Thai Curry - Adding the Flavors of Thailand to Your Table Tablespoon by Tablespoon
by Wen Zientek-Sico
Do you love Thai curry? Learn how to make authentic (and some easy not-quite-so-authentic) Thai curry pastes at home and discover how to use them and commercial Thai curry pastes in a wide range of recipes.
When you first start exploring Thai cuisine, several ingredients and techniques pop up over and over again. While talking to many Thai cooks about the most important ingredients for cooking traditional Thai food I asked them if they could pinpoint the most basic cornerstone recipe in Thai cooking. The overwhelming response was curry paste. And while not everyone agreed about what type of curry paste, they all talked about how important it is in many recipes and how useful an ingredient it is. According to Patchara Pornpipatpong "Curry pastes are essential to Thai cooking. I always have at least five different pastes on hand in my refrigerator or freezer and will use more than twenty others in a wide variety of recipes. The depth of flavor and intenseness of curry pastes makes everything you use them in taste wonderful." Walapa Somwan furthers this concept by saying "…I can cook something for five minutes, add a spoonful of curry paste, and it will taste like it cooked for hours. The well developed flavors in the curry add polish to simple ingredients resulting in complexly flavored dishes that require only minimal cooking times."
In Thai cooking, curry is more than a mixture of dry spices or a yellow powder from a jar, which is what many Western cooks equate with cooking. A Thai Curry is a mixture of herbs, spices, vegetables, highly flavored ingredients, peppers, seafood, and much more. It is a complex highly flavorful melange that is literally smashed together to form a thick paste which is then used in small amounts to flavor every type of dish.
There are many schools of thoughts on how a curry paste should be made. Traditionally, they were made entirely by crushing and mixing them using a large mortar and pestle. Ouch! I can tell you from my own personal experience doing this that it takes a long time and strong hands and arms. Others have totally skipped the mortar and pestle and just use a food processor, but while the flavors are similar, the paste is always chunky and never as smooth or quite as flavorful as the pastes made with a mortar and pestle. Our solution? We experimented with using the food processor or mortar and pestle on all the different steps and have decided that the best way to make a curry paste is to pound the fibrous material by hand with the mortar and pestle to release the oils and break up the coarse fibers and then combine the ingredients into a smooth and uniform paste using the food processor. It is the best compromise, and the results are actually better than making the paste using just the food processor or mortar and pestle. Well, at least with our arm muscles. According to Patchara Pornpipatpong, "While I make most of my curry pastes in the food processor now, my mother and grandmother used to make it all by hand and no matter how much I try with the food processor or mortar and pestle I just cannot make a paste as smooth or as flavorful as they did. It must be something in the arms or the wrist." Should you decide to tackle curry pastes by hand, read Kasma Loha-unchit's excellent instructions Making a Curry Paste from Scratch from her book, It Rains Fishes. Whatever method you use to make your curry paste, the important thing is that it is smooth. It should be a thick paste, but not chunky at all. This is essential for the real blending of flavors that is vital to a traditional curry paste.
There are almost as many curry pastes as there are cooks who enjoy Thai cuisine. There are even a wide range of bottled curry pastes which, while not as flavorful as homemade curry pastes, do make a great introduction to Thai curry. We have included recipes for some of the basic variations for you to work with, but when it comes to curry paste, each cook adds their own special touch. If you love garlic, add some more. Want some more citrus? Add some more lemongrass and Kaffir lime leaves. Hate cilantro? Leave it out or use parsley instead. Want it spicier? Add a handful of dried Thai bird chiles. All of the recipes can be modified to suit your taste, and that of your family. Experiment with the ingredients you like, and the ingredients you have on hand. Most of all, have fun making the pastes and experimenting with Thai cuisine.
Curry Paste Recipes
Once you have made your curry paste, there are tons of things you can do with it. It is an integral ingredient in Thai curries, of course, but they also play an important role in a wide range of soups, stews, sauces, salads, side dishes, and marinades. Luckily, it is easy to make big batches of curry pastes and they store very well. I normally refrigerate what I know I will use in the next week or so, and then the rest I freeze in tablespoon sized portions. I use an inexpensive ice cube tray just for freezing spicy things like curry pastes and will fill each section of the ice cube tray with a tablespoon of curry paste. I cover the tray with plastic wrap and then freeze it for at least several hours. Once the curry cubes are frozen I remove them from the tray and place them in a labeled freezer bags. You can store curry pastes this way for even up to a year with no loss of flavor. The convenient size allows you to just drop in the exact amount of paste you need. For smaller or odd amounts, simply thaw the paste and measure what you need. The remaining thawed paste will last for a week or so in the refrigerator.
We have offered a selection of our favorite Thai curry recipes below. If you have a favorite recipe that uses Thai curry paste, or a favorite recipes for a Thai curry paste, please send it to us and we will share it on our site. Enjoy!
Recipes Using Curry Pastes