I think green curry is the best-known curry in Thai cuisine, although I personally think Massaman and Panang are quite famous on their own, to the point where I don’t even know which one is the close second. But rest assured, if you haven’t reached the point where you’re ready to barf curry before the year end (because I will be giving you recipe after recipe of curries through out the year,) I will give you a medal, accept your “Thai-ness” and appoint you an official “adopted Thai peep.” How is that?
This is the second curry that I learned to make while I was growing up. We made it ourselves because it contains fresh chilies and it doesn’t taste anywhere near as fresh if you buy the pre-made curry paste. My grandmother and my aunt always said I could buy some pre-made curry pastes if I wanted to, but there are three curry pastes (the Thai call them “Krueang Kaeng” เครื่องแกง or “Nam Phrik Kaeng” น้ำพริกแกง, which is shortened to “Phrik Kaeng” พริกแกง these days) that I shouldn’t buy:
1. The sour curry, Kaeng Som แกงส้ม
2. The green curry, Kaeng Khiao Wan แกงเขียวหวาน
3. The most important to the Southern Thai people, the yellow sour curry, Kaeng Lueang แกงเหลือง.
The flavor of these three curries relies upon the freshness of the ingredients and wouldn’t be used even the next day (though I found it still acceptable).
The green curry has an official name in Thai called “Kaeng Khiao Wan,” meaning “the sweet green soup.” Kaeng=soup, Khiao=green, Wan=sweet. It is a misunderstanding even among the Thai that this curry should be sweeter than most because its name mentions sweetness…WRONG! The sweetness or “Wan” referred to in the Thai name is in reference to the color, not the taste. The correct place to apply the sweet concept is to the color green.
The color should be peaceful, mild, dreamy, creamy, sweet green. So you’re making a savory, mild green soup, but not a sweet soup. In fact, this is the most spicy, the hottest Thai curry because it contains fresh chilis, unlike all other curries, which will use dried chilies.
The source of the green color comes from the fresh green chilis and NOT ANY OTHER FOREIGN GREEN LEAVES, as I mentioned earlier in my “What It’s Not?” blog on Thai curry. If you desperately need to make your curry look greener (as is true in my case because I can’t put so much chili in my curry paste or in my digestive tract) I do use chili leaves or Thai basil leaves to help pop the color green up a bit.
Remember you SHOULDN’T PUT THOSE LEAVES IN THE CURRY PASTE ITSELF but should puree them with water and then strain the leaves out, keeping the green water and adding it to the curry right before you turn off the heat.
Why add at the end? Because those leaves are so sensitive to heat they will change color as soon as it touches them. And if you cook them too long they turn brown. This is also the reason why we don’t add them to the curry paste, which has to be cooked for so long. Also, a curry paste that contained these leaves would not store very long.
This post is going to be quite detailed about each ingredient and how to properly prepare them. I’m not going to do this in every curry post, so it’s going to serve as a basic guide for all the other curry recipes on my blog.
Get to know the ingredients.
Lemongrass: This is an ingredient that is available throughout the country now that Gourmet Garden started putting lemongrass in a tube. Or you can find it in the fresh herb section in the supermarket. This makes cooking truly authentic Thai food quite accessible. I’ve seen it in many major cities. Also Trader Joe’s, Ralph’s, Gelson’s, and Bristol Farms in California, and Whole Foods in most major cities in the US carries it too.
I know I can’t use Rhode Island as a gauge for the whole US, but in my mind, (the mind of a girl from Bangkok, you know, might be drastically different than a normal American girl’s), Rhode Island, the state where my French Canadian-descent husband came from, is so suburban. It’s borderline “country.” I’m only waiting to see a cow crossing the highway to classify any town in the state as real “country”. If there is only a chicken or turkey crossing the road, the state is only borderline country.
Anyhow, if I can find lemongrass at Whole Foods in Rhode Island, I believe that you can find it somewhere in your town. If worst comes to worst, buy the puree in the tube from the Gourmet Garden. Just make sure you DON’T follow their PadThai recipe. It’s one of the WORST stir-fried noodle attempts at PadThai.
The part of lemongrass that we use in Thai curry paste is only the part that has the purple rings, about 3-4 inches above the root. When you buy them long like in this picture, you can only use one third to half of the stem. Do not discard the tops–we can still use them in many other things, like Tom Yum soup, Tom Kha soup, salad, etc., so save them.
Lemongrass is really hard so you want to slice it thinly, making it much easier to puree either in a blender or with a mortar and pestle. And if you can’t find lemongrass, then you are NOT going to be making true Thai curry paste using any substitution.
Galangal: This is not that easy to find, but not too hard since Asian groceries usually carry it. If you can’t find an Asian grocery in your town, try Temple of Thai, or Amazon. It is a root of plants in the “Zingiberaceae” family, same as ginger, but it looks somewhat different than ginger.
And it tastes drasticaly different than ginger. You almost never eat galangal raw like you eat ginger. It taste rather bitter, the texture is woody, and gives quite an earthy, citrus-y aroma instead of fresh, crunchy, sweet, and spicy like ginger. The older galangal has a more woody texture.
If I were in Thailand I would prefer the older galangal for the curry paste and the younger one for the galangal soup or Tom Kha recipe, which I already posted here. Since I’m here and galangal isn’t that that easy to find, I take it both old and young. (Like my men!) It is also sold pre-sliced and frozen. I’ll use that if I can’t find the fresh one.
Galangal is called “Kha” in Thailand. So now you know and I hope you will NEVER SUBSTITUTE GALANGAL FOR GINGER (called “Khing”) IN ANY RECIPE, especially in Tom Kha soup.
I’ve found a lot of recipes out there on the internet claiming to be a “Thai Tom Kha soup,” but they used ginger as a substitute for galangal. Sorry, people, we don’t call a coconut soup boiled with ginger “Tom Kha” when it’s missing the “Kha,” alright? I hope you won’t be offended by THAT fact, and please stop calling it by the wrong name. If you want to, call it Tom Khing without adding the word Thai, then we won’t bitch about it, even though that Thai dish DOESN’T even exist!
What should you do if you can’t find fresh or frozen galangal root? DON’T MAKE FRESH CURRY PASTE UNTIL YOU CAN FIND IT. Buy the pre-made curry paste for now. Remember, we’re making the Thai curry paste so it will taste fresh and better than the “pre-made in the can” one. If you can’t make it better, why sweat?
Garlic: I shouldn’t have to explain much about this herb. One note about the source: I had been using the pre-peeled garlic in a package, available in most Asian markets. I seriously suspect this garlic is imported from China! I had a hard time making a beautiful golden fried garlic with it and so I started using California garlic that I have to peel myself and voila…there was the golden crispy fried garlic I wanted.
I don’t know if it was because the garlic in the package was a different species or they peeled them many days before I purchased it (don’t forget the packing and shipping time too) or you don’t even know what’s going onto that garlic in China. Simple solution: I stopped using it.
Shallot: Use small bulbs; they are more pungent. And try your best NOT to substitute with onion. Okay, the problem with onion is just the milder aroma, so you have to use a lot in order to get it to balance. The more you use onion the sweeter your curry will be and it would be a nightmare to grind them in a mortar with a pestle because it will splash right in your face and eyes.
Also, the curry will come out smelling more like Indian curry. If you’re somehow resourceful enough to find galangal and lemongrass but can’t find shallots, you’re just giving up too easily!
Cilantro (coriander) root: This is a hard one to find. I can’t even bribe anyone at the market here to save them for me because they get their cilantro with the root already chopped off. So nowadays I buy the frozen cilantro (coriander) root that is imported from Thailand. If you ask your local produce grocer to save you the roots, they might do it for you.
I used to ask the Mexican markets in San Francisco and Las Vegas to save them for me. They will sell them to you cheap, but the way they come usually looks like a pile of dirt that you have to sort through. You will have to wash the dirt off over and over again. Then use bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) to clean them in the last washing round, then use a knife to scrape the skin off the roots, then cut them into small pieces.
I even heard of someone growing their own cilantro just to get the root. I admire this person a great deal. If I could find a place to turn my black thumbs in for new green thumbs, I would start doing that too.
If you really can’t find it, use the cilantro stems, the part nearest the root, not longer than two inches up. The higher you go on the cilantro stem, the more it loses the earthy pungency and enters the greeny arena, so you don’t want to use that.
If you don’t have the root and need to substitute with the stem, use the same amount that the recipe calls for. Do not increase the quantity because you’ll end up adding the green leafy smell to it, too.
Kaffir Lime Zest: Out of all ingredients, this will be the most difficult one to find! Yeah, like the formers are already easy…I’m sorry, guys. These ingredients are so easy to find in Thailand. I would say, other than garlic and shallots, the rest of the ingredients already grow in the back yard of my urban home in Bangkok, including Kaffir lime!
I usually buy imported whole Kaffir lime frozen from the Thai market, but you can try Temple of Thai, but they are not always in season. You can buy them in season and peel the zest and freeze them to use all year long.
Occasionally I’m lucky and my tiny Kaffir lime tree at home gives me fruit. It’s just not enough to make curry paste all year long. My witch (bitch) magic isn’t strong enough to make my Kaffir lime tree grow faster or yield more fruit. It has been four years since I planted it, but it’s not even my height (not tall) yet. I’ll be lucky to harvest 2-3 fruits in a year.
When you peel the Kaffir lime to get the zest, try to get only the green part and not the white part. The white part is bitter. You would do the same with regular lime zest.
This is where I’ll allow you to use regular lime zest mixed with Kaffir lime leaf (which is easier to find) in this proportion; lime zest : Kaffir lime leaves, 2:1, starting with half the amount of zest as the zest called for in my recipe. (In other words, if I use 1 teaspoon Kaffir lime zest, then you would use 1/2 teaspoon of lime zest and add 1/4 teaspoon of Kaffir lime leaf, chopped finely.)
Shrimp paste: This is a very important ingredient. Without it, it’s not Thai curry. It is the source of the umami flavor. To the people who weren’t born eating Thai food all the time, it smells like fermented rotten seafood, but it smells so good to me!
All of the curry ingredients are intended to cover up the smell of the meat in the curry. If the meat is beef (considered the strongest smell), then we add more spice such as coriander seed, and cumin too (I will talk about that spice later). If the protein is fish, then we add more lemongrass and galangal just to cover up the fishy smell.
You might already have a question in your mind, “Why the hell does she put that stink bomb sauce in there? If all the herbs and spices are just to cover up the meat’s strong smell, adding shrimp paste defeats the purpose!”
Well as I said before, not to the Thai. The shrimp paste is to “round up” all the aromas and add the umami taste to the paste and to the finished curry. Originally, when the Indian curry came to Southeast Asia, the curry paste didn’t include shrimp paste, but the Southeast Asians couldn’t resist adding this familiar taste to the curry, as you will see in Massaman curry paste recipe.
Massaman curry is the oldest type of curry paste and also the closest to the original Indian curry. I do have two Massaman curry recipes here; one is the Beef Shank Massaman, another is the Cornish Game Hen in Massaman with the recipe for Massaman curry paste.
Shrimp paste has many different brands and origins. You can buy it from these same places I keep sending you to, Temple of Thai or Amazon. I’m used to the type that is made with small shrimp, from a province near the sea, in the far south of Thailand–Songkhla–where my parents were from.
I love the shrimp paste from there the most, but it’s also the one I’m most used to. That’s the only shrimp paste known in my and most of my relatives’ households. (Most of them are from that same province.) But I can’t buy it in the US since they don’t export it. They barely make enough for the local people there.
I can hardly find it in Bangkok. I have to go visit my relatives down in Songkhla and buy it there and carry it to the US. I normally carry at least a pound or two into the country.
Once, a long time ago, as I was coming through LAX, the customs officer noticed the fishy smell from my luggage and asked if he could take a look at what was inside. Of course, I let him search though 4-5 pounds of dried shrimp, 4-5 pounds of dried fish, a pound or two of salted fish (equally as stinky as the shrimp paste), marinated fish stomach (Tai-Pla ไตปลา), and a full 2 pounds of shrimp paste!
I warned him, but he didn’t listen to me. I normally wrap the packages with many layers of plastic bags and foil to protect my clothing from the pungent aromas, and that was a red flag to the customs officer. He needed to see what was inside. As layer after layer of the wrapping materials were peeled, the stronger and stronger smell came out…whifffff…the officer face didn’t look too good. I bet he was close to throwing up, but he was persistent. Okay…go ahead. You want me to open the containers to dig around inside them, too? Sure.
Hahahaha, at the end of the search session, he was looking sick. Well, I warned him at every step. There was only ONE reason why I wrapped my packages really tight in many layers. That’s the first clue, man.
He even asked if I planned to sell the goods I brought. Hell NOOOOO! NO ONE could offer me enough to sell those precious goods…I was about to explain that, but then I saw he had only asked to fill in his form, and he actually didn’t really want to talk or let any more of the fishy stink go any deeper into his nostrils. I think he remembered that experience for a long time.
The pictures below show you the difference between my favorite kind, regular Songkhla shrimp paste, and the best Rayong shrimp paste (Rayong is another province in the East that makes good shrimp paste. This is the kind that you can find in Bangkok.) and the shrimp paste by Pantainorasingh brand that you can find here in the US. This brand adds MSG to the shrimp paste! I normally don’t buy any shrimp paste in the US, but someone gave me this and it sat in my pantry for a while.
Before use, you should wrap the shrimp paste in foil, or banana leaf if you can find it, and set it on the grill or on the stove to cook it first.
If you are vegan or vegetarian, you can substitute the shrimp paste with Vegemite or Marmite, using the same measured portion.
Once you know all of the ingredients, now we can put together the curry paste. The proportions I give you here are just a guideline. It all can be varied based on your taste and the meat you choose. I vary the amount of the ingredients all the time. They are all FULLY FLEXIBLE, meaning you can add or subtract several ingredients as you prefer (The add-on list is down below; and don’t forget the “What it’s not.”)
There are only fives ingredients that you can’t completely eliminate: Green Chilies, Lemongrass, Galangal, Shallot, Garlic, Shrimp Paste. Other than that, you can even eliminate some hard-to-find ingredients completely and the curry will still taste okay, even to the Thais.
Example of how I altered the ingredients:
• When I have a cold, I double the shallots portion.
• When I make fish curry, I double the lemongrass and add slightly more garlic and galangal and a teaspoon of turmeric, too (Southern style green curry).
• When I make beef curry I double the spices, cumin and coriander seeds or even a pinch of nutmeg or mace are welcome in this case.
• If I cook for people who will go out to a club later, I reduce the garlic.
You can get rid off the Kaffir lime zest and cilantro root completely and the result will still be alright. I suspected that my aunt’s green curry that I liked so much had absolutely no spices, coriander seeds and cumin, but turmeric was a regular ingredient in all her curries. Green curry that has turmeric blends well with all kind of fish and seafood.
I also listed the potential additions down below, in case you want to explore. This is the perfect recipe for me for the basic chicken curry.
Once I grind them to a paste, I then smell the blend of the ingredients and adjust the amount to get the balance, but it’s probably impossible for you to do so. I suggest you at least make this recipe once, so you would know what it supposed to smell like. Then you can try and adjust the amount of ingredients to your preference later.
Many people ask me “What’s the RIGHT balance?”
You will reach the right balance when the curry paste you made has a whole aroma, and you don’t smell the particular ingredients anymore. This is the only answer I keep giving to everybody. It’s hard to achieve, I understand, especially when you didn’t grow up smelling curry paste or eating curry all the time.
You can start practicing by sniffing ALL of the ingredients and remembering the aroma of each one of them. That at the least will help you to identify when one ingredient sends a stronger aroma, overpowering the others.
Warning: You will NEVER be able to control the strength of every ingredient just by measuring. Older galangal, younger lemongrass, juicy shallots, dried garlic–all of them give out different strength of their aromas. The only way to achieve the balance is to have good nose.
Galangal root, sliced thinly or chopped, 1 tablespoon
Lemongrass, sliced thinly 2 tablespoons
Garlic, sliced 6 tablespoons
Shallots, sliced 5 tablespoons
3 serrano chiles
4 large green jalapeno chilies, seeded
Coriander root chopped 1 teaspoon
Kaffir lime zest 1 teaspoon
Salt 1 teaspoon
Shrimp paste, roasted 1 teaspoon
White Peppercorns 1/2 teaspoon
Coriander seed, roasted 1 teaspoon
Cumin roasted 1 teaspoon
Coconut oil, vegetable oil, or coconut milk, if you are going to use a food processor or blender.
There are two methods that I use to make a paste out of these roots and seeds, which at first don’t look like they would turn into a paste that easily.
1) First is using a blender, either a Vitamix (the best because you don’t have to add a lot of liquid to make it blend), a Cusinart, which is the one I expect to be most similar to what you have in your kitchen, or any blender powerful enough that you can crush ice with it. You can use either the traditional tall blender or a food processor.
The tall blender that you use to make margaritas will require more liquid to process (unless you use a Vitamix). I normally use that for the curry paste for Kaeng, or the soup kind, so I can add more liquid to help the grinding.
I use coconut cream as the liquid with this green curry paste, if I want to cook the whole dish right away AND cook with coconut milk. You might need up to half a cup or more for this curry, but I never use more than half a cup with my Cusinart. You might have to help it a little by turning the bottom up to the top by using the “ice crush” button sometimes.
If I want to keep it longer and store it outside the fridge, I recommend using a Vitamix or any high-powered blender or food processor which requires less liquid to process. With a Vitamix I don’t use any liquid for the green curry, but use 1/4 cup of liquid (at the most) for the other curry pastes.
My Vitamix grinds really fast, under 5 minutes, and you get a very smooth curry paste, so it’s worth half a grand to me (or more). If you don’t have a Vitamix, that’s alright, most food processors will do the job at one-tenth the price, but it will take longer. I usually grind it in the food processor for 10 minutes and finish it in the blender.
The food processor take less liquid to move the ingredients around and chop them finely, but to make them all smooth I have to transfer it to the blender and might have to add a little more liquid to it.
If you use this method, grinding the spices, coriander seeds, cumin and white peppercorns in a coffee grinder first would make it easier to make your curry paste smooth. (Keep a coffee grinder to use solely to grind spices; do not use it to grind coffee after. No matter how thoroughly you clean your coffee grinder after this, the smell will stay and will ruin your coffee.)
Then add everything in together and start grinding. Stop the machine every two minutes to let the the machine motor rest to prevent overheating. I use coconut oil as liquid so it mimics the traditional process. I also cook the curry paste in that oil before packing it in a clean jar while it’s still hot, and then process the jar in boiling water the same way I do when finishing jam jars.
2) The second method is to grind the ingredients the traditional way, with a mortar and pestle. In the picture below are two different kind of mortars. The granite one is the ONLY one appropriate for making the curry paste.
If you have the terra-cotta one that comes with a wooden pestle, you will not be able to make a good curry paste with it, or your curry paste will be very coarse, which my aunt would snobbishly call “country style,” despite the fact that SHE was the one living in the country.
This method is a little more complicated because there is a specific order for putting the ingredients in the mortar. This doesn’t affect the flavor, but just protects your eyes from curry splash and makes the grinding process less painful.
This is the method refined by me. You grind everything listed together unless I say to do it separately.
1) Grind white peppercorns, Coriander seeds and Cumin together, then set aside. If you don’t want to use a mortar, you can use a coffee grinder.
2) Chop the chilies and grind them separately, and set aside. This is the ingredient that could injure you the most, so keep it separate and we will bring it back in at the last step.
3) Now we’re ready to make the paste. Lemongrass is the hardest one to grind so it goes in first with salt, which will help you mush the lemongrass easier. Grind them to a paste.
4) With the lemongrass paste in the mortar, add thinly sliced or chopped Galangal root to the lemongrass and salt mix and grind them all into a paste.
5) Add coriander root, kaffir lime peels and grind to a paste.
6) Add garlic and grind, then add shallots and grind to a paste.
7) Add the pre-ground dry spices together from Step 1 and grind them into the paste.
8) Add shrimp paste and the chili paste that we ground and set aside earlier, mixing them well using the pestle.
There are a few ingredients not previously mentioned that are acceptable in the green curry paste. Here is the list.
Turmeric: This is also another root in the “Zingiberaceae” family but completely different from galangal or ginger. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you might remember that I used this root in the rib satay recipe (and all satay) and Khao Soi or Chiangmai curry noodles recipe before.
I also used this in Southern yellow curry, Thai barbecue chicken, Gai Yang, Southern style crab curry sauce for the rice noodles, Kanom Jeen Nam Ya Tai, and also Thai chicken biryani, or Khao Mok Gai. The root gives a yellow color. It’s a very common ingredient in any southern curry.
If you make any fish or seafood green curry, you can add this root into your curry paste. Your curry will be less light green (keaw-wan) and slightly yellowish-green.
Mace: Some people use this in their curry, usually with beef.
Nutmeg: Same as Mace. Do you know that Mace and Nutmeg are from the same source? Mace is the membrane surrounding the nutmeg. They smell quite similar but I think the mace aroma is slightly sweeter.
Cinnamon: If you want to use it, use just a pinch. It also goes well with beef curry.
In the next episode I will teach you how to COOK the curry paste and a whole pot of curry.