An Essential Ingredient to Thai Curries

In the last couple of Cooking Tips, I discussed different aspects of Thai Cooking. In the first Tip, I explained the differences between a Thai curry and an Indian curry. Tip #2 was a more general discussion of important Thai ingredients. In this Tip, I want to spend a bit more time looking at one of those ingredients – curry paste.

The word curry can be used to either mean a dish or a spice mixture. In Indian cooking, that spice mixture would be made up of dry, ground spices. In Thai cooking, it is called curry paste and it is a moister mixture that is finely ground or pureed made not only from spices but also from many fresh ingredients.

There are many different versions of curry pastes and the ingredient list for each may vary depending on the cook and/or brand. Let’s first discuss ingredients and then the most common types of curry paste.

Ingredients

  • Chilis – depending on the variety of curry paste, it may contain red or green chilis, either in the dried or fresh forms.
  • Fresh aromatics – typical ones are shallots, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, cilantro root, makrut (aka kaffir) lime zest, grachai (a member of the ginger family), turmeric and ginger.
  • Dried spices – other than those pastes that have some Indian or Muslim influence, dried spices are not typically used. When they are included, you might see coriander seeds, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, mace and cloves.
  • Umami boosters – shrimp paste and dried shrimp. Besides giving an umami boost, shrimp paste also gives an authentically Thai flavor.

Types of Curry Paste

Red
This paste is made with dried red chilis and can have up to 20 different varieties. Traditionally, the dried red chilis are soaked, which reduces some of the harshness and heat. One expert lists what he calls the “Basic 10” of ingredients – dried red chilis, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, galangal, cilantro root, makrut lime zest, white peppercorns, shrimp paste and salt. Others may also add coriander and cumin.

Green
The chilis used in this paste are very similar to those in red but here they are in their fresh (green) state. Besides the fresh green chilies, other typical ingredients are shallots, lemongrass, white pepper, coriander root, garlic, kaffir lime zest, shrimp paste and sea salt. This all gives this paste a green color. In the final dish, sweet basil leaves, round green Thai eggplant and kaffir lime leaves are often added, which contribute even more to an overall green hue. As compared to red curry paste, this one has a more balanced and herbier flavor.

Some consider red curry paste as the spiciest whereas others give that prize to green paste.

Traditionally, Thai people considered green curries as the hottest followed be red. As Thai food became popular in the West, the red curry emerged as the hottest. However, in authentic Thai cuisine, a green curry will always be spicier than a red.

Yellow
The color of this variety comes from fresh turmeric and curry powder. Other common ingredients are coriander, cumin, lemongrass, galangal, shrimp paste, dried red chilies, sea salt, ginger, garlic and shallots. It is milder than the other pastes but the actual spiciness will depend on the actual chilis used. It also often has a touch of sweetness.

Panang
This curry paste is similar to red but has the addition of ground peanuts as well as cumin, coriander seeds, dried red long chilies, shallots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime zest, coriander root, white pepper, salt and shrimp paste.

Massaman
Because of the Muslim in influence in this curry paste, it has abundant dry spices that are commonly seen in south Asia – cinnamon, star anise, cloves, cardamom and nutmeg. Other ingredients are dried red chilies, shallots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, coriander, cumin, white pepper, salt and shrimp paste. It is a relatively mild curry paste.

The most common use for curry paste is in Thai curries where the curry paste is cooked with a protein and/or veggies and a liquid such as coconut milk or stock. That is not the only use, though and these pastes can be used as a marinade, a rub for chicken, fish or beef as well as in stir fries.

If you have been reading these Cooking Tips for very long, you know that I do not use or recommend many convenience items. For example, when you need a small amount of Chinese Five Spice, do not buy an entire bottle that may go stale before you use it all up. Rather, make your own from ingredients that are probably already in your pantry.

Curry pastes are different, though. You can certainly make these pastes from scratch but it is a fairly time consuming process and involves a whole host of ingredients, many of which are difficult to come by outside of a good Asian or international food market. Therefore, most of us will buy a good prepared curry paste.

A good curry paste is said to have an aroma strongly of herbs. When looking at the ingredients, there should only be herbs, spices, salt and shrimp paste. No oils, no additives and no water. Many Thai cooks strongly suggest only buying Thai brands.

Some differences that may be seen between store-bought & home-made is that the home-made version may have more complex flavors and may have a fresher taste as the herbs are added at the end and not further processed. Another advantage of home-made is that you can customize the blend to accommodate dietary restrictions and flavor preferences.

Brands – Favorite store-bought brands are:

  • Maesri – one advantage of this brand is that it comes in small cans rather than larger containers.
  • Mae Ploy – this is my favorite brand but it does tend to be saltier than other brands.
  • Chef’s Choice – this brand is mostly found in Europe and Asia.
  • Mae Anong – a favorite of many Thai afficionados.

Storage
Curry paste can be refrigerated for at least a week or frozen for six months to a year.

With the info found in these last three Cooking Tips, you should be able to make your own kitchen your favorite Thai restaurant!