Exotic, spicy and flavorful, Thai curries are Indian curry’s lighter cousin, created with different herbs and spices and including fresh vegetables and various meats. These stew-like delicacies come in a variety of flavors and levels of heat. Whether you like sweet and savory or spicy and tangy, there’s probably a Thai curry for you.
What Are Thai Curries?
Thai curries are stew-like dishes that are made from different types of curry pastes blended with coconut milk. This base then incorporates various meats, seafood, vegetables or protein substitutes like tofu. Some versions also use herbs or fruit for added flavor.
The thickness of Thai curries varies with the preparation, from thin and watery to a thick stew-like consistency. They’re either served over rice, eaten with naan (the Indian style of flatbread), roti canai (Thai flatbread) or another type of flatbread, or served over noodles. They may also be eaten alone, although the curry broth is pungent and spicy and is intended to have some of the spiciness offset by rice, noodles and the like.
All Thai curries start out with the same ingredient base, although the red, yellow and green versions can incorporate more or less of the ingredients that give the curries color and include other ingredients to give a different flavor and spice level. Here are the base ingredients:
- Shrimp paste: This is a condiment in a paste form made from finely ground shrimp or krill. The mixture is combined with salt and fermented for several weeks to make a pungent, concentrated shellfish condiment. It’s typically used in cuisines from India, Southeast Asia and the southern regions of China.
- Onions or shallots: Shallots are a hybrid of onions and garlic and have a sweeter, more acidic taste than onions without the pungent aroma.
- Garlic: One of the most common ingredients in Asian food, garlic is used in curries, curry pastes and other Thai dishes either freshly chopped or roasted.
- Lemongrass: This herb looks similar to asparagus with a tough stalk form. It’s named correctly as it’s used, in a mashed paste form, to add citrusy notes to curry pastes without adding the acid that citrus fruit juice would impart.
- Galangal: This is very similar to ginger, albeit slightly more intense. It’s smoky and spicy, with a flavor similar to cinnamon, although slightly more tart.
- Coriander: This spice is the root of the cilantro plant. It gives a subtle spice to dishes without being overpowering.
- Thai basil: Though you might think it’s the same, Thai basil is different from its larger-leaved cousin, Italian basil. The smaller leaves are slightly sweet and impart a subtle sweetness to green curry paste.
Chilis are used in many different Thai dishes, including curries, and there are several different kinds, from the small and slim red spicy ones to larger, milder green chilis. Depending on the type of curry, the chilis incorporated in it may be dried (for a spicier curry) or fresh (for milder more subtle flavors) and either red or green. Common chilis include:
- Bird’s eye chili: One of the hottest chilis, with a Scoville Heat Unit rating ranging from 100,000-225,000.
- Prik ban chang: Typically sun-dried and used in many different curries. It’s mild and used for subtle flavor versus heat.
- Prik yuak: Sweet and larger than other Thai chilis, it’s used as a fresh ingredient in many curries with vegetables.
- Prik chee fah: Used in red curries, the name translates to “chili pointing to the sky.” Its red color is intensified and preserved when dried and is what gives red curry its bright color.
- Prik kee noo suan: A spicy, tiny green chili that means “mouse dropping chili” in Thai. It’s the most common chili used in Thai cuisine and is what gives green chili paste its vibrant, verdant color and tart heat.
The History of Thai Curries
Like much of Thai culture, curries and most Thai foods are a blend of ancient Eastern tradition and Western influences, with the harmony of the ingredients and flavors as the guiding principle. In fact, adding chilis to much of Thai cuisine came about after Columbus’s visit to the New World and Marco Polo’s ventures in the region.
Chilis are a more recent addition to Thai cuisine, mostly brought over by Portuguese missionaries in the late 1600s. While serving in South America, many Portuguese missionaries developed a taste for chilis and introduced these to the Southeast Asian cultures that they encountered. Much of Thai cuisine reflects a culture and lifestyle that incorporates the water, including plenty of seafood and shellfish, fresh vegetables and sweet fruits.
Ghee, commonly used in Indian curries, was replaced in Thai cuisine by coconut oil, while coconut milk substituted for other dairy products. This results in a lighter, more delicate, soupy curry, versus the heavier, stew-like Indian curry sauces. The overpowering pure spices in Indian curries, such as five-spice and anise, are replaced with fresher herbs like lemongrass and galangal.
Most Thai meals are served all at once, instead of in courses like other cultures. These meals typically include a soup, a curry dish with accompanying condiments and a dip for grilled fresh fish, vegetables or shredded meats such as lamb, pork or beef. The intention behind family-style serving of Thai cuisine is to allow diners to enjoy complementing flavors and different combinations, tastes and textures.
What’s the Difference Between Thai and Indian Curries?
Thai curries burn intensely but briefly, while other curries, especially Indian, are known for their slow burn.
The difference between Indian and Thai curries lies mainly in the use of herbs and aromatic leaves in Thai curries versus heavier spices in Indian curries. Thai curries are more subtle, while Indian ones are bolder. The history of Thai curries includes moving away from the pungent spices that flavor Indian cuisine and incorporating fresher herbs for a lighter, more subtle yet spicy flavor.
Thai curry is all about the aromatic curry paste, an intense, thick, moist blend of flavorful ingredients. All curry paste is made with the same or fairly similar base ingredients: hot chilis, lemongrass, ginger, garlic, shallot, shrimp paste and dry herbs like cumin, coriander seeds and turmeric.
Coriander, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek and powdered chili peppers are the basis for Indian curry powder. These elements are toasted and hand-blended by a chef in India, where a wide range of additional spices may be added depending on where in India the curry is being made and what other ingredients are going in the dish.
There are many similarities, however, between Thai curries and Indian ones. In the Thai language, kari translates to curry and refers to dishes made from Indian-style curry powder. These dishes are known as phanaeng Kari or Kaeng kari in the Thai language. The spices in these dishes are those used in Indian cuisine as well as Thai, although the balances of these spices vary between the two cuisines.
Thai Red Curry
Red curry is an every-curry paste — it’s perfect for just about anything. It’s bold with a mild spiciness and is a good starting point if you aren’t afraid of spice. The deep, rich flavor and color come from the red chilis that are used to make this paste.
Red curries are typically enhanced with tomatoes, bell peppers, onions and a form of protein. If you’re making your own red curry at home, you may also choose to include heavier meats, such as beef or lamb, versus something lighter like whitefish or tuna, as the more robust red curry flavors overwhelm more delicate proteins.
Recipe featuring Thai red curry
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon fresh ginger root, peeled and finely grated
- 1 pound steak cubes
- One 13.5-ounce can of coconut milk
- 2 to 4 tablespoons Thai red curry paste
- 3/4 cup chicken broth, low sodium
- 5 ounces snow peas, roughly chopped
- 4 leaves kaffir lime
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 2 stalks lemongrass, bruised
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, chopped
This is one of our favorite recipes because it’s simple to execute and can be made in one pan — either a Dutch oven, a wok or a large skillet.
First, heat the olive oil in your pan until hot, then add the ginger and garlic and stir-fry over high heat for 30 seconds. Then, turn the heat down to medium-high and add the beef; cook 4-5 minutes or until cooked through and no longer pink. Stir in the coconut milk, curry paste, chicken broth, snow peas, kaffir lime leaves, sugar and lemongrass.
Once you’ve done this, bring the entire mixture to a boil, stirring constantly. Turn down the heat and simmer, allowing the flavors to meld together and the mixture to thicken. Remove the kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass from the pot and garnish with fresh cilantro.
Serve immediately over cooked rice.
Thai Yellow Curry
Yellow curry paste is used for light meats like poultry and seafood, as well as vegetarian curries. It gets the bright yellow color from the yellow peppers and an abundance of turmeric, which makes it sweet and mellow. It can also meld well with seared tofu cubes, as well as different kinds of mushrooms, for a vegetarian alternative.
Recipe featuring Thai yellow curry
First, make your own curry paste.
Simply combine these ingredients in a high-speed food processor:
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 teaspoons ginger paste or grated ginger
- 2-6 Thai chili peppers, finely diced
- 1 ½ teaspoons salt
- 1 tablespoon turmeric
- 1 tablespoon curry powder, mild
- 1 teaspoon coriander, ground
- 1 tablespoon lemongrass paste
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 ½ cups sweet onions, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 pound chicken, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 red bell pepper, cut into 2-inch strips
- 1 ½ cups carrots, cut into Â½-inch pieces
- 1 ½ cups Yukon gold potatoes, cut into Â¾-inch cubes
- 2 15-ounce. cans full-fat coconut milk or one can lite and one can full-fat
- 1 tablespoon white sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
To prepare, heat olive oil in a large pan or wok. Add onions and saute until they’re clear. Then add the chicken and curry paste, cooking until the chicken is browned and cooked through. Once the chicken is cooked, drizzle more olive oil into the pan. Next, add the red bell peppers, carrots, potatoes, milk, sugar and salt. Stir until well combined.
Bring the curry to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer. Cover and let simmer for 25-35 minutes or until potatoes and carrots are fork-tender. Finally, serve the yellow chicken curry over jasmine rice and enjoy!
Thai Green Curry
Fresh and bright green chilis give green curry the bright color and spicy, in-your-face kick. Curries made with green curry paste are sharp, hot and not as rich or deep as the other two. While bitingly spicy, green curries don’t have the lasting heat, which makes them enjoyable to eat, bite after bite.
Recipe featuring Thai green curry
Here is a link to a great green Thai curry recipe from our friends at Rasa Malaysia.
Thai Curry Variations
There are as many different variations of curries as there are Thai food enthusiasts. If you’re making your own curry powder, you may choose to use less or more of certain ingredients to make your curry paste hotter or milder. You may also choose to include different vegetables or cuts of meat to your curry soup or stew.
The beauty of Thai curries is that there’s a spice blend that appeals to just about everyone — red, green or yellow. They’re also very versatile, with flavor bases that complement just about any ingredient. Curries may be made into a warming soup, perfect for a cold day or to make a sick loved one feel better. They can be thickened into a delicious dip or served over many different types of starches, from jasmine to long-grain rice, noodles or even pureed vegetables such as sweet potatoes, celery root or cauliflower. They’re also very delicious for vegetarians to enjoy without feeling like they’re missing out.
Thai curries are a delicious way to explore Southeast Asian culture while making substitutions for everyone’s palate and desired spice level. Enjoy a delicious Thai curry tonight!