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!)
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”.