A tumble of tiny morsels of pork generously coated in a golden and aromatic curry paste, khua kling is one of the spiciest dishes in southern Thailand, an area known for its capsicum-rich cuisine. But to classify it simply as spicy is to do khua kling a disservice: Galangal, lemongrass, and lime leaves lend it an astonishingly vibrant citrusy-floral fragrance; fermented shrimp paste and fish sauce provide plenty of funk and salt; and turmeric anchors it all with a subtly earthy base note.
Khua Kling: Not Just for Chile-Heads
There’s so much going on in each bite that spooning up your khua kling with steamed jasmine rice, in a proportion of roughly 1 part pork to 2 parts rice, is strongly advised because the dilution enables you to appreciate every nuance without being overwhelmed by the heat or disturbing the balance of flavors. In fact, Pailin Chongchitnant, cookbook author, YouTube cooking star, and the force behind the website Hot Thai Kitchen, described khua kling as “a seasoning for rice” in a video call from Vancouver, British Columbia. She favors tossing her portions of pork and rice together until she’s calibrated just the right ratio for her taste. Such customization is not only traditional—“In a Thai meal, every single bite has to have rice in it,” Chongchitnant explained—but also comes in handy when you’re serving a group with varying spice tolerances.
For all its complexity, making khua kling isn’t that difficult. Simply grind some fresh and dried ingredients to make a coarse curry paste and cook that paste briefly over moderate heat in a wok or skillet to mellow the alliums. Mix in pork (either preground or hand-chopped), crank the heat, and stir-fry the mixture for a few minutes until it’s cooked through and any liquid has evaporated. Some last-minute additions of fish sauce, sugar, lime leaves, pepper, and chiles heighten the flavors. Khua kling comes together in about as much time as it takes to cook the rice and even more quickly if you’ve had the foresight to stash some curry paste in the freezer.
Perfecting the Paste
The curry paste for khua kling contains many of the same ingredients as other curry pastes used in the rest of Thailand—chiles, shallots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, fish sauce, and makrut lime leaves—but that generous dose of pungent kapi (Thai shrimp paste), fresh turmeric, and black pepper tie it specifically to the South. I tried simply adding the three typically Southern elements to a jar of prepared red curry paste and cooking it with preground pork, but this time-saving khua kling lacked the boldness of the genuine article.
Fish Sauce and Kapi: An Umami-Packed Pair
Khua kling owes much of its savory complexity to a duo of fermented seafood-derived ingredients: fish sauce and kapi, a coarse, pungent Thai paste made from salted krill. The fish sauce, which is added during the final stage of cooking, provides a bright, light overlay of umami. The kapi, in contrast, is more of a savory base note, infusing the whole dish with salty funk.
A chat with Sarintip “Jazz” Singsanong, James Beard–nominated chef and proprietor of Jitlada, a southern Thai restaurant in Los Angeles, set me straight. The jarred paste was too generic for khua kling and its shelf stability contradicted a central tenet of southern Thai cuisine.
Freshness, Singsanong asserted, is one of the primary attributes of the region’s food. When she was growing up in a small town in southern Thailand, her family gathered all the ingredients for their meals from the land surrounding their home; for a dish like khua kling, they’d purchase only the pork. And indeed, it was only when I made the curry paste with all fresh ingredients that I started to progress toward real-deal khua kling. But I paid for that progress with physical effort—while the flavors of the resulting batch of khua kling burst like fireworks across my palate, the process of pounding and grinding the ingredients into a paste in my mortar and pestle took almost an hour.
The Right Tool for the Job
Hoping to make this part of the recipe less cumbersome, I asked Chongchitnant for guidance on pounding the paste. On the topic of the mortar and pestle? “I don’t have time for that,” she said with a laugh. While she used to pound the paste by hand, she explained, she has since found a cleaner, quicker work-around. “A good immersion blender does a fantastic job,” she said. “It doesn’t need a lot [of ingredients], you can put it where you want, and it gets beautifully fine.”
And so it did. Because an immersion blender works most efficiently when grinding or blending things that are moist, I soaked my deseeded dried chiles in hot water for a short while before draining them, reserving the liquid, which would come in handy later if I needed to deglaze my wok. Then I transferred the chiles to a 2-cup liquid measure along with the other curry paste ingredients and let ’er rip. Applying the whirring blades in a mashing up-and-down motion, I reduced the chunky pieces to a coarse puree in a mere 2 minutes.
Curry Paste: A Smashing Shortcut
Fresh ingredients are crucial in the cuisine of southern Thailand, and khua kling demonstrates why—a coarse paste of chiles, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, shrimp paste, and makrut lime leaves infuses the dish with explosive, captivatingly complex flavor. We tested several tools to make this paste. Here are our findings.
- Mortar and pestle: Pounding the paste by hand is time-consuming—but if you want to give it a try, Pailin Chongchitnant has found the process goes more smoothly when she places her mortar on the floor and squats behind it for the best leverage. She also likes to pound the wetter components (shallots and garlic) first and then add absorbent ingredients, such as the dried chile powder, when the mixture gets messy.
FOR A FREEZER STASH
- Food processor: If you quadruple the paste recipe, the ingredients can be processed in a standard food processor. Freeze leftover portions, and you can make khua kling in less than 10 minutes.
- Blender: There isn’t sufficient liquid in the paste to blend smoothly, and the whirring blades don’t provide the blunt force necessary to create the paste’s coarse texture.
OUR PREFERRED METHOD
- Immersion blender: For the quickest and cleanest results, simply load all ingredients into a measuring cup (immersion blenders work best in containers that are only slightly larger than the blender head) and blend in a mashing, up-and-down motion. Watch through the glass to determine when the paste has reached the perfect coarse consistency.
Fire and Ice
The curry paste settled, it was time to balance the flavors. Shrimp paste and fish sauce each provided something subtly different, so they were both required. A bit of sugar, added toward the end of cooking, was not only traditional but also brought the salt, spice, and citrusy zing together into a flavorsome whole. Though not all recipes call for both dried and fresh chiles, I liked the subtle fruitiness of the former and the dazzling heat of the latter, so they were both in. Inspired by Chongchitnant’s recipe, I folded some sliced fresh chiles into the pork right before serving so that wary folks could avoid them, but chile-heads could mash them into their own serving.
In addition to serving rice with khua kling to soothe the palate, raw vegetables are also offered to refresh it. At Singsanong’s restaurant, they enhance that tradition by serving their fiery curry with vegetables that come to the table nestled in a bed of crushed ice. I simplified the idea, using only sliced cucumbers. Bites of spicy pork tossed with rice, followed by refreshing slices of icy cucumber? Literally sensational.