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Thai Curry: Easier than you may have read
by Matthew Amster-Burton

May 6, 2001

A year ago I told you the story of the morning I spent under the watchful eye of Curry Master San at the Oriental Hotel cooking school in Bangkok. That article was faithful to Chef Sarnsern Gajaseni's method and demeanor, but at the time I took the class I'd never made a successful Thai curry at home. So while I couldn't argue with Chef San's results, neither was I able to sort out the brilliance from the bravado. As a result, I can't imagine anyone reading my report and saying, "Great! Tonight I'll spend half an hour pounding lime peel in my granite mortar!" And when I told a friend I was working on this article, she said, "Is that something you can make at home?"

In fact, I do have a granite mortar and pestle from Thailand and I have spent half an hour (while watching Jeopardy!) pounding curry paste ingredients in it. It was fun, and I felt like a caveman. (Pound, pound. "Who is Jean Auel?") But the curry I made from that paste wasn't as good as what I usually make with imported commercial paste. The idea of homemade curry paste still appeals to me, but anyone who didn't grow up making it or who lives outside Southeast Asia faces a couple of disadvantages:

There is no denying that homemade curry paste, made by a talented Thai cook from fresh, local ingredients, is much better than anything that comes out of a plastic tub. Indeed, Chef San's shrimp and pineapple curry was the best Thai curry I've had. The ideal would be to buy your curry paste from such a master pounder, and I daydream about coming upon such a source somewhere in a dark corner of the Pike Place Market. But since we came back from Bangkok, I've been making Thai curry regularly with commercial paste, and my homemade curries are better than any I've had in an American Thai restaurant (nearly all of which use the same curry paste you can buy at QFC). And while you'll need some exotic ingredients, all of them are readily available on the net and keep indefinitely. That means you can make a Thai curry on the spur of the moment.

These are the special ingredients you'll need.

Curry paste. This is basically all of the non-liquid things that make Thai food great, smashed into a paste. A typical paste will contain lots of chiles, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, galangal (Thai ginger), shrimp paste, black pepper, and sea salt. It's worth buying commercial paste just to avoid having shrimp paste in your house; I put a small container in the bottom of my fridge and discovered later that I could smell it outside the refrigerator. The paste I recommend is Mae Ploy, partly because it's delicious and also partly because of its ingenious packaging. It's sealed inside a cellophane packet which is then stuffed into a plastic tub. When you open it, you squeeze the contents of the packet out into the tub and you don't have to worry about finding a separate Tupperware container for your leftover paste. On the other hand, Maesri brand comes in a single-use can.

There are many types of curry paste, but I urge you to start by concentrating on red and green, which marry with the widest range of flavors. Red curry paste is made with dried red chiles, while green chile paste is made with fresh green chiles and also tends to contain more dried spices than red paste. If forced to choose my favorite, I'd pick red, which has a slightly sharper flavor from the dried chiles, but the clean vegetal flavor of the green is also hard to argue with.

Palm sugar. This unrefined sugar derived from coconuts is a pain to use because it's usually found compressed into a hard disc basically indistinguishable from a clay pigeon. Unfortunately, brown sugar makes a lousy substitute. Break your disc up into chunks with a hammer and chisel (really) and break the chunks down further in a mortar and pestle or by mincing with a sharp knife. You may also find a sugar called coconut sugar; cookbooks disagree on whether this is the same as palm sugar (which is, after all, made from coconut palms), but you may certainly use them interchangeably.
Fish sauce. Among my least favorite things when I was growing up were fish that tasted fishy, cold food (this prejudice is still with me), and salad. So my parents will probably be surprised to learn that one of my favorite foods in the world is som tam, a cold salad of unripe papaya and chiles drenched in fish sauce. It tastes like something scraped off the bottom of the ocean and makes a wonderful accompaniment to any Thai curry (recipe follows). Fish sauce is what you get when you leave anchovies or similar small fish to pickle in brine until nearly dissolved, then filter the brine. There is no way to sell this stuff by description; you just have to try it and trust me that it is the elixir of the gods. Good brands include Golden Boy, Tra Chang (with a balance on the label), and Squid (which contains no squid), but anything amber in color and hailing from Thailand should be fine. As you might expect given its provenance, fish sauce is literally cheaper than water: Aquafina is $1 from a vending machine, but twice as much Squid brand is 89 cents at my local Vietnamese market.
Coconut milk. You probably buy this already to make piña coladas for when you sit around drinking in your gorilla suit, so I'll be brief. Coconut milk is not the liquid inside the coconut; it's coconut meat shredded and squeezed with water to extract the good stuff. Like the creamline milk of old, canned coconut milk has a tendency to separate into thin milk and thick cream, and also as with creamline milk, you can use this to your advantage. Use the fatty cream as a frying medium to start your curry and thin it later with the flavorful milk. Put your can into the fridge for an hour before you make your curry to be sure the layers separate; theoretically the less dense cream should float to the top, but I find that at least half the time it thumbs its nose at the laws of physics and sticks to the bottom of the can.

Best brands are Chaokoh and Mae Ploy, both from Thailand, but I find that Chaokoh in the 13.5 oz can is much more conveniently sized than Mae Ploy at 19 oz. If you buy coconut milk at a western grocery store, you'll pay too much, but it's still not outrageous. Chaokoh is $1.89 at the QFC on my block but $.59 in Chinatown. Stock up. Note that there is a low-quality knockoff of Chaokoh called, unbelievably, Chaucock.

Lime or tamarind juice. Lime you know, although it's worth noting that Asian groceries tend to sell them five for a dollar while western ones charge 69 cents for one. On the other hand, you need less than the juice of one lime for curry for four.

A handy and equally delicious (though different) alternative to lime is tamarind paste, available in 1-lb blocks from Asian grocery sources. It's the compressed pulp of the fruit of the tamarind tree. (There should be no other ingredients on the label.) Tamarind has an appealing sour, spicy flavor that complements all sorts of dishes, Thai or otherwise, and also forms part of a killer sweet and sour sauce. To use, mix a chunk of the paste with hot water and stir, squeezing it against the sides of the container with a spoon. Books often recommend that you then force the mixture through a sieve to remove the seeds and skins, but I just reach in with my fingers and pull them out. What remains is called tamarind water, and it's not as sour as lime juice, so use more.

Now that your larder is stocked, it's time to think about the bulk of what will go into your curry. Any kind of meat, poultry, firm-fleshed fish, or shellfish is fine, though none is required. Thai food is significantly less meat-intensive than American, and half a pound of meat is enough to serve four.

For vegetables, you'll want those that take well to stewing. My most frequent choices are green beans, onions, bell peppers, and—probably my favorite—potatoes, especially Yukon Gold. A curry of nothing but green beans and potato over rice is a magnificent meal. Japanese eggplant is a popular choice, as are carrots. Broccoli, I've found, benefits from parboiling or steaming beforehand. Chinese broccoli (gai lan), which is fast becoming one of my favorite vegetables, is a brilliant choice. I can't imagine you'll have much luck with spinach or tomatoes, but if you do, let me know. A pound of vegetables total is a good starting point.

Whatever meat and vegetables you choose, the process is the same.

  1. Heat a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the thick cream from one 13.5-oz can of coconut milk. Cook until bubbling furiously and loudly.
  2. Add 2-3 tbsp of curry paste and stir until dissolved. Continue cooking until you see darkly-colored streaks where the coconut oil is separating from the mixture. A proper Thai curry should have a sheen of coconut oil on top. Coconut oil is your friend.
  3. Add 1-2 tsp palm sugar and stir to dissolve. At this point you'll have to use your taste buds. Add 1 tbsp lime juice or tamarind water, 1 tbsp fish sauce, and most of the remaining coconut milk. Taste. The most important thing to ask is whether the curry is sour enough, because an insufficiently acidic curry is a cloying behemoth. Too spicy? Add more sugar. It is hard to go wrong as long as you use judicious amounts and stop when it tastes good. You will readjust later, after the ingredients are cooked. Save the rest of the coconut milk in case you need to thin your curry later.
  4. If your meat is slow-cooking, like dark-meat chicken, add it now. If it's quick-cooking like chicken breast, fish, or shrimp, don't. Stewed beef chuck is wonderful in curry but needs to be precooked; the 90 minutes it takes to make cubes of chuck roast tender is too long to simmer a curry. (Beef is especially tasty in matsaman curry, an Indian-derived brown curry that I'll probably discuss in a future article.)
  5. Add the vegetables. If you're combining vegetables that cook at different rates (such as eggplant and green beans), add them in stages. Reduce heat and simmer until vegetables are cooked through or to the texture you like.
  6. If you didn't add the meat earlier, add it now. Simmer just until the meat is cooked through. Taste for seasonings and adjust with lime/tamarind or fish sauce if necessary.
  7. Pour the contents of the saucepan into a warm serving bowl. Garnish with fresh chiles, chiffonade of magrood leaves (see note), or both. (Basil leaves are a traditional garnish; I prefer my curry without basil, but by all means give it a try.) Serve immediately or let it sit up to half an hour (the layer of oil will keep the curry warm), and make sure there's plenty of jasmine rice for everyone.

Note: My editor informs me that "chiffonade" is a prissy culinary term, and while I'm at it I probably ought to explain "magrood leaves." Chiffonade is very thin strips. To chiffonade any leaf, roll it up and slice parallel to the central vein. Magrood, also known as kaffir lime, is a citrus tree (Citrus hystrix) grown in Southeast Asia for its flavorful leaves and the peel of its fruit. I was convinced by a recent book that "kaffir," being a derogatory term for black South Africans, is an ugly word and I don't feel right using it lightly to describe a fruit. Magrood is also called wild lime and leech lime, but not with any regularity; "magrood" is an Anglicization of the Thai word, and I like the way it sounds, so I'm sticking with it.


How do you decide what ingredients to use with what color of curry? It doesn't much matter. For some reason I try to avoid the combination of green ingredients and green curry, but so many delicious things are green that this is quite impossible. Here are two of the unlimited possibilities that can be painted on the Thai curry canvas. I encourage you to try making these and then improvise your own. Please email me if you come up with something irresistible.

Serves 2 as main course or 4 as part of Thai meal

1 can (13.5) oz coconut milk, separated into thick cream and thin milk
2-3 tbsp red curry paste
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp palm sugar
Juice of 1/2 lime or
2 tbsp tamarind paste mixed with 1/3 cup hot water and strained
1/2 lb chicken thighs, trimmed and cut into 1/2" cubes
1 medium Yukon Gold potato, diced
9 oz package frozen green beans or 1/4 lb fresh green beans, cut into 1" lengths
2 fresh serrano chiles, sliced thin
Jasmine rice

  1. In a medium saucepan, heat the thick coconut cream over medium-high heat until bubbling furiously.
  2. Add the curry paste and stir until well mixed, grinding the paste against the bottom and sides of the pot if necessary. Cook until you see dark streaks of coconut oil forming.
  3. Add the fish sauce, palm sugar, lime or tamarind, and thin coconut milk. Stir to mix.
  4. Taste and adjust seasonings.
  5. Reduce heat to medium. Add chicken, potato, and beans.
  6. Simmer 30 minutes or until potato is cooked through. If you don't simmer gently, the coconut milk will separate a lot, and the curry will look kind of weird and be harder to dish up. It will still be perfectly tasty, though.
  7. Taste and adjust seasonings. Garnish with fresh chiles and serve over rice.

Serves 2 as main course or 4 as part of Thai meal

1 can (13.5) oz coconut milk, separated into thick cream and thin milk
2-3 tbsp green curry paste
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp palm sugar
Juice of 1/2 lime or
2 tbsp tamarind paste mixed with 1/3 cup hot water and strained
1 lb gai lan (chinese broccoli), cut into 1-inch lengths and parboiled 4 minutes or substitute 3/4 lb regular broccoli, cut into florets plus stem peeled and sliced, also parboiled 4 minutes
1/2 lb medium shrimp, shelled and deveined
1 fresh red jalapeno, sliced thin
Jasmine rice

  1. In a medium saucepan, heat the thick coconut cream over medium-high heat until bubbling furiously.
  2. Add the curry paste and stir until well mixed, grinding the paste against the bottom and sides of the pot if necessary. Cook until you see dark streaks of coconut oil forming.
  3. Add the fish sauce, palm sugar, lime or tamarind, and thin coconut milk. Stir to mix.
  4. Taste and adjust seasonings.
  5. Reduce heat to medium. Add broccoli and simmer five minutes.
  6. Add the shrimp. They should cook through in 2-3 minutes; remove from heat when the shrimp are just shy of fully cooked and they'll finish cooking at the table.
  7. Taste and adjust seasonings. Garnish with fresh jalapeno and serve over rice.


Please patronize your local Asian grocery first. In Seattle, I recommend Uwajimaya (6th and Dearborn), Viet Hoa (7th and Jackson), Hop Thanh (12th and Jackson), and Central Market (15505 Westminster Way N., Shoreline). In New York I enjoy shopping at Kam Man Food Products (Canal St. at Mott). If you are a terminally jacked-in cyberchef, however, try these:

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