My love affair with Thai food started with a spicy red curry sauce called “Panang.” My husband would order it with beef and, since I have never been a huge fan of beef, I’d simply eat spoonfuls of the spicy coconut milk broth. After years of trying various Panang’s at assorted Thai restaurants, I decided to try my hand at making, what is really, a very basic stew. After years of reading recipes, watching videos and asking cooks at restaurants what their secret is, I’m finally prepared to share my very own Beef Panang Curry recipe with you!
I’m not kidding when I say it’s taken me years to perfect. I’d make it at home and have my husband taste it, waiting for him to come back with the inevitable “It’s SO close, but something is still missing.” I’d watch videos online (mostly in the days before YouTube) and try to figure out if the cooks there were using a different brand of coconut milk, or slipping in a secret ingredient that they weren’t saying. It didn’t help that every single person made it differently.
I even tried making my own curry paste, buying a mortar and pestle just in case that made the difference. No dice. The pre-packaged curry paste was just as good (if not better), much less expensive, and waaay easier. I found out the brand of curry paste that my favorite Thai restaurant used, and have never strayed.
After years of dogged determination, I stumbled upon the SECRET INGREDIENT (on the back of a container of Panang curry paste no less). It’s so simple, that I honestly think that home cooks throw it in and don’t even notice how very important it is. So what is it already? It’s SUGAR!
Yep, adding just a little bit of white cane sugar or palm sugar makes all the difference in the world. Trust me, I’ve tried using honey, molasses, maple syrup, coconut sugar, and nothing is as good as the white cane sugar. If you must have an alternative, there is one, and only one, that I have found. You can purchase a palm sugar patty (this is what it looks like) at an Asian market, and that will suffice. Sometimes I’ll use a palm sugar patty and then add just a touch of plain white sugar at the end.
Let’s talk MEAT!
What Types of Meat Should be Used?
I know there are many of you out there who are going to ask “Can I use chicken/pork/turkey/shrimp?” And the answer is “Yes.” Any other meat, or even a vegetarian rendition with tofu, will work. That being said it will not have the rich flavor that comes with beef. As I stated above, beef isn’t my first choice in meat flavors, but I won’t even make Panang Curry anymore if I don’t have some beef to throw into the pot. It’s just not the same. So, if you’re wanting to use a more bland meat such as chicken for your Panang, I highly recommend throwing in a few slices of beef for flavor.
What Cut of Meat Should I Use?
I generally prefer a London Broil cut, or similar lean meat. It’s generally pretty inexpensive, and has enough fat to add flavor without having to deal with fatty pieces of meat in my curry. I always tenderize leaner cuts like this before adding to my curry. Here’s how:
Tenderizing the Meat
One of the things I love about making any sort of stew or curry is that I can use cheaper cuts of meat. Don’t bother pounding it until it’s paper thin or even consider using MSG powder. There’s a simple trick in Asian cooking that tenderizes meat so superbly that I use it constantly. Simply slice the meat (this works with chicken and pork as well) as thin as you prefer, and soak it in a solution of baking soda and water. I add about 1 teaspoon of baking soda per two cups of water. After 15 minutes, rinse the meat well and pat dry.
How Thin Should the Meat Be Sliced?
Some people recommend freezing the meat for half an hour before slicing, and yes, this is a good way to get a very thin slice of meat. I, however, find that paper thin slices aren’t necessary, or even preferable. I just use a very sharp knife, and my knuckle, and slice it to about an 1/8″ thickness. Some people prefer a thicker slice, so just do what works for you. If you’re using chicken, there’s no need to slice thinly, I often just use the remnant pieces from a chicken I am butchering.
Simple ingredients for a flavor-rich dish (curry paste not pictured). As is the general rule with Asian cooking, be sure to have ALL of your ingredients ready before starting to cook.
Time To Put It All Together!
Heat coconut oil in a wok or large skillet, add curry paste, and let cook until fragrant (about 1 minute).
Add about 1/4 cup of canned coconut milk to the pan. Mix thoroughly.
Add beef to the curry paste/coconut milk mixture. See it bubbling? Notice that the coconut curry mixture will just barely cover the beef Panang curry.
Once the meat is cooked, add another big spoonful of the coconut cream from the can of coconut milk.
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Beef Panang Recipe
This spicy curry is full of flavor and a favorite at my house. Dairy free, gluten free, and Paleo (if you use the Palm sugar), you'll love this Thai dish on a busy weeknight, or lazy Sunday.
Recipe type: Dinner
1 lb beef, or meat of choice, thinly sliced
1 Tbs. coconut oil, or oil of choice
1 can full fat coconut milk, divided
1-4 Tbs. organic white sugar
¼ cup thinly sliced red peppers
Slice beef and tenderize in a solution of water and baking soda.
Open canned coconut milk, set aside.
Slice kaffir lime leaves thinly, removing and discarding spine.
Once the coconut oil is glossy looking, coat the pan, and add the curry paste.
Saute the curry paste until fragrant, about 1 minute.
Add about ¼ cup canned coconut milk (if the coconut milk has separated, leave the water at the bottom and use the cream at the top), and stir to combine with the curry paste. The mixture will be bubbling and boiling (if it is not, turn up the heat slightly).
Add the meat, and stir to coat.
Add about ¼ cup more of the coconut milk, or enough to at least halfway cover the meat.
Add 1 of the sliced kaffir lime leaves, and let cook, stirring frequently until the meat is cooked through.***
Add a few more spoonfuls of coconut milk, being careful not to add the more watery part of the milk if it has separated.
Add the sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, tasting until the flavor "pops."
If your curry is thin, add coconut milk powder, arrowroot or cornstarch to a little bit of the leftover coconut milk, stir to combine. Add a bit of the hot curry sauce to this mixture, stir, and then add back to the curry sauce, stirring constantly to combine.
Stir until thick.
Remove and serve over rice, or on it's own.
Top with remaining kaffir lime leaves and sliced red peppers.
*Both Panang and red curry paste are spicy. Use less if you want it less spicy, and more if you prefer more spicy. ** Kaffir lime leaves freeze very well. Simply leave whole, place in a bag and freeze for up to a year. ***Although onions don't typically come in Panang Curry, I often add sliced sweet onions at this point. They're really good!
If you’re an expert (or have experience) at Panang or any type of curry or Thai cooking, please leave your tips in the comments section below.