surprisingly, in her Maine dining room.

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