Kaeng phet literally means “spicy curry” (aka red curry) and this dish truly lives up to its name. This is a popular curry that you would find offered by any curry vendor in Thailand, or even at a Buddhist temple (it is a common Thai practice for temple patrons to bring classic dishes like this to offer to the monks or other visitors). As it such a widely loved dish, there are naturally many variations- some versions use bamboo shoots, others opt for eggplant, and still others use both. Some Westernized Thai restaurants also add diced or thinly sliced red bell pepper (although this is not considered to be authentically Thai, it does add a bit more color to the curry).
The following version of this dish calls for ingredients that are more readily available to American cooks. If you like, you can substitute bamboo shoots in place of the eggplant, or use both eggplant and bamboo shoots, the choice is up to you. A large handful of Thai pea eggplants (Thai: มะเขือพวง, pronounced mak-heua puang) would make a very authentic addition to this recipe, however, they aren’t often found in the US. If you like really spicy curry, you can also add some thinly sliced red chili peppers to make the dish even hotter (if you are preparing this for a group with varying degrees of tolerance for spicy food, you can serve the chilis on the side at the table so each diner can add them as they please to adjust the heat to their own liking).
Traditionally, a whole chicken (bones and all) is used to make chicken curry. The bones cook down in the sauce and make the curry even more flavorful. However, since most people don’t like picking out bones during a meal, boneless chicken breast is called for in this recipe. If you do have some chicken bones, or chicken thighs or legs, you can drop some into the curry. I find that substituting a little chicken broth or stock in place of some of the water also helps to boost the savory flavor of the curry.
The eggplants called for in this recipe are Thai eggplants, also called apple eggplants (Thai: มะเขือเปราะ, pronounced makhuea pro)– they’re those golf ball sized little green and white eggplants you may have seen in an Asian supermarket or at your local farmer’s market in the summer. If you can’t find Thai eggplants, the regular eggplants that you find in any supermarket are a good substitute (both the thinner Japanese eggplants or the larger globe eggplants work fine). If you can find them, don’t skimp on the fresh kaffir lime leaves and Thai basil, as these two ingredients really add that extra authentic touch and enhance the flavor and aroma of the curry. Try to find a good Thai brand of coconut milk like Chaokoh or Aroy-D, and if you opt to use a store bought curry paste, look for either Mae Ploy and Mae Sri brand curry paste. For fish sauce, I recommend either Tiparos or Red Boat.
- 1 boneless chicken breast (about 1/2 pound)
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 1 tablespoon red curry paste
- 1/2 lb eggplant
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 4-5 kaffir lime leaves (optional)
- 3-5 sprigs Thai basil (optional)
- 3 cups water
- sliced bamboo shoots (about one small can, drained)
- 1/2 of a red bell pepper, diced or cut into matchsticks
- Thai pea eggplants (about one large handful)
- sliced hot red chili (to taste)
If using Thai eggplants, cut into quarters. If using regular eggplants, cut into bite size pieces. If you happen to have pea eggplants, you can simply trim the stems from the top of the eggplants (pea eggplants are added whole to the curry). Wash and pick the basil leaves.
Cut up the chicken into bite size pieces. If using bone-in chicken parts (such as thighs or legs), you can skip this step.
Pour half of the coconut milk into a large pot, over low to medium low heat, and add the red curry paste. Break up the paste and mix evenly with coconut milk, stirring constantly (lower the heat if it splatters too much). Add chicken when you start to see red oil bubbling on top, and stir to coat chicken with curry sauce.
Add the eggplant when chicken starts to turn white, and then add the rest of the coconut milk, water, and fish sauce (if using bamboo shoots, add them at this time). Let curry boil until the eggplant pieces turn dark and tender. The longer you boil the curry, the thicker it will become as the eggplant disintegrates and thickens the sauce.
Pull the center stems from the kaffir lime leaves and add them to the curry. If using chili or bell peppers, you should also add them to the curry at this time.
Add the basil leaves just before servings, submerging the leaves quickly in the hot curry to preserve their color.
Serve hot with rice or rice noodles.
last updated August 17, 2023