So you love the curry (gaengs or kaengs) you get from your local Thai restaurant but you figure you can’t make anything that darned balanced and refined? Somebody told you that the only way to make really good Thai curry is to make your own curry paste, but you don’t want to deal with so many ingredients or steps?
Well, I have news for you. It is highly unlikely that your Thai restaurant (where you like the curry, remember?) makes its own curry paste. Most Thai restaurants in the states use one of a couple different common brands of premade Thai curry paste. Thai curry is as simple as the ABC song, once you have the paste you can find lots of great ideas and recipes on the net. The basic procedure is very simple and it is a one pot dish.
Best Pre-made Thai Curry Pastes to Buy
You can make a great curry with any number of bought pastes. A great choice is Maesri Thai Curry Paste, which comes in a 4-pack of smaller cans, instead of only a huge canister like some pastes. For starters, try Maesri Red Curry Paste, as red is the most commonly used paste in Thai cooking, and can form the basis of many different curry recipes. Maesri makes red, green, yellow, Masamam, and Panang Thai curry paste, which are available as 4-ounce cans or 14-oz plastic tubs.
Mae Ploy curry paste is also a good brand but I think the Maesri. It is a good deal hotter than Maesri and I like them both although I think Maesri has a bit more punch and flavor, probably due to the addition of some dried spices (coriander seeds, cumin, cardamom). The heat of the Mae Ploy makes it more difficult to develop flavor without an overwhelming spice, without the additon of additional flavoring ingredients, but with practice, both brands make very good curries. Note that the Mae Ploy has shrimp paste, which gives it a richness, but the Maesri does not, making it more suitable for vegetarians. Available are red, green, yellow, Matsamam, and Panang pastes, in 14-oz or 35-oz sizes.
Some other brands to look for are Pantai Norasingh, Nittaya, and Lobo.
Then you’re going to need some coconut milk. Arroy-D Coconut Milk comes conveniently in aspect cartons instead of cans so you can refrigerate leftovers. However, at the beginning of most recipes, you’ll see coconut cream or oil. No, you don’t need to get a separate product, the coconut cream is the more solid and creamy stuff you’ll find at the top of the can of coconut milk. This is mostly fat and can be used in place of oil to start your curry. If you prefer to use the cream, try Native Forest Organic Classic Coconut Milk, a bestselling brand on Amazon.
If your can of coconut milk hasn’t separated and there is no cream at the top, use a neutral oil like canola oil or grapeseed oil. Or, if you can wait, pour the coconut cream from the opened can into an airtight container and place it in the fridge overnight. This will speed up the cream rising to the top, which is a semi-fluid layer that is more like a paste than a liquid. It would be a good idea to plan in advance and put your can of coconut milk into the fridge for a day before using it. That way, you’ll probably have a nice layer at the top. Don’t shake before opening!
A Thai curry usually has a bit of a sugar added for balance. Although palm sugar is traditional, you can use plain white or brown sugar, or you could experiment with other sweeteners.
Kaffir lime peels and leaves are often used in curry paste. They are about the same size and shape of regular limes but they have a bumpy skin. You probably won’t be able to get kaffir limes but the lime leaves are commonly available in Asian or Thai markets and come dried in packages. They can be also be ordered online but this is an item that is expensive and unless you plan to use a lot, it may not be worth the cost if you cannot find a smaller package locally. Pay no attention to claims of kaffir lime leaves being indispensable, and that the aroma and taste is so distinct that there is no substitution. In the above linked article, also note the racist connotations of the term kaffir in South Africa.
Any time someone tells you that nothing can be substituted they are usually not really a cook, but someone who is just repeating something they’ve read in a foodie blog or book (or something like that). Just because a similar ingredient is not exactly the same as another similar ingredient, does not mean that it will not produce a good flavor! The thing to keep in mind is that often we are using an alternative rather than a substitute. A touch of both lime and lemon zest is a good alternative in your curry, just as the peel of regular lime can be used to replace kaffir lime in homemade curry pastes. Adding fresh zest gives your curry a fresher and brighter taste, as well as a great citrus aroma, and to be honest, I prefer it over dried leaves, which must be removed from the curry before serving and give a more pungent but less bright flavor (in my opinion). Fresh kaffir lime leaves, as far as I know, are very difficult to come by in the states.
You can put in vegetables you like, and you might already have an idea based on what you’ve had before at a Thai restaurant. But I’ll tell you the three vegetables that I like to have in for that “everyday” curry: bamboo shoots in strips, red bell pepper, and long beans (use green beans to substitute, cut into julienne).
The long bean is kind of like an overgrown string bean (green bean). The taste is actually similar and you won’t have any trouble substituting green beans, but longs beans have more crunch, and they cook up faster. The two beans are of a different genus. If you have an Asian or Thai store nearby, and they have long beans, buy them for your curry, picking darker beans without big bumps along them to indicate larger bean seeds inside (the smaller the bean seeds the better). If you can’t buy them locally, then use fresh green beans. You can order long beans, but you can’t expect to get the beans you’d have picked yourself this way, nor have I ever bought fresh beans this way myself, so I haven’t provided a link.
You can reinforce the flavor of any ingredient used in the curry paste by adding more of that particular ingredient.
A Thai Curry is given a bit of a pungent boost by the addition of a little fish sauce. A little goes a long way!
My Curry is Not Spicy (Hot) Enough
If you are like me, and love your Thai food extra spicy, you may have trouble getting the pungent heat you want into your curry. You could add more paste, since it contains chiles, to try to increase the spiciness, but there comes a point where you will have added more paste than is adequate to produce a balanced flavor. The solution to making your curry more spicy hot is to add more chile, not more paste. You may be able to get some dried, or even fresh Thai chiles from a Thai, or mixed Asian market. See Thai Menu Words for the kinds of chiles used in Thai cooking. Some good substitutes for these chiles are chiles de arbol, pequin, or even habenero (scorching hot). De seed the chiles and just stew them in the curry to allow them to release some heat. Do not chop them up unless you like to have chunks of whole chile to eat. A little goes a long way, so sometimes only one or two chiles will do the trick. If you’re using habenero, use only a small bit in the beginning! See the chile heat guide for an idea of how hot the different kinds of chiles can be.
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