Spicebush is a versatile spice, whether dried or fresh. One of the best ways to experience that versatility is by making fresh spicebush berry-based curry pastes. In late spring and early summer, the fresh green berries can be combined with green chiles and aromatics to make a green curry paste. The most pronounced flavor change occurs in the berries when the seed emerges in mid-summer, inside the bright green fruit. Once the color change sets in the berries can be gathered and combined with red chiles to make a red curry paste.
Neither of these will taste identical to the classic green and red Thai curry pastes, unless you use only the traditional aromatics rather than wild ingredients. If you want to make an authentic Thai curry with spicebush as an added aromatic (and I can find no fault at all with that idea!) then you will be better served by simply adding some spicebush berries to a traditional recipe. My non-recipe recipe, which follows, is much more open-ended and designed to let you work with whatever native or imported, cultivated or wild seasonings and aromatics you might have on hand.
This approach is one of proportions and seasonal, available ingredients. It changes every time I make it, and can include many different aromatics depending on what I have at hand and what I have in mind to use the curry paste with.
Combine in a food processor or mortar :
1/4 cup red spicebush berries, fresh not dried
4 oz red chiles, destemmed and deseeded (I don’t really care for my spice pastes to be super-hot, so that I can add fresh chiles or other hot spices to my final dishes. If you prefer a more traditionally hot paste, double the amount of chiles and use 8 oz.)
1 oz turmeric root or substitute turmeric powder at time of cooking
6 oz alliums and aromatic stalks and/or roots in any combination that makes sense to you : garlic, ginger, wild ginger, galangal, wild carrot root, wild parsnip root, angelica stems, lemongrass stalks, shallots, and leeks or spring onions are all viable options. (an example of how this breaks down from a recent version of this : 2 oz angelica stem, 2 oz shallots, 1 oz garlic, 1 oz wild ginger)
4-6 oz feral or cultivated apple or pear, or combination of apples and pears, and if desired other mealy/juicy rose family fruits such as hawthorns or rose hips. (optional – i add feral fruit generally just to thin out a paste if it is too heavy, or if I intend to use the paste primarily as a grilling medium)
2-4 tbs dried spices, cultivated or wild seeds, two or more of : cumin, coriander, wild carrot, wild parsnip, pushki, black or wild mustard, fenugreek, etc. Any wild or cultivated seeds that you would use in a dried curry mix are good to use here. I generally follow the ratio (used in many traditional masalas) of combining equal parts cumin and coriander seed, accented with smaller amounts of other spices. In lieu of coriander I often use one of the wild carrot family members whose seeds have a “coriander-like” quality. In my area those are wild carrot, pushki and wild parsnip.
1 tbs ground sumac (optional)
handful of turning sassafras or spicebush leaves (sassafras will be yellow, orange or red, spicebush yellow) (optional)
grated zest of chinese bitter orange (Poncirus trifoliata), kaffir lime or other citrus (optional)
1 tbs shrimp paste (optional, but adds intense depth of flavor and that oily ring of authenticity)
Process until smooth. A food processor is the easiest fix for this, but I recommend chopping into small pieces most of what you add. Cloves of garlic should be crushed. Dried leaves should be crumbled. Stringy things like leeks, angelica, or lemongrass should be cut into small pieces across the grain. If you want to prepare this more traditionally, a mortar and pestle works fine with a bit of pre-chopping and patience. I don’t mind a coarse grain with this, as is obvious from the picture below, but you can go coarser or finer as you like.
Red spicebush curry paste will store in the fridge for a few weeks, but I recommend putting recipe-size batches in small jars and freezing them.
As to using this concoction? Certainly any traditional recipe which calls for a Thai red curry paste can be made, substituting this. The flavor will of course vary from that of the traditional, but the results will doubtless be delicious.
I prefer to use my curry pastes, especially if I have loaded them with native or locally-grown ingredients, with local vegetables, seafoods and meats. I particularly enjoy the red spicebush curry paste with autumnal and winter vegetables like squash, beets, potatoes, leeks, evening primrose and other root vegetables. Shrimp and squid are fantastic grilled in the paste, with a little miring or vinegar or chile sauce added to thin out the mix. Fantastic curry soups can be made with lentils, sweet potatoes, and so on, simply cooked in broth and pureed with curry paste. I find it works equally well thinned or mellowed with coconut milk, broth, yogurt, or wild bark teas. A simple vegetable dip fit for the gods can be made by combining spicebush curry paste, miso and homemade yogurt.