Under the Thai Umbrella

Panang Curry Lasagna

Panang Curry Lasagna
Credit: Ian Fuller

Some of my earliest memories take me to a restaurant that occupied the first floor of a midcentury building in the Silom area of Bangkok.

I can see my family seated around a large round table as ceiling fans turned slowly above us and the traffic of older waiters in white short-sleeved shirts. Most birthdays and family get-togethers found us eating there because it was one of the restaurants for which my grandfather had few complaints. In the late 1970s and throughout ’80s, most of his school chums and bridge partners were still alive. They came over to our table with imported brandy. They laughed about things I didn’t quite get, but I didn’t feel out of place, a mere child. I was occupied by the plates set to arrive from the kitchen. Instead of the usual Thai combination of fork and spoon, tonight I held a fork and a dull butter knife with anticipation.

A Chinese family ran the place. They put some Hainan-style dishes on the menu, but the restaurant was famed for its Western cuisine. The place had been around since the 1930s, helmed by cooks who were once employed in hotels and foreigners’ homes in bustling Chinese cities. In the turbulence of China’s war-torn years, many were likely to have been part of the wave of immigration to Bangkok, a cosmopolitan city with an alchemy of cultures and tongues. Their version of Western dishes preserved a time when airplanes were for the privileged few and ocean liners took weeks, if not months, to reach port in another part of the world. What did they know then of stews and breaded cutlets and these cold mixtures called salads? To them, the dishes must have been as strange and mythic as lions and hued men to anyone in premodern Europe. All they had to conceive the food of the other were imagination and hearsay.

Think baked pork chops with a clear soup-like gravy in the Chinese style; steaks fried at high heat for a rare center but a crispy, carbonized texture on the outside and then drowned in vinegar, oil, and Worcester sauce; and accompaniments like fresh-baked bread with pandan-scented dip. The dishes could perhaps tide over homesick expats of those times, but more likely deepened their longing for their native European kitchens.

Mostly Thais of an older generation ate at the restaurant in Silom. It was one of handful of places that remained from the prime of their lives, those first decades after the World War. Western food in Thailand, then, was the mirror image of Edward Said screeds. All things of the West had an aura of the civilized, or, Thaified, siwilai—the qualities of enlightened modernity so seductive to a developing society unsure of its footing in the world.

How things have changed in Bangkok. Should its denizens want a slab of steak, they can visit Sizzler franchises as unremarkable as any in an American strip mall. There are, purportedly, authentic Italian and bistro French available, although with their concentration in touristy areas of the city, their raison d’être appears more opportunistic than aspirational. The desirability of the food of the other has also adjusted with shifts in global industrial and cultural power. Obsessed with surgically sculpted Korean soap opera and pop stars, Bangkok’s masses now flock to gogigui barbecue joints that at times seem to outnumber Thai restaurants at shopping centers’ restaurant concourses. They eat at Japanese restaurants with faux tatami seating where one could stretch one’s legs in the pit underneath the table. Some even offer yōshoku dishes borne of Japan’s own reconception of Western fare, like deep-fried, panko-covered hamburger steaks topped with mayonnaise, or spaghetti sprinkled with roe and nori, all ornately plated to resemble a meal from a Studio Ghibli animated film.

The ancient Sino-European restaurants are on the verge of extinction. In the last year, the Silom restaurant shuttered as its real estate value has likely exceeded the combined cash flow from its entire existence. Bangkok’s younger generations no longer strive toward the old technocratic siwilai. They already live in it, video-chatting on their phones as they ride the Skytrain to work. And with the economic boom in Asia, the spectacle of the modern now felt simply another part of the grand global menu in which everything is available and within reach. Those who clamor for the new siwilai find inadequate any one image or model for their consumption; they now seek multitudes. Even the fast food outposts of the old siwilai can’t just depend on their original menu to act as beacons for fashionable youth seeking air-conditioning and wifi. At KFCs in Bangkok, one can order a fried chicken of the ol’ American South with a dollop of green curry.

In the U.S. I’ve joined the chimerical experiment. Friends have coined the term Thaitalian for some dishes I’ve made for dinners: the panang curry lasagna or the lemongrass chicken braciole with sticky rice. I substitute julienned apples for green papaya in sweet, spicy salads, indebted to some unknown Thai cook whose whim made it a familiar presence on Bangkok menus. I hate to attach silly labels like fusion or nouvelle to these dishes. Those words imply the kinds of distinct boundaries more native to a world unused to expansiveness. The boundaries are no more. The other is us.

Credit: Pitchaya Sudbanthad for TMN

Panang Curry Lasagna Recipe

If not making fresh curry paste, a store-bought paste should suffice, but, really, you can do better. Leftover paste will keep, wrapped, in the refrigerator for about a week and in the freezer for a month.

It’s very important that you use Thai coconut milk, as others are much thinner and won’t do at all.

For lasagna

  • 3 tablespoons panang curry paste (see below)
  • 1 1/2 pounds ground beef
  • 1 14.5-ouncecan diced tomatoes, drained
  • 2 14.5-ounce cans Thai coconut milk
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 3 cups (12 ounces) grated mozzarella
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan
  • 1 cup (1 ounce) lightly packed basil leaves
  • 1 cup (1 ounce) lightly packed baby spinach leaves
  • 9 large or 12 small regular or no-boil lasagna noodles
  • 1 tablespoon chopped basil

For panang curry paste

  • 5 peppercorns
  • 1/2 teaspoon toasted cumin seeds
  • 1/2 star or 1/4 teaspoon ground star anise
  • 1 tablespoon peanuts
  • 5 to 7 dried Thai chiles, soaked in hot water for 15 minutes and drained (substitute 5 to 7 chiles de arbol)
  • 1 teaspoon chopped galangal (substitute 1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger)
  • 1 teaspoon chopped cilantro root (substitute 1 teaspoon chopped cilantro stems)
  • 5 small shallots, roughly chopped
  • 8 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1 stalk lemongrass, tough outer leaves discarded, chopped (substitute 1/4 teaspoon lemon zest)
  • 1/2 teaspoon kaffir lime zest (substitute 1/2 teaspoon lime zest)
  • 1 teaspoon kapi, Thai shrimp paste
  • pinch of salt
  1. Preheat the oven to 400º F.
  2. To make panang curry paste in a mortar and pestle: Starting from hard ingredients to soft, pound until a uniform paste is achieved.
  3. To make panang curry paste in a food processor: Grind peppercorns, cumin, and star anise in spice grinder, then add peanuts and pulse just until ground. Empty spice grinder into food processor bowl, add remaining ingredients, and process until a uniform paste is achieved, scraping down sides of bowl frequently with a spatula.
  4. Place 3 tablespoons of thick cream from the top of one can of coconut milk in a large saucepan over low heat. Add 3 tablespoons of panang curry paste and “sweat” for about 5 minutes, stirring, until the paste is fragrant and darker oils begin to appear.
  5. Increase heat to medium, then toss in the ground beef and stir to coat thoroughly with the fried curry paste. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until beef is no longer pink.
  6. Add the drained diced tomatoes, the remainder of the opened can of coconut milk, and the fish sauce. Stir to incorporate. Simmer over low heat, uncovered, for 15 to 20 minutes, until the sauce is thickened and no longer soupy. Skim away any fat from the surface and let cool slightly.
  7. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine parmesan and mozzarella with the second can of coconut milk. In another small bowl, toss together the baby spinach and basil leaves. If using regular lasagna noodles, prepare according to instructions.
  8. Assemble the lasagna: Place a layer of 3 large or 4 small noodles in a 12” x 8” or 13” x 9” pan. Cover with 1/3 of curry sauce and half of basil and spinach mix, then dollop with 1/3 of cheese mix. Repeat with another layer of noodles, 1/3 of sauce, remaining greens, and 1/3 of cheese. Finally, top the lasagna with a layer of noodles, remaining curry sauce, and remaining cheese mix.
  9. Cover pan tightly with foil and place on a baking sheet to catch drips. Bake for 35 minutes, then uncover and bake for 5 minutes. Let cool, then garnish with chopped basil.