What’s NOT Suppose to be in Thai Curry Paste – Thai Curry Episode I

Ingredients NOT in Thai Curry Paste by The High Heel Gourmet

Making your own Thai curry isn’t that complicated to me, but I realize it is so complicated to a non-Thai who didn’t grow up eating those curries so often. Just the ingredients list alone can throw people off. I even have a hard time with some of the ingredients myself.

The reason that I’ve started writing about curry paste is because I’ve seen so many recipes on the internet that are have showed up labeled “Thai curry,” either, red, green, yellow, even Panang or Massaman, but very rarely do they have the “correct” ingredients for the paste itself.

A long, long time ago, when I had my first website back in 1998, I put up a table of various Thai curry paste ingredients. Within a month, I received a phone call from my web hosting provider who gave me only two options, to

1) upgrade my hosting service plan so they can move my site to a higher traffic server, which meant paying a higher monthly fee.

2) Or taking the Thai curry recipes down, since it had clogged all the traffic to the shared server where my site was hosted. I only even had a website because I was a web designer and I just wanted to have a place to host my portfolio—it wasn’t even about cooking!

I posted some of my recipes hidden behind my portfolio for the same reason I have this blog, just to share my recipes with my friends. Also, it was still years before the first blog ever emerged. This is before social media ever was born, so my friends were all tangible people who I could give hugs to and see their faces and also hand them a piece of paper that cost me only a few pennies apiece, compared to an extra $120 per month on top of the $29.99/month that I was already paying to host my website. That would have been nearly $1,500/year leaking from my already thin wallet, with no revenue possibility.

So you can guess which choice I took. I have to admit, that incident left a bitter after-taste from that day on; I’ve been reluctant to post my curry paste recipes up on the internet ever since. Several hundred hits in a day and over 10 thousand hits in a month was way beyond my expectation. This was when polo.com didn’t even exist yet. (Yeah, I was working on their first site two full years later.)

Nearly fifteen years later, here I am, about to do the same thing again. I’m older, wiser and braver this time (grin). Or, to be exact, I have more money to upgrade my site this time around, if I ever need to.

Before we get our hands burned from capsicum, let me rant a little here, would you mind? The thing I would rant about has actually become the motivation to crack the shell that I was hidden behind. It’s called a rude awakening. I never searched curry paste recipes on the internet–I have my own. So I NEVER knew how screwed up the classic Thai curry had become in the past 15 years (or longer).

Would you still call it Pomodoro sauce if you made it with peaches and not tomatoes? Or tiramisu if it was made with cream cheese and not mascarpone? Would you call an apple pie “apple pie” if you substituted pears for the apples? If you substituted a crepe for the tortilla, would it still be a burrito?…Then why the hell do people still call the shit they put together “THAI curry paste” when the ingredients are not remotely close to the authentic ones?…

Yes, I’m pissed. Drop the name “THAI” from that green gruesome paste, yellow mud or red yuck you’ve made, or call it “Thai inspired”, but to call it Thai curry paste, we have a fundamental problem here.

Let’s start with “What it’s not” so you know to eliminate these ingredients from your paste. Also, if you see some know-it-all website that claims these ingredients are a part of Thai curry, you can forget that site and never go back. I found that a lot of well known sites advise you to substitute the hard-to-find ingredients with something easier to find. I will also give you that choice of substitution but when I say “NO SUBSTITUTION”, please, follow. After all, you can make your “altered curry paste” anytime once you learn how to make the authentic one, right?

There are three steps in the process of making Thai curry.

Step 1) The curry paste: This is the one we are discussing right now.

Step 2) Cooking the curry paste, either with coconut milk or without, and then seasoning it.

Step 3) Adding the choice of meats and vegetables that you put into the curry itself.

The “What it’s not” that I’m talking about is the first part, the making of the curry paste, because after you’ve got the paste then the rest is not that critical. You can use ingredients at hand.

These are the staple ingredients for the curry paste that CANNOT be substituted:

Galangal root (If anyone tells you to use ginger root to substitute the galangal root, RUN. That’s all I can say.)

Lemongrass (Don’t even try to find a substitute. There is NONE!)



Thai Curry Paste Staple Ingredients by The High Heel Gourmet

And these are ingredients that might be slightly altered:

Cilantro root: can be substituted with the cilantro stem near the root but NOT THE LEAVES!

Chili: I put it under ‘can be substituted’ because you can opt for the less-heat end of the spectrum. Thai chili is far hotter than most. I can’t even eat them. I know how to make curry paste so well because I can’t eat the ready-made curry paste that they sell in the market in Thailand since I can’t take so much intense capsicum. I just found out not so long ago that I’m allergic to the chili and the strongest degree is the Thai chilis. I wish I had known this before hundreds of bouts of diarrhea or an upset digestive system throughout my life.

I substitute all Thai chili with California chili or New Mexico chili just for the color and flavor but not the heat. I pick much less hot chili for the green curry too. Also chili powder is NOT ok to be used in the curry paste.

Shrimp paste: If you are vegan or vegetarian, you can substitute the shrimp paste in the recipe with Vegemite or Marmite.

Kaffir Lime zest: This is the hardest item to find outside of Thailand but I manage to find it. 🙂 If you really really can’t find it (but you have to try really hard first), you can substitute with lime zest and kaffir lime leaf. The portion of it is really minuscule but very important.

So WHAT IT’S NOT supposed to be in the curry paste?

– No Ginger except in three type of curry paste and all three curries are not typical Thai curries. One is the Northern Thai Curry Noodles, Khao Soi, Two Thai Yellow Curry, Kaeng Garee, Three is the ancient style Prik Khing. You need to go read each blog to know why we used ginger in the pastes. Other than that, we don’t use ginger in our curry pastes. We use galangal and even when we use ginger we still use galangal in the base except Khao Soi.

– No Ketchup or tomato paste. Sorry, not ever…the umami taste comes from the shrimp paste. The red color comes from chili. I would never suggest shrimp paste as a substitute for tomato in Pomodoro sauce or on your hamburger, so keep the ketchup and tomato paste away from my mortar and pestle.

– No Carrots: Yellow or orange color in the yellow curry are from “Turmeric root”, not carrot.

– No Cilantro: Yes, you read it right. No cilantro except the root. It’s not salsa. The green color in green curry is from the green chili. My green curry that I made here isn’t really that green because I didn’t put enough chili to make it green but it taste just fine. If you’re so desperate to make the curry look green, then add green color made from chili leaves or basil (Puree the leaves with water and discard the leaves. Add the green water when you cook the curry in step 2.)

– No Bell Pepper in any color: If you so want to eat bell peppers, add them to the curry in step 3 but not the curry paste.

– No Green Onion: NOT EVER…Gosh, so gross! If you want to follow the “Do it yourself” recipe that uses green onion, cilantro, ginger root, lime juice and THE WHOLE POD of cardamom to make green curry paste so much, go ahead, but don’t call it Thai curry paste and please, don’t serve the curry to the Thais. They would barf! I was just reading that recipe and couldn’t eat anything for a while, couldn’t stop imagining  how bad the taste would be…disgusting!

– No Peanut Butter: For some reason, Americans in general think that Thai people have turned raindrops into peanuts and put them all over our food. You know that’s not true, right? I so hope that you do. Keep cautious and don’t believe that darn myth, would you? And also DON’T just add peanuts or peanut butter to any dish and call it “Thai food”! Don’t make me yell at you, alright?

– No Sriracha sauce: We will be using dry red chilis, not fresh.

– No Lime juice: I don’t get it why people feel the need to put lime juice in curry paste?  You want to make it a paste and not a bowl of soup, right? When I saw it, I was stunned. What the heck?

– No onion: This is not Indian curry, guys. Shallots are so easy to find nowadays, so the days when you could substitute onions for shallots are OVER!

– No Sambal chili: For the same reason as no Sriracha sauce.

– No Thai Basil or any other basil: NOT in the curry paste. We add this after we finish Step 3, not in Step 1. Thai basil gets rotten so easily that you couldn’t keep your curry paste very long. Also if you add it to your green curry paste it will turn brown when you cook the paste.

– No Mint leaves: I know you’re desperate to make your green curry paste and your green curry green but mint leaves is NOT the way to get color. Thai people NEVER use mint leave in any curry but we do use them in the salad.

– No Fish Sauce in the curry paste: We will use fish sauce when we make a pot of curry but NEVER in the curry paste.

Now that we’re on the same page, the first recipe in the next blog (believe me, I’m trying my best to put up a blog once a week, but when I fail I hope you forgive me) will be for “Authentic Thai Green Curry paste”.

53 thoughts on “What’s NOT Suppose to be in Thai Curry Paste – Thai Curry Episode I

  1. Would it be acceptable to use fresh instead of dry Thai red chili peppers or does drying and soaking them bring out the flavor more?

    • You can add some fresh chili to some curries but you can’t substitute all dried chili with fresh chili. The aroma will not be right. Kaeng Som, Kaeng Pa and most Southern Thai curries are the curries that you can add fresh chili.

  2. Hi!

    I’m a first time reader & just by chance bumped upon your site. I was googling for Thai green curry recipes online and if you always see top of the results are recipes that come from famous British chefs or food networks and all of them are written by white people ( not that i’m racist ok but i want to know from a Thai expert) . So it got me thinking, where are the authentic Thai people with their homemade recipes?!! The ones that i ate in Bangkok was heavenly but whenever i made it at home following those famous chefs methods it tasted bland & no comparison. Now i FINALLY realize i have been using handfuls of coriander leaves & ginger all these time!!!!!! I am so pissed!!! You would think they should at least acknowledge or note the importance of green chilies as that is what makes this dish!. Ugh! wasted my time n money ( those darn cilantro leaves were pricey too) for all those failed attempts! Anyhoooo, glad to hv been educated by your awesome and generous knowledge, better late than nvr!! Btw! palm sugar is that also an integral item? Mostly brown sugar here & I’ve seen gula melaka sometimes.

    • No, palm sugar isn’t that critical. You can even use white granulated sugar if you can’t fine anything but palm sugar would enhance the flavor.

      Gula Melaka is Malaysian version coconut palm sugar that I love. You can also use that too.

      Indian jaggery (or jaggeree) made from sugarcane or date palm, or Mexican Panela, pure cane sugar, are also delicious and can be used to substitute the palm sugar.

  3. If you use red dried chilies, after soaking them in water, should you scrape out the seeds?

    Also, what water temperature should you use when soaking them

    Thanks and happy new year!

    • The seeds usually fall out in water if you cut them. Seeds and the membrane are for the heat so, it’s up to you how spicy you want your curry to be.

      I removed all of them because I don’t want the heat. All my Thai friends would used all seeds and membrane plus using chili that has higher heat too.

      Water temperature should be at room temperature.

    • Hey Nativegrl77…I’ve found the coconut milk with MSG in it in Canada. Can you believe it? They advertised as, “ready for a bowl of curry”! They put fish sauce and palm sugar and MSG in it…yukkkk….Soon as I saw it, I though of you and what you had mentioned before…mannnnnnn.

  4. Reblogged this on CreativeGreenMama and commented:
    So I posted earlier about making lemon curd and how tasty it was.
    Then this lovely person, self-professed high-heel-wearing gourmet, looked at it and liked it. My email told me that she liked it, so being the needy, wanting-to-be-noticed person that I am, as well as inquisitive, I set out to investigate in kind, and I discovered a kick-butt recipe for Thai curry paste!
    I’m in love! there is nothing like a REAL Thai curry paste (and speaking as a distinctively not-Thai plump redhead Caucasian person I think that I’m pretty lucky to be able to say that) and I have only ever gotten to taste the real deal once.
    Every recipe I have found ever since talks a lot about substitutions you can make. To my horror, one person even suggested you could substitute lemongrass away. HERESY!!
    I am gonna try this soon! *excited*

    ❤ Erin

    • Thanks…That’s so true about MSG. I think same as people here in the US. The cooks lost their confident in their own ability to cook and just add the MSG for reassurance. I have headache if I eat MSG so I try to avoid it but then found out that it’s already in condiments, curry paste, shrimp pastes and etc…ughhh…At least they haven’t put MSG in coconut milk or sugar yet.

  5. Thanks for posting this – I guess now with ingredients of all different kinds being available just about everywhere, people start “adding a bit of that and substituting this…” and also, the pre-made stuff you buy in jars doesn’t even taste authentic…so people who haven’t had the real thing don’t know what it SHOULD taste like. I’m babbling here…I should just say great post and leave it at that! I’ll be watching my hubby like a hawk now, every time he makes a curry, and tell him if he’s doing it right or not! 🙂

    • Yeah, so gross to me…yukkkkkkk beyond believe. But thaifood.about.com put the darn ketchup or tomatoes puree in every red curry paste! I use to like the site for some recipe that I can’t find in my cookbook (obviously not Thai food recipe) but since their Thai food recipe SUCK, I’m no longer use the site.

  6. I made Thai green curry paste this week for the first time – I was amazed at how much prep work goes into it and impressed by the complexity involved in building the flavor of the curry paste. I will say that the recipe called for ginger instead of galangal, so next time I will try it with the galangal instead. I will say that I was proud of myself, as a non-Thai cook, because my green curry chicken dish tasted good 🙂 I will be sharing my adventure on my blog soon – I will be sure to note that galangal should be used instead of the ginger! Thanks for the tips. I can’t wait to read your next post!

    • You are a good cook! The curry paste isn’t beyond you at all (with a law degree and cooking degree NOTHING beyond you girl) and I just posted the recipe last week. Try it with the right ingredients before you blog about it so people (and of course you) know the different. You can also post pictures on my facebook page https://www.facebook.com/HighHeelGourmet if you like.

      Your blog is great! I’m following 🙂

      • Thanks so much for the enthusiasm about my cooking abilities and my blog! I’m having a blast cooking and learning. That’s why I love your posts – I appreciate the great info and tips along with the recipes. I will definitely try your green curry first and let you know how much better it is than the one I tried before 😉

  7. I love the Thai Curries served in my local Thai restaurant but have only ever made my own using bought sauces from the supermarket. I will try to make my own now using your guidelines when you post em up.
    Keeping a tradition these days is tricky. Everyone has the original recipe. For some reason your tone here feels and sounds authentic and so I’ll trust my instincts. Great Blog.

    • I already posted the recipe for the curry paste last week if you want to try 🙂

      Store bought curry paste isn’t so bad. It’s definitely better than attempt to make the paste without the right ingredients. I wouldn’t mind people take a shot at the curry paste of their own but when they put the “Thai” name to whatever they create without the respect to the original ingredients that’s when I get frustrated.

  8. Why is a fresh paste SO different from the jar ones. I’ve made one before, but have to confess I did put the coriander leaves in ooophs slapped wrist 😉 The Kaffir lime zest I couldn’t find so used the leaves. Lovely, has inspired me again…WHEN I can get to London

    • Because the fresh ingredients will give a more pungent aroma pot of curry! That’s why. The taste of the curry isn’t that much different to the tongue but the smell to the nose is quite different to me, who grew up eating curry when ever I feel like it.

      I tasted many many times, to my friend here in the US, the store bought curry paste and the fresh curry paste didn’t make the distinct different to their tasting of curries even though I let them taste both bowl parallel. But to the Thai, they can tell right away without me telling them that the curry paste was home made, they already asked. And I didn’t even serve them the mild one (my vision). I served them the full spice version!

  9. Couldn’t agree more! I feel the same when I find recipes for Lebanese tabbouleh using quinoa or lentils and cucumbers, chicken stock and God knows what else! or recipes for hummus that do not even have chickpeas in them! hummus is literally chickpeas in Arabic!! just call it a salad or a spread or whatever! I hope I can find all the ingredients, I’m definitely giving it a try 🙂

    • Your comment made me laugh… I couldn’t agree more with you! For me it’s the word “curry” applied to the South Asian cuisine that bugs me… they all have individual names and cooked very differently with a variation of ingredients… I am curious, how can one make hummus without chick pea??? How would it even taste??? Lebanese food are some of the best from the middle east (in my opinion) 🙂

      • hahaha, I know, right? It seems everyone has some special dish that is so critical and important to them that you better not mess with it 😉 And I think so too regrading Lebanese food but I’m biased 😉

    • You know I learnt this recipe from my friend’s mother “MAHSHI WARAK AREESH”. It’s Lebanese stuffed grape leave with rice, lamb, spices and TOMATOES. This recipe I saw all over the internet called this dish “dolma” just like the Greek, even though the dolma has no meat and no tomatoes. I don’t know which one is the correct name (unfortunately I can’t ask my friend’s mom anymore since she’s no longer with us) and her son also don’t know the answer too.

      I usually like to keep the history very accurate then adapt on top of it with the credit to the original (without the traditional recipe how one can adapt, right).

      • That is one of my very favorite dishes! It is common in Lebanon, Syria, Greece and Turkey… with different variations. In Lebanon ,we also have a vegetarian version that comes stuffed with chickpeas, parsley and tomatoes. Dolma, I guess, refers to any vegetable that is stuffed; whereas “mahshi warak areesh” is literally stuffed grape leaves in Arabic.Next month I’m visiting my parents in Lebanon, so maybe I’ll join my mom in the kitchen and post a recipe!

        And I totally agree, cooking is adding your touch and preference to the original. But if it’s too far from the original with a different list of ingredients but one, I guess it’s better be renamed 🙂

  10. why the hell do people still call the shit they put together “THAI curry paste” when the ingredients are not remotely close to the authentic ones? A lady after my own heart. Love it. By the way took your advice and went along to Sukhumvit Soi 38 for some top street food. Had the best ” Khao Man Gai” I have ever had. Absolutely superb and just 45 Baht a dish. Even with the battering the British pound is taking on the exchange I could do no wrong. Great advice and terrific post…. as usual.

    • Trevor you made me envy again with your adventure in my homeland! BTW you are in Hua Hin now at the best time of the year to be there (and crowded especially the past weekend and next).

      Did you try seafoods at “ChomTale” or “Mae Khaew”. They’re the best.

      Good luck travel! If you need a tip to yummy food you can contact me faster on facebook http://www.facebook.com/miranti

  11. It sure is a great revelation to find another PASSIONATE ABOUT FOOD person online who takes thing’s serious. I have shared YOUR point for decades :
    If it is not original, call it “in the style of” or something similar which will make things clear and honest.

    If you find the time, you might check out my humble blog 🙂


  12. I can’t wait for your next post! And I’m going to search out really really hard to see if I can find the ingredients in Jordan. I have a feeling that I will be able to get everything faily easily except for the Kafir lime zest – but I’m going to start searching the markets anyway!

    • Did you find the ingredients? I just posted the curry paste recipe today. I wish I know Jordan (I have been wanted to go but haven’t made it there yet.) so I can tell you where to go look. I will ask my friend on Facebook to see if anyone know where to get the SEA ingredients.

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