Curries — Thai vs. Indian

Most of us have probably eaten dishes that carry the name of “Curry” but do you really know what that name means? One curry dish can be dramatically different from the next one in terms of taste, ingredients and heat level. In this Cooking Tip, I will try to help you understand this term so you are better informed whether you are ordering at a restaurant or making it at home.

The food reference book The New Food Lover’s Companion defines curry as coming “from the southern Indian word kari, meaning sauce.” They call it a “catch-all term referring to any number of hot, spicy, gravy-based dishes of East Indian origin.” That definition may be true but is incomplete. A more general description of a curry is a dish with a sauce and containing fish/meat, veggies and/or lentils. The flavor comes from a fairly complex mixture of spices and herbs. The dish is typically eaten with rice, noodles or bread depending on the country of origin.

Although many people think of Indian cuisine when they hear the word curry, there are other countries that also boast of their curries. The most common and popular non-Indian curry is Thai curry. Let’s contrast these two very popular and flavorful dishes.

Indian curry

  • The base is often made from sautéed tomatoes and onions.
  • The flavor comes from dry spices that are typically sauteed in clarified butter.
  • Common spices are cumin, turmeric, coriander powder, cardamom, fenugreek, red chili powder, mustard seeds, paprika, and cinnamon.
  • Curry leaves are often, but not always, used.
  • Indian curries may use coconut milk but very often just use water, cream or yogurt.
  • They are thick and more stew-like.
  • They are eaten with basmati rice and/or Indian bread. They are never served with noodles.
  • There are many different varieties including, but not limited to, Bombay, butter chicken, saag, vindaloo, korma, kofta, madras, tikka masala, biryani and Kashmir.

Thai curry

  • Thai curries start with fresh ingredients blended into a curry paste. Due to these ingredients, there are more flavors of fresh herbs and hints of citrus.
  • Curry pastes come in different types but common ingredients are fresh chilis, ginger, lemongrass, lime, shrimp paste, garlic and shallots. Other common ingredients are onions, garlic, galangal, cilantro and tamarind paste.
  • Curry leaves are not used. Rather, Kaffir lime leaves are utilized.
  • Curry paste is fried in oil before adding other ingredients.
  • These curries are more often based in coconut milk although there are water-based Thai curries. They do not typically use dairy.
  • Thai curries are thinner and more soup-like.
  • In general, Thai curries are spicier than Indian curries.
  • Common types of Thai curries are green, red, yellow, panang and masaman.

Which do you like to cook? Which is your favorite to eat? For me, the answer to both questions is Thai although I would be happy eating a good Indian curry. I just find Thai curries fresher with more bright flavors. What about you?