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The Curry Puff of Spiral Dreams, From Malaysia to SF With Love

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Curry puff on a plate with curry dipping sauce.
Spiral curry puffs were Damansara chef Tracy Goh's favorite tea-time snack when she lived in Malaysia. Now, she's brought her own version to her Noe Valley restaurant. (Aron Pruiett/Limitless Media, Inc.)

At one-year-old Damansara in Noe Valley, it’s tough to choose between the Central Malaysian regional specialties on the menu, including laksa noodle soup, nasi lemak coconut rice with crispy chicken, or Dungeness crab slicked in chili sauce. But pastry obsessives will spot a special treat buried in the small plates section, simply called a curry puff. Upon closer scrutiny, there’s a note: only two per table. Never allowed for takeout. So you’ll have to come in and sit down to appreciate the details of this pastry, which features a spiralized dough, prettily crimped edge and belly full of emphatically seasoned potato.

Some people mistakenly call them samosas or empanadas, which annoys chef Tracy Goh. These are curry puffs, or karipap, and “back in Malaysia, it was my favorite tea-time snack,” she says. Her family would enjoy the puffs in the late afternoon with a cup of tea, coffee or Milo chocolate malt after picking them up from local street vendors that specialized in deep-frying these crisp, golden morsels. They could be deceptively skimpy on the filling — sometimes Goh would buy what appeared to be a nice puff, then bite into mostly air.

Goh had never made curry puffs until after moving to San Francisco, when she missed them so desperately, she attempted to learn the “intimidating” dough. Today she makes them true to the snacks she grew up with in Malaysia, with a specific spice profile and flaky crust. But she includes a couple of concessions to San Franciscans, specifically a bigger size and a dipping sauce. She estimates hers are triple the size and stuffed to the seams. “It’s an American size and weight version of what I would like back in Malaysia,” Goh says.

Two hands break apart a curry puff.
One adjustment to the traditional Malaysian recipe: These puffs are bigger and have more filling. (Aron Pruiett/Limitless Media, Inc.)

Goh toasts and grinds her own Malaysian curry blend, a long list of about 10 spices and aromatics, including tangy fenugreek and bright coriander. Along with aromatic curry leaves, those spices season a simple potato filling. Sometimes she mixes in chicken and tucks in a wedge of hard-boiled egg, but the filling should be starchy to hold in juices. (There is another version called epok epok with spicy sardines, but despite the tinned fish trend, Goh is not convinced that Noe Valley is ready yet.) The dough is typically made with margarine in Malaysia, but she prefers vegetable shortening, which keeps the fryer clean.

It’s the layering of the dough and the hand shaping of the pastries that make it a labor of love. Goh actually starts with two different doughs, an oil-based dough and a hot water dough, wrapping the former inside the latter, which creates the lamination or layers. Then she flattens it into a rectangle, “rolls it up like a carpet” and repeats several times, to get that spiral pattern. Finally she slices the “carpet” into round cross sections, flips each piece cut-side down and rolls them to less than 2 millimeters thick. Then you have to crimp it around the filling firm and tight, like you mean it — people who are good at pinching dumplings understand. Lightly pressing with a fork won’t work, she says. “The idea is to lock the pastry.”


Goh has tried training her team, but it’s a heartbreak when a curry puff splits open in the deep fryer. So she does all of the laminating and shaping personally, and it takes about three hours to stuff a batch of 24 curry puffs. So that’s why it’s a limited menu item, exclusively sold in house, even though guests get salty when they sell out on a busy Saturday night.

Finally, yes, okay, it comes with a curry sauce for dunking. Back home, Goh would snack on curry puffs simply the way they are, well seasoned and dry. But in San Francisco, she got tired of diners asking, “‘Is this supposed to come with a sauce?’” She blames the samosa confusion, which leaves them reaching for a chutney. So she hands them the same spice blend whisked into coconut milk.

But whether or not you choose to dunk, each puff is a small revelation: You get to crunch down through the crisp edge that’s twisted like a rope, rip into the spiralized crust that breaks into flakes and sink into the well seasoned potato with warm curry spices.

Overhead view of a curry puff shows its distinctive spiral pattern.
There’s a limit of two curry puffs per table, dine-in only. (Aron Pruiett/Limitless Media, Inc.)

Curry puffs cross cultures in Southeast Asia, and you can spot different versions on other menus around San Francisco. Dabao Singapore sometimes makes a buttery baked triangle. Many Thai restaurants make sweeter versions, like the curry puffs at Ler Ros or so-called samosas at Farmhouse Thai, and Nari serves a fancy puff with duck confit. They’ve even traveled to Hong Kong, where they take the form of curry pies like the tender and crumbly version you can find at Lung Fung Bakery.

And there are plenty of shortcuts. Curry puffs can be made with purchased curry powders, curry pastes and frozen dough, ditching the spiral, and streamlined for takeout. But they’re not so often done well and in this specific Malaysian style. “When people see the pastry, they say it’s beautiful,” Goh says. “Then they taste it, and they start coming back.”

Damansara is open Wednesday through Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m., at 1781 Church St. in San Francisco

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