"Ki lek!" she announced triumphantly, before heading off to her kitchen table to prepare the leaves for inclusion in a spicy upcountry gaeng (curry).
I'm no botanist, and an English translation on the menu of the Bangkok restaurant mentioned in Part 1, of ki lek leaves as "caper leaves", threw me off-track for well over two years as I tried to identify their source. (The flower buds of the ki lek tree, below, do resemble caper berries.)
In the comments section of my previous post (Part 1) knowledgeable EatingAsia reader RST informs me (or reminds me? presumably I followed and probably even participated in the Chowhound Chicago Board discussion of ki lek to which he alludes, but that was a few years ago) that the leaves Wan brought home are from a cassia tree common to SE Asia. Some googling turned up this link to photos (click the photos icon on the upper left of the page) of Canafistula (cassia fistula), a hardwood tropical tree native to India, the Amazon, and Sri Lanka. Also known as the "golden shower" tree because of the cascades of yellow blossoms it produces after dropping its leaves, the tree's leaves and bark are said to lower cholesterol and aid digestion. Another few photos of Canafistula here suggest a possible match with ki lek (to health benefits listed prior Wan adds that ki lek reduces flatulence, relieves a sore throat, and "helps men when they need it"). I'm willing to call it mystery solved -- and so let's get on with dinner.
[Update: now, thanks to yet another comment by reader RST, mystery *really* solved. Leaves in question are from the "Kassod Tree" (Cassia siamea), a fast-growing 30-40' tree native to, among other places, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and (probably) Thailand .. and naturalized in the American tropics. Photos of the tree and a good ones of the leaves and buds, which helped me to confirm identification, can be found here.]
Before being added to a curry fresh ki lek leaves must be washed well and boiled to tame their bitterness. Wan boiled leaves and ki lek buds together for 15 minutes. After draining and rinsing the leaves well, she boiled them again for another 15 minutes. At this point the ki lek leaves can be stored in the fridge for up to 2 days before using.
Those of you not living in Asia may be able to find fresh ki lek leaves at a well-stocked Thai grocery. If you live in Florida, where Canafistula is not uncommon, you might even be able to pick some yourself (younger, smaller leaves are tastier). Otherwise, look for bottled, pickled ki lek leaves. RST reports that in Chicago they are available at Thai Grocery at Broadway and Argyle; I also found them available to mail order (in the US) here. Prepared ki lek leaves should be rinsed well in warm water and patted dry before use.
Gaeng Ki Lek (Ki Lek Curry)
The measurements for this curry are inspecific, in part because Wan, eager to get the ki lek show on the road, proceeded to pound together the curry paste while I was out walking the dog. So I've had to pull together a recipe from her recollection of how much of each ingredient she used, in fairly vague amounts. No matter -- ki lek is a true homestyle Thai dish, prepared with slight variations, region to region and cook to cook. A Thai cook would say, if you like it garlicky, add more garlic, if you can't take the heat reduce the number of chilies (or/and remove their seeds) or use a milder variety of chili, and if you like your curries with a wee sour edge go ahead and throw in a couple kaffir lime leaves or stir in a bit of lime juice at the end, even though the recipe doesn't call for it. You can also, Wan says, substitute grilled pork, chunks of fish, chicken pieces (on the bone), or beef for the pork in this recipe, if that's your preference.
6 plump cloves of garlic, chopped
5 shallots, chopped
10 dried long red Thai chilies, soaked in warm water for 1/2 an hour, then cut into quarters
5 fresh red chilies (mild to incendiary, according to your taste), sliced crosswise about 1/2 inch thick
4 fingers of krachai (if using pickled krachai, soak in hot water for 1/2 hour, rinse and dry), chopped
2 one-inch slices of kha (galangal), chopped
4 stalks of lemongrass, bottom tender 4-5 inches only, peeled and finely chopped
2 1/2 cups rich coconut milk (coconut cream not separated)
a big bunch of ki lek leaves, prepared as described above, or a large jar of pickled leaves, rinsed
approx. 1/3 pound of pork, sliced thin as if for stir-fry
For the curry paste, pound together, using a heavy pestle and mortar, the garlic, krachai, kha, lemongrass, and dried chilies. Add the chilies and pound lightly just to bruise them, not to incorporate fully into the paste. (Alternatively grind the ingredients together in a powerful blender or a food processor, adding *just* enough water to get them blended. Then pound the fresh chilies with the handle of a heavy knife and chuck them into the paste.)
Bring the coconut milk to a boil, in a wok or heavy-duty fry pan, over medium heat. Lower heat to a gentle simmer. The milk should thicken and eventually (within 10 minutes) give up its oil (globules of fat will appear on the surface). At this point stir in the curry paste. Simmer gently and continue to stir. After about 4-5 minutes, until the paste ingredients are sufficiently heated and the mixture becomes aromatic. Continue to stir another couple of minutes and then add fish sauce, a tablespoon at a time, until the salt balance of the curry is to your liking. The curry should nap a spoon, but not too heavily -- add some water if necessary.
Add the pork and stir until it is cooked through. Add the ki lek leaves and buds and cook until they are heated through.
Serve with jasmine or Thai red rice. About 3 servings, with one or two other dishes.