Thai curry refers both to dishes in Thai cuisine that are made with various types of curry paste and to the pastes themselves.
A Thai curry dish is made from curry paste, coconut milk or water, meat, seafood, vegetables or fruit, and herbs. Curries in Thailand mainly differ from the curries in Indian cuisine in their use of ingredients such as herbs and aromatic leaves over a mix of spices.
Thai curries are always made with a curry paste. Common ingredients used in many Thai curry pastes are:
- Shrimp paste
- Chillies; depending on the curry these can be dried or fresh, red or green
- Onions or shallots
- Coriander (cilantro) root
Depending on the type of curry, additional ingredients for the paste can include spices such as turmeric, pepper, coriander seeds, cardamom pods, and cumin, or other ingredients such as boiled fermented fish, and fingerroot. Ingredients are traditionally ground together with a mortar and pestle, though increasingly with an electric food processor. With many curries, the paste is first stir-fried in cooking oil before other components are added in to the dish. This allows certain flavours in the spices and other ingredients in the paste to develop that cannot be released at the lower temperature of boiling water.
Both khrueang kaeng (lit. “kaeng ingredients”) and nam phrik kaeng (lit. “kaeng chilli paste”) are used to describe “curry paste” in Thailand. The latter is sometimes even shortened to only phrik kaeng (lit. “kaeng chilli”).
Thai curry pastes can be made at home from the bare ingredients, bought freshly made at markets in Thailand, or they can be had packaged at shops and supermarkets.
Most Thai curries are made with meat, fish or shellfish as their main ingredient. Vegetables and fruit, but also certain tree leaves such as from the Acacia pennata (cha-om) and the Ficus virens (phak lueat), and flowers such as those of the Sesbania grandiflora (dok khae) and banana (hua pli), can be added. Curries that contain mainly vegetables are, for example, kaeng liang (mixed vegetables) and kaeng nomai (bamboo shoots).
Ingredients were dictated by regional and seasonal availability: both pork and chicken (possibly first domesticated from wild jungle fowl in what is now Thailand) are easily available, and so are many varieties of fish, and shellfish, both fresh water species from the many rivers, lakes and rice paddies, as well as salt water species from the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. Other traditional ingredients in Thai curries include frogs, snakes, snails, wild birds and game such as Sambar deer and wild boar. Commonly used vegetables in curries are Thai eggplant (makhuea pro), yardlong beans (thua fak yao), and different types of squash and pumpkins (fak).
Fresh kaffir lime leaves (bai makrut), fingerroot (krachai), or fresh herbs such as Thai basil (horapa) are often added to Thai curries. Kaffir lime leaves and krachai are often cooked along with the other ingredients but fresh herbs such as Thai basil are nearly always added at the last moment to preserve the full taste and serve as a contrasting note to the flavours of a curry. Fish sauce is not only used when cooking the curry as a flavouring and for its salty taste, but it is usually also available at the table as a condiment, mixed together with sliced green bird’s-eye chillies for those that prefer their curries more salty and spicy.
Sugar (traditionally palm sugar) is used with curries that need to be sweetened. Besides lime juice, tamarind juice can also see use in sour curries as the souring agent such as in kaeng som. To achieve the most fragrance from the ingredients in a curry paste, the curry paste is often first fried together with vegetable oil or coconut oil that has separated from the coconut cream, before adding in the other ingredients.
Popular Thai curries
Kaeng khae, a curry of northern Thai cuisine
Kaeng khiao wan (lit. “green sweet” curry, it is known as “green curry” in the West)
Kaeng pa (lit. “jungle curry”, in addition to the curry paste, it uses whatever is available in nature)
Kaeng phet (lit. spicy curry, it is known as “red curry” in the West)
Kaeng som (lit. “sour curry”, every region has its own variety)
Kaeng matsaman (lit. “Muslim curry”; the name matsaman is supposedly derived from “mosalman”, an archaic word for “Muslim”)
Khao soi (a Burmese-influenced curry noodle soup from northern Thailand)
Phanaeng (the name possibly refers to the Malaysian island state of Penang; this is a creamy and generally mild curry)
Phat phrik khing (lit. “stir-fried chilli ginger”, this Thai curry actually does not contain ginger)