Thursday, May 18, 2017

How to make Authentic Thai Curry Paste

I'm taking a break from sweet today and taking us "Scientifically Savoury".

Thai food is one of my favourite (if not my favourite!) types of cuisine. I adore the complexity and playful balance of flavours, the brightness, freshness, richness and colour. Like a carnival on a plate, I love it so much and I've travelled to Thailand 8 times (9 times? I've lost count) just to eat. I learned how to cook Thai food and now I can't stop. Lets begin.

There are several different types of Thai Curry pastes that are used to make several different kinds of Thai curries.

Some of the most popular include Red, Green and Yellow. They all begin with similar base ingredients, but certain important additions make them distinctively different.

Penang is another popular curry made using ground roasted peanuts in the paste. It adds richness and of course, a nutty note.

Massaman is a southern Thai curry dish, getting inspiration from its neighbouring border country Malaysia with Muslim influences. You will find most Muslim Thai people in the South of Thailand and the affect that their culture has had on the food is delicious!

If you've ever had the pleasure of visiting Thailand or dining at your favourite Thai restaurant, then you'll know that Thai curries are popular dishes and taste unlike anything else in this world! If you've ever wondered how to make it at home then stick around and learn how to make the most authentic Thai Curry Paste.
Ingredients in Thai Curry Paste

Clockwise starting with the dried chilis:
Dried red chilis, called "spur chilis" 
Coriander and cumin seeds
Thai (white) cardamom pods, star anise and cinnamon bark
Cilantro roots
Thai basil
Kaffir lime peel
Turmeric root
Shrimp paste

In this photo above you also see (counterclockwise from the lemongrass):
Krachai (also called finger root or lesser ginger; the latter implies it is inferior but that is very untrue)
Coriander root

Dried Thai red chilis are difficult to find in North America. The ones you find in Thailand are longer and larger than what I typically find here and they're more flexible. You can use fresh ones but the paste will be wetter and also the flavour will not be as rich. Dried chilis have a deeper, more robust and almost smokey flavour about them.

Thai garlic is much smaller than our garlic and you can use 10-15 per batch, no problem. The more the better in curry paste - I have never once used too much garlic. The skins are also thinner so you can smash them up without peeling them.

Kaffir limes are another thing that's hard to come by. Instead of being smooth and nicely round, these Thai limes are bumpy and mottled looking and they pack a bright punch of flavour. When I can't find this (which is often) I use very finely sliced kaffir lime leaves which are easy to find and store! You will want to use these lime leaves in the curry as it simmers anyway to impart even more fragrance. Kaffir lime leaves are inexpensive and they freeze wonderfully so buy a bunch and keep them in the ice box. Use about 6-10 per batch of paste. Remember to pull back the tough stem that runs through the center of the leaf before slicing them.

Coriander root. You're probably thinking. What the? But do it! The root holds a ton of cilantro flavour and we are so stupid to throw them out! Be like the Thai and wash them well. Chop them from the leaves when you are having taco night and then wrap them up and freeze them until you make this paste.

Galangal - some would say it tastes like ginger, but every Thai (and myself) would say that's wrong. Galangal tastes minty, almost medicinal (think vapo-rub) and has more of a bite. Having said that, you can use ginger because ginger tastes great too. It won't taste quite as authentic but it will still be damn delicious, and yes I have used ginger in its place many times. The trick is that you can use lots and lots of ginger in pastes and they only taste better, but galangal should be used with more restraint.

Turmeric root is easy to find at most Asian grocers, but if you can't then substitute with turmeric powder.

Krachai may prove difficult to find, and it will most likely be labeled "finger root" if you spot it at Asian markets. It has a distinct piquant, eucalyptus-like flavour that is hard to compare. One of my Thai cooking instructors also referred to it as ginseng, which is similar in flavour and appearance but still different.

What tools do I need?

A mortar and pestle. Look for a large, heavy stone or granite one. You want it big enough that the ingredients don't all run up the sides and spill out while you're pounding down.

Alternatively, a food processor. Unless you are making a giant batch of paste, use a small prep food processor so that the blades are in good contact with your ingredients at all times and scrape down the sides regularly. I use this one from Cuisinart. It's just the right size and I find it works better than any other one I've owned thus far.

For the most authentic and rewarding experience (and taste, in my opinion) invest in a mortar and pestle. Pounding up all of the ingredients bursts all of their cells and really lets the flavours marry perfectly. The oils from the chilis and lime peel release more effectively to create an intense flavour. I own this one and love it. Jamie Oliver also makes a nice one, and if you live in Canada check out this one or this one. It certainly takes a lot of effort, but it's worth it. A little sweat means you've earned it.

At home I love to make Massaman curry the most often because it is the one that can be replicated the best here in NA where it may be difficult or inconvenient to find the freshest Thai ingredients, mainly the red and green chilis.

Massaman curry is more of a sweet curry and the flavour of the spices predominates so that you are not missing out on the taste of those dried red chilis that can be hard to come by.


Use sweet paprika powder! To get the colour and flavour of thai curry pastes, you need to use a lot of chilis but if you can't find the right ones than it just wont turn out right. If you use too many of the wrong ones, the paste will be too watery and if you use to many dried ones (the ones I use), it will be WAY TOO SPICY. So I use the amount of dried chilis that I prefer and then add a bunch of paprika to provide the dried chili flavour and colour without the heat. It's a matter of control and it works so well!

How to prepare Thai Curry Paste:

First start with the dry spices. Pound them up to a find powder. For the chilis, any dried chilis that you can find is fine but make sure you are aware of their heat potential before you start adding 20 to your paste! Start with 3 or 4 and remove the seeds if you are unsure. If the chilis you find are very dry and brittle, you can grind these up with the paste. Some people soak them in water for 10 minutes to soften them, but there is plenty of moisture from the other ingredients to smooth it out so it is up to you.

If your chilis are softer and more flexible, then transfer the ground spices to a separate bowl and start pounding the chilis. Add about 1/2 teaspoon of coarse salt while you are pounding in the first few ingredients, including lime peel/leaf, garlic, lemongrass and coriander root. It helps to make a smoother paste and break down the skins.

Add the remaining ingredients (galangal/ginger, turmeric, shallots) and pound away. Begin adding the dry spices, including paprika if you are using the hot paper chilis.

Roast the spices! If you can dry roast them in the oven, that gives incredible flavour. But it's a lot to ask to turn on your oven just for this. Toasting them through in a dry frying pan with frequent shaking of the pan (so they don't burn) works a charm.

How to eat Thai Curry Paste:

Pastes form the foundation of many incredible Thai dishes including soups, curries and stir fry's. To make a traditional curry, fry up the paste in some coconut oil (or other vegetable oil) to bring out the aroma and then stir in coconut milk. To this you can add an assortment of vegetables and meat. Try chicken thigh or breast, pork tenderloin slices or chunks of beef (particularly for massaman curry). For the veggies you can use whatever you'd like, but traditional items are thai eggplants, pea eggplant, long bean and red pepper. Feel free to use broccoli, zucchini and carrot. Sweeter curries, like massaman and penang, may also have potatoes, fruit (such as pineapple), boiled peanuts and even tomatoes. At the end, be sure to add fish sauce and palm sugar to taste. You will need almost equal portions of both to really enhance the flavours. Once everything is cooked through, dish it out into small bowls and serve with a side of steamed jasmine rice and fresh Thai basil.

To make a tasty quick dish, fry up the paste with minced pork, beef or chicken. Toss in some thinly sliced carrot, long bean and Thai basil and serve with rice.

Use the yellow curry paste as a base to make Khao Soi - a delicious northern Thai chicken noodle soup. I'll post about this separately.

Whatever you add it to, know that it will taste delicious!

The difference between the colours

Green Curry: this is the freshest of them all and sometimes has no dry spices. The dominant flavours are lime and lemongrass, with the refreshing licorice notes that comes from heaps of Thai basil. It gets its green colour from green Thai bird chilis that taste completely different to the red ones and there is no turmeric used here.

Red Curry: like the curry you are learning to prepare here, it is based on red chilis and often includes coriander and cumin seeds as well as black peppercorns

Yellow Curry: add Indian yellow curry powder (such as Madras) to red curry paste

Penang Curry: add roasted peanuts while making yellow curry paste

Massaman Curry: add aromatic sweet spices (cardamom, star anise and cinnamon) and some yellow curry powder (or more turmeric, cumin and coriander) to red curry paste

Jungle curry:similar to green curry, but made with both red and green chilis! It is spicy as ever - the most spicy of all. It is usually a chunkier paste and really is loaded with chili more than anything else. What also makes this curry dish hotter than others is that it is water-based, rather than coconut milk-based. Without the creamy, fatty and sweet coconut milk to cool and counteract the firey chilis, this curry can blow your head off if you are not used to it!

Watch the video below to have it all explained!

Thai Massaman Curry Recipe
Serves 4-6 people

It's very hard to give you exact proportions for this recipe because I always do it by eye. It's one of those things that completely loses its pleasure if you measure. The one tip I can give you is, there is never too much of most things in curry paste! More garlic - OK. More ginger - YES. More lemongrass - Uh huH! Just go easy with the galangal.

For the spice mixture:
1 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp whole black peppercorns
1 star anise
one 1-inch piece cinnamon bark

For the paste:
4-6 dried red chilis, chopped
6 cloves of garlic
peel from one Kaffir lime (green part only), or 6 Kaffir lime leaves very finely sliced
1 stalk lemongrass, thinly sliced
4 cilantro roots, chopped
a 2-inch knob of galangal or ginger (if using ginger you can use more)
a 1-inch piece fresh turmeric root (or 1/2 tsp turmeric powder)
2-3 shallots (depending on size)
1 tsp shrimp paste

To prepare the curry:
2 cups pure coconut milk or coconut cream (for the ultimate dish!)
1/3 cup of curry paste (or all of the batch - it will make the best curry!)
1 lb sliced pork tenderloin, sliced beef or chicken
2 large potatoes, par-boiled and cut into chunks
any vegetable you like - I prefer pumpkin, carrots, zucchini, broccoli, eggplant or red bell pepper (just don't use anything too potent like green bell peppers which would change the flavour of the curry)
2 tbsp palm sugar
1 tbsp fish sauce
salt to taste

First roast the spices. Place them in a dry frying pan over medium heat and shake the pan frequently (so they don't burn) until they smell fragrant and start to dark a tinge.

Place toasted spices in the mortar and pound them with the pestle to a find powder. Transfer the ground spices to a separate bowl and start pounding the chilis. Add garlic, kafir lime peel or leaf, lemongrass and coriander root with about 1/2 teaspoon of coarse salt and pound away. Salt helps to make a smoother paste and break down the skins.

Add the remaining ingredients (galangal/ginger, turmeric, shallots) and keep pounding. Begin adding the dry spices, including paprika if you are using the hot paper chilis that don't give much flavour or colour. Finally mash in the shrimp paste. Keep pounding until the paste is buttery and smooth - it will take a good 15 minutes.

To make the curry, heat about 1 tablespoon of coconut oil (or other vegetable oil) in a wok and fry up the paste to bring out the aroma and then stir in coconut milk. The traditional way that I like to use is to heat about 3 tablespoons of coconut milk in the wok over very high heat until it boils and begins to break or separate. Once the oil separates out, you can start frying your paste. You need really high quality coconut milk to do this and I only and always use Aroy-D. It is the one and only brand you should use too - the best of the best I promise. 

Once the paste is fried up, add the coconut milk and bring to a gentle simmer. You do not want to boil at this point anymore. Add the meat and vegetables in the order they need to cook and simmer until cooked through. I usually add my potatoes and carrots at the beginning, add the pumpkin halfway through, and add zucchini and bell peppers right near the end with a minute left.

Finally season with fish sauce, palm sugar and salt (if necessary). If you can't find palm sugar, you can use honey but start with half the amount since honey tastes sweeter than palm sugar. I highly recommend you try palm sugar because it is delicious and produced from coconut palm trees. I buy the hard pucks and chop or shave off the quantity I want into small pieces. You can also buy it in a jar as a thick paste that is scoopable and easier to dispense and dissolve.

So much love people,
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