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A Guide to the Best Thai Curry: Everything You Should Know

Trying some of the best Thai curry dishes is on the must-do list of many travelers and gourmets in Thailand. But it can get very confusing because Thai curries not only have many different types, such as red, yellow, green, Massaman, and Penang curry, but there are also various flavors, such as spicy, superhot, and sweet. Thai curry dishes can also be ordered with chicken, shrimp, beef, or fish.

Therefore, knowing which Thai curry dish is the best one for you, which Thai curry is the hottest, and what the differences are between red, green, and yellow Thai curries is crucial before ordering.

Read this article to find out everything you need to know about Thai curries.

Best Thai dish thai red curry chicken

Highlights

  • Curries are now a distinctive feature of Thai cuisine, although they originally stem from India.
  • The base of the curry is the curry paste, made by crushing herbs and spices in a mortar.
  • The paste is fried, and then all the other ingredients are added and slowly cooked, in order to release all the aromas.
  • There are dozens of different curries to try.
  • Penang curry and Massaman curry are two of the most popular Thai curries.
  • Thai curries are highly influenced by Lao, Chinese, Indian, and Malaysian cuisines, as well as general South Asian cuisine.
  • If you’re not a big fan of spicy or sweet dishes, don’t forget to specify the levels of spiciness or sugar in restaurants in Thailand.

What Is Thai Curry?

Thai curry can refer to both Thai curry dishes and the Thai curry paste from which the Thai curry dishes are made. Generally, a Thai curry dish is a thick stewed dish made with curry paste, meat (chicken, shrimp, fish, or beef) and vegetables, such as potato, eggplant, tomato, or mushroom (this differs depending on preferences and different recipes).

In Thailand, curry dishes are called kaeng, meaning a watery dish, such as a broth or a thick stew, although sometimes a curry dish can be a dry dish cooked with curry paste.

What Is Thai Curry Paste Made of

Thai curry paste is usually made with shrimp paste, chilies, onions, garlic, galangal, coriander and lemongrass; and it can be seasoned with turmeric, pepper or cumin, depending on the type of curry. All the ingredients are crushed with the help of a mortar and pestle. Then the paste is stir-fried to release all the flavors.

After the paste’s flavor is released, coconut milk is added to create a creamy body for the stew. This is a typical Southern Thailand curry dish style but it is not featured in Northern Thailand where they prefer to use more lime juice, such as in a kaeng som and kaeng pa.

Thai paste can be made at home with freshly bought ingredients or it can be bought at almost any supermarket in convenient, ready-to-use packages, although it might not be sugar-free or suitable for vegetarians.

thai curry paste

Common Ingredients in a Thai Curry Dish

Most Thai curries are made with meat,especially pork and chicken, and fish (from fresh water), since these ingredients are easily available and nutritious. It is common to add fruit, vegetables, and flowers. Commonly used vegetables are Thai eggplant, yardlong beans, and different kinds of pumpkin. Kaengliang and kaengnomai are two curries mostly made of vegetables.

Herbs are almost always added to curries to enhance the flavor. Fresh kaffir lime leaves, finger root and Thai basil are some of the most common ones. Dried herbs are slowly cooked with the other ingredients, while fresh herbs, like Thai basil, are added at the very last moment.This way they can conserve their taste and create a striking contrast with other flavors.

Fish sauce can be added during the cooking, or it can be found on the table as a condiment. Sugar is used for those curries who require some sweetness; while lime juice and tamarind are used in sour curries.

Accompaniments to a Thai Curry Dish

Thai Curries are eaten with rice. In central and southern Thailand, jasmine rice is the preferred one; in northern Thailand, sticky rice is the most common one. Sometimes curries are eaten with roti, the Thai version of the common fried flat bread of India (in Malaysia you will find roti canai).

The Differences Between Thai Curry and Indian Curry

2. Lemongrass and kaffir lime, which are commonly used in Thai curry, are rarely found in Indian curry.

3. Peppercorns and tomato puree are used in Indian curry but are not featured in Thai curry.

Differences Between Various Types of Thai Curries

Being the key ingredient of a curry dish, Thai curry paste heavily affects the overall flavor of a curry dish. Therefore, the differences between Thai curry dishes are basically due to what’s in the paste. Thai curries also get influenced by other Asian curry recipes, such as those from Laos, India, China, and Malaysia. There are five major curry types in Thailand, with different degrees of spiciness, sweetness, and thickness.

1.Green Curry: The Hottest Thai Curry

This is a very hot creamy curry, which derives its color and heat from a serious amount of fierce green chilies. The paste is made with green chilies, cilantro, cumin, shallots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime, and shrimp paste.

2.Red Curry: Spicy Thai Curry

This has a fiery curry paste, which gets its color and heat from dried red spur chilies. They are crushed in a mortar with other ingredients and remain moist during the whole paste-making process.

3.Yellow Curry: Milder, British Influenced Curry (Not Very Spicy)

This is a milder curry, which is not very spicy and not as oily as other kinds. It is the result of the British influence in Asia during the late 19th century. The paste is mostly made with dried spices, such as cumin, coriander, turmeric, fenugreek, garlic, salt, bay leaves, lemongrass, cayenne pepper, and cinnamon.

4.Penang Curry: a Thick and Milder Curry

Penang curry came to Thailand from Laos. It is a very thick curry with an incredible flavor. The taste is slightly salty and a little sweet, with a predominantly peanut flavor. The curry paste is made with galangal, chilies, lemongrass, coriander (root and seeds), cumin, garlic, shrimp paste, and many other ingredients. Usually, the only liquid added is coconut milk. The oldest known version of this dish dates back to 1890.

5.Massaman Curry: an Islam Influenced Curry with an Exotic Taste

Influenced by Islam, Massaman (probably meaning Muslim) curry originated in Ayutthaya, Central Thailand, around the 17th century. Compared to other Thai curries, Massaman curry’s exotic flavor is derived from a few extra imported ingredients, such as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, and bay leaves. Apart from those ingredients, the commonly used Thai curry ingredients include lemongrass, galangal, white pepper, shrimp paste, shallots, and coconut milk.

The Best 6 Thai Curry Dishes You Should Try

There are many different curries. Each region has its own version, created using seasonal ingredients; and each version can be cooked in a traditional or in a more modern way.However, we have handpicked the best six Thai curries of all time that you should try.

1. Thai Green Curry with Chicken or Shrimp

This is a very creamy and incredibly aromatic gourmet-style curry dish in Thailand. The creaminess of the curry depends on the quantity of coconut milk used to cook it with. Although green curry is known as being the hottest of Thai curries, it is also very sweet when using large amounts of palm sugar, lime juice, and coconut milk. It is one of Thailand’s most unexpected mouthwatering curries.Thai curry dish:green curry

The way to cook a good green curry with chicken is to first fry the green curry paste until all of the aromas are released, then add fresh coconut milk to create a milky soup body. Slowly simmer the whole soup when pieces of tender chicken/shrimp and vegetables, such as eggplant, are added. Use some palm sugar and fish sauce to enhance the flavor. Finally, garnish it with Thai basil and fresh kaffir lime before serving it with rice or roti.

2.Red Curry with Chicken or Shrimp

Thai curry with shrimp is nothing less than fantastic! The paste is fried in a saucepan with oil, while coconut milk is added. Meat (usually chicken, beef, pork, or shrimp is added to make the resulting curry soup, along with fish sauce, sugar, Thai eggplant, bamboo shoots, and Thai basil. Vegetarian versions of the curry include tofu, meat analogues, or vegetables, for example pumpkin.

Thai curry dish:red curry

3.Thai Fish Curry

Fish curry is one of the most popular dishes in Thailand. Its main ingredient is fillets of fish. It can be simmered in either rich milky red, green, or yellow curry sauce. The taste is different accordingly, but it never fails to thrill your taste buds with the right amount of lime juice and fish sauce. Fresh vegetables are added, such as potatoes or green/red bell peppers, to give it a cheerful color.

Thai curry dish:fish curry

4.Yellow Curry

Yellow curry paste has a large proportion of turmeric powder in it. Compared to green and red curries, yellow curry is milder and more suitable for people with less tolerance for spiciness. You can order it with chicken, which is a common choice, but you can also order it with beef, shrimp, fish, or vegetables.Thai curry dish:yellow curry

5.Penang Curry with Beef

A Panang curry dish is best ordered with beef or chicken. Fish or shrimp don’t work well with this curry since it is a very thick stew without the soupy sauce to perfectly absorb the freshness of the seafood. The taste is slightly sweeter and saltier than the other curries and it isn’t really that spicy.Thai curry dish:Penang curry

6.Massaman Curry with Beef or Lamb

Since Massaman curry has an Islamic influence, it is often made with chicken, beef, mutton, or goat. Among the meat choices, Massaman lamb curry and beef curry are the best choices that often suit tourists’ taste preferences better than locals’. The taste of Massaman curry is sumptuous and very flavorful. Imagine those well-stewed juicy and tender beef or lamb pieces melting in your mouth along with various vibrant spices. It’s a fantastic feeling that you will be addicted to.Thai curry dish:Massam curry

The Best Vegetarian Thai Curry Dish: Golden Vegetable Curry

There is no need to worry that you can’t have a quality Thai curry experience if you are a vegetarian. Vegetarian Thai curries actually have many versions, such as ordering a curry with tofu, meat alternatives, and vegetables, such as potato, pumpkin, or eggplant. A classic vegetarian Thai curry is the golden vegetable curry, which is a yellow curry stew with cauliflower and other vegetables. Kaeng liang and kaeng nomai are two curries mostly made of vegetables. Please be aware that Thai curry universally contains shrimp paste and fish sauce.

best vegetable curry

How to Cook a Good Thai Curry Dish

The most important thing when cooking a Thai curry is to let all the ingredients release their flavor; so it is fundamental to cook it slowly and make sure that one step of the process is completed before passing to the next one.

The cooking method is almost always the same for all the curries. At first, it is necessary to heat the oil, and then add the curry paste to stir-fry it. This way, the curry paste will release all the flavor. It wouldn’t be possible to achieve the same fragrance by boiling it.

While the curry paste is frying in the pan, vegetable oil or coconut oil (without the coconut cream) is added. After stirring all together, when the flavors are released, it is possible to start adding other ingredients. The meat or the fish will cook slowly, while dry herbs and other ingredients (like lime or fish sauce) are added.

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