Lobster in Thai Yellow Curry
Updated: Dec 12, 2021
"Luxurious lobster-nights, farewell, For sober, studious days!“
Alexander Pope (1715)
As the time of the year approaches when lobster prices in the farmers’ market begin to rise again, I am minded to ensure I haven’t missed out on a spicier lobster dish. That’s not to say a spicy lobster dish is in itself better or worse according to the lobster’s price… it’s just that it’s that little bit more palatable pairing lobster with stronger flavours when paying less for it. Especially when a few lobsters have to be gone through (oh, the hardship!) in the process of developing a recipe!
For some the idea of lobster in a curry may sit uncomfortably, but I am not amongst them (see "Goan Lobster", for example), though I do see it as but an occasional luxury. I find the flavour of lobster (and other shellfish) shines through amongst a judicious selection of aromatic spices and herbs, which is what this very Thai-inspired dish of lobster cooked in yellow curry, suggested in “Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible”, achieves.
For this lobster dish I use the slightly modified version of Madhur Jaffrey's "Yellow Curry Paste" that I recently posted though, as I explain below, a good quality ready-made one would be absolutely fine. The curry recipe itself I have approached (drawing from some of what I learnt in a cooking class I attended at the Pad Thai Cookery School - which, I suspect, is no longer in operation - in Chiang Mai) in such a manner as to create a slightly milder, more fragrant result than the one suggested by Madhur Jaffrey. Less curry powder goes in but fish sauce replaces salt, and kaffir lime leaves add their scent.
Serve this with Jasmine rice, lobster picks and spoons to scoop up the saucy rice. Plus a bottle or two of Singha beer. Oh, and do offer plenty of napkins for those that really want to get stuck in to those lobster chunks!
I have made this dish a few times separately with raw and cooked lobster - both results are good - but it does come out better using raw lobster, for obvious reason. It would be fantastic with crab too!
Dealing with live lobster is always something I give due attention to. Not being qualified to advise nor knowingly at the leading edge of the best practices, when it comes to preparing a live lobster for the pot, I defer to a principle that has been widely accepted for quite some time. That is that a lobster frozen for 2 hours reaches a sufficiently comatose state that a swiftly-executed dispatching causes minimal possible distress. Rightly or wrongly I extrapolate from that that surely being rapidly severed through the head and nervous system must be a far more expedient finality than being dropped into boiling water? Anyway, a fishmonger will always be able to do the tricky stuff for you and as I said before, cooked lobster is a viable alternative (but then, of course, how did it end up cooked???). It's important to mention that lobster pieces from a previously uncooked lobster should be used as soon as possible - within hours if possible.
One thing I was enchanted to learn in my cooking class in Chiang Mai was that oil is not (or at least not necessarily) used in the cooking of the curry paste for a Thai curry. Instead the thicker extract of coconut - what might typically be called coconut 'cream' - is cooked hard to separate the fats out and this fat is used to fry the paste. Madhur Jaffrey has a particularly natty trick of leaving a can of coconut milk undisturbed for a couple of hours before using and then siphoning off the cream that will by then have risen to the top. Other resources on the internet I have consulted also use coconut 'cream' to cook the curry paste but make the point that certain brands of coconut milk will have homogenised their product to such an extent as it will not 'split'. Although this is largely inconsequential I have included a small amount of coconut oil (which can be substituted with any cooking oil) to help the process along and make sure there is sufficient oil in which to fry the curry paste.
It is not essential to make your own curry paste as there are so many good-quality, ready-made curry pastes now so widely-available to buy. I tend to think the more uninterpretable the packet the better its contents are likely to be. So, if using a ready-made product, just replace the quantity of curry paste in the recipe below with the quantity directed on the packet.
Finally, a suggestion about the cooking of Jasmine rice. Thai recipes will often call for "steamed rice" and the texture of it is superb with a curry. Certain rice varieties, like Basmati or Jasmine, spoil easily and suddenly when boiled, though steaming rice from a raw state is quite a lengthy process. Rice cookers are, of course, excellent, but for those without, my suggestion is to boil the rice in salted water for only half of the time indicated on the packet, drain it through a sieve, then place the sieve over a pan of boiling water, lid on top of the sieve, and steam until the rice is cooked. If the rice has been washed in several changes of water for half an hour beforehand, the total cooking time ends up more or less the indicated time on the packet - but it's a much more reliable and satisfactory result!
Note that the curry sauce can be made a good couple of hours ahead of time and just needs to be brought back to a simmer before cooking the lobster at step 5. Just do make sure that at no point does the sauce reach boiling point or it is at risk of splitting. This won't affect the flavour of the dish but the texture and appearance will be less than ideal.
Lobster in Thai Yellow Curry
Ingredients (serves 2)
1 x 800g lobster, or 2 x 450-500g lobsters, prepared for cooking (see Notes)
1 tbsp coconut or sunflower oil
1 x 400ml tin of coconut milk, left undisturbed for 2-3 hours
3 tbsp Thai Yellow Curry Paste, or as directed on a packet of ready-made paste
¼-½ tsp curry powder
¼ tsp ground turmeric
2-4 kaffir lime leaves, torn or bruised
1 tsp fish sauce, plus extra to taste
A pinch or two of palm sugar, or caster sugar, to taste (optional)
To garnish (any or all of):
Thinly sliced red chilli, quantity to taste
Finely shredded spring onion
Handful picked coriander leaves and/or a few Thai basil leaves
1 or 2 kaffir lime leaves
Prepare the lobster chunks as described in the Notes.
Carefully remove the lid of the tin of coconut milk and spoon off 3 tbsp of the cream that will have risen to the top. Stir the remainder of the tin well and measure out 250ml of this thinner coconut milk. Add 50ml water. Keep the remainder of the tin to one side in case more coconut milk is needed later.
Heat the oil in a wok (for which you have a lid) and add the coconut cream. Stir fry until the cream thickens and splits. Add the curry paste, curry powder, turmeric and kaffir lime leaves and fry until the paste is brown and the oils rises to the top.
Add the diluted coconut milk and fish sauce, bring just to the boil and simmer gently for 5-10 mins until the sauce thickens a bit. Be careful not to let the sauce boil at any point, or it is liable to split. The sauce can be made 2-3 hours ahead and kept before proceeding with the recipe, but should be brought back to temperature first.
Add the lobster pieces to the warm sauce, bring just to the boil, cover the pan and leave to simmer gently - but again, do not allow to boil. If using pre-cooked lobster the cooking is only a matter of 2-3 minutes, but certainly less than 5 mins. Raw lobster pieces will take about 10 mins to cook (the shells will turn distinctly red when they are ready), but in either case, stir the pieces around and baste with the sauce regularly. If at any time it appears that more liquid is required then add some of the reserved thin coconut milk. Finally, check the sauce for seasoning and adjust with fish sauce and/or palm (or caster) sugar to taste.
Serve the curry straightaway with the garnishes of your choice and with Jasmine rice to accompany.
Preparing the lobster: If the lobster is live, first put it in the freezer for 2 hours or for just long enough that it shows no sign of movement, but is not actually completely frozen. At this point the procedure is the same for a cooked lobster but a raw one will release a lot more fluid which should be discarded. Put the lobster on a board with its legs underneath and, using a large kitchen knife, stab it directly downwards through the cross that is visible on its shell near where the body meets the tail. Bring the knife down longitudinally through the end of the head. Turn the lobster around and cut longitudinally from head to tail to create two halves. With the help of the knife, separate the tail section from the body section, which will have the claws attached to it. Cut the tail pieces crossways into 2 or 3 pieces and keep to one side. Prize the claws away from the body sections and discard the body section along with anything that looks "feathery" still attached to the claw pieces. Break the claws into the the three joints that they are made up of. With the two "arm" sections from each claw, give them a good crack with the back of the knife blade or with a meat hammer. Add to the collection of tail pieces. Finally, for the claws themselves, use the back of the knife blade to crack the meatier end of the claws and carefully peel away roughly half of the shell so that most of the meat is exposed. Any residual pieces from the lobster can be washed and reserved for stock.
"Madhur Jaffrey's Ultimate Curry Bible", Madhur Jaffrey (2003), pp. 133: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Madhur-Jaffreys-Ultimate-Curry-Bible/dp/0091874157