how to make traditional Thai curries

Thai Curries 101: How to Make Traditional Thai Curry Pastes

Learn How to Make Traditional Thai Curries

Thai curries are as complex and regionally varied as the many cultures that call Thailand home. 

From the southern Malay flavors of Massaman, to the famous Khao Soy of the northern borders, Thai curry pastes are the base on which all other ingredients build to create the perfect sweet, salty, sour and spicy balance the food of Thailand is known for.

If you’re a lover of Thai food or are wanting to relive your travels through South East Asia through food, you need to know how to make your own traditional Thai curry pastes. 

I was once told at a Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai the only way to “find a good husband” was to be efficient with a mortar and pestle. Alas, curry pastes are a labour of love. Creating the perfect paste will take a bit of elbow grease but your efforts will be rewarded once you taste the final product.

making authentic Thai curry
Take me back to the tastes of Thailand!

Essential Thai Ingredients

If you’ve never heard of or tasted the ingredients you will need to make curry pastes at home, the list can be intimidating. We’ve included a short glossary of lesser-known ingredients and substitutions for ingredients that may be more difficult to find in the Western world. With the exception of a few very specific ingredients, it is possible to find most required ingredients at your local Asian import market

Northern Thailand fresh produce market
I could walk through these Northern Thai markets for hours…

Sweet Basil (Bai horapa) – The most commonly used basil in Thai cuisine. Has darker leaves than others with purple tinged leaves, also has a sweet licorice flavor. It is okay to substitute Italian basil if sweet thai basil isn’t available.

Holy Basil (Bai mang rak) – Often used in Thai fish dishes, holy basil has a peppery taste that is released when cooking.

Green Cardamom (Luk grawan) – The most common type are straw-coloured pods containing 8-10 tiny black seeds. It’s sweet and floral with hints of citrus. A favorite in sweet dishes, teas, diary treats and green curries.

Black Cardamom (Luk krawan) – Large firm black-brown pods. Black cardamom  is strong and smokey with an almost minty finish good for curries and stew. Black and green cardamom are not interchangeable. However, in savory dishes omission is worse than substitution. 

Coconut Cream (Nam maprow) – Typically the first squeeze of a mature coconut, it’s richer and much thicker than coconut milk. Water can be added to coconut cream to substitute coconut milk. Add 2tbsp coconut cream to ¾ cup water for coconut milk.

Coriander (Pak chee) – Cilantro in the West, Thais might use more coriander than any other cuisine. The roots of coriander are often used in creating curry pastes. 

Fish Sauce (Nam pla) – Thai cuisine would not exist without this distinctive flavor. Used similarly to soy sauce in Chinese cooking. Made with fermented fish or shrimp it has a salty tang and is lessy “fishy” and more umami than you’d think. Do not omit from recipes unless there are allergies. In which case tamari or soy can be used (I guess).

Galangal (Kha) – Thai ginger is a larger and lighter version of traditional ginger, and is used in almost every curry paste and thai soup. The softer, more vegetal flavor of galangal makes it hard to substitute with regular ginger.

Ginger (King) – In Thai food ginger is used mainly young and fresh, and added to dishes last.

Thai ginseng (Kra chai) – Adds an earthy, woody, sweet (barley?) taste that helps balance complex curries.

Kaffir lime (Makrut) – The leaves, the rind and wrinkly little lime fruit are all used for flavoring Thai curry dishes. There is no substitute for kaffir lime leaves, however you can get away with substituting the juice and peel of regular limes.

Lemongrass (Bai takrai) – This long leek-looking grass is a staple in South East Asian cuisine; there are no true substitutes for its intensely lemony flavor, but lemon zest and a small amount of juice could do in a pinch.

Turmeric (Kamin) – Rich and pungent, this cousin to ginger will stain everything so beware. It’s a bit sweet, a bit bitter – tastes like yellow-orange. As a rule of thumb, you can substitute fresh turmeric for half dried. 

Palm Sugar (Naam taan peep) – Made from the sap of coconut palms or the sugar palm tree, palm sugar is less sweet than cane sugar. You can substitute one for the other, although the flavor won’t be compromised much but the texture of your curry may be altered. We don’t recommend it.

Peppercorns (Prik thai) – While black peppercorns are most commonly used in Thai cooking, fresh green peppercorns are used for green curry and in sauces and salads. Green peppercorns can be difficult to find in the west, but are worth the search if you can find them at an Asian market in your city. There is no substitution. 

Tamarind Concentrate (Makaam) – Is it sweet? Is it sour? It’s tamarind. It can only depend on what this unique ingredient is mixed with. Often a vital ingredient balancing thai noodle dishes but is also used in northern-style curries.

Star Anise (Poy kak bua) – A dried, star shaped spice with a pungent licorice or aniseed flavor.

Methods for Making Thai Chili Paste at Home

mortar and pestle grinding spices
Mortar and pestle for the win!

Mortar and Pestle vs Food Processor

You would likely never see a food processor being used to blend curries in a Thai household. While you can use a food processor to combine curries into a paste, it isn’t recommended.

Food processors quickly macerate all ingredients into a single homogeneous blend. Not only will this alter the texture of your final product, it will change the flavor. 

A mortar, pestle and a bit of patience will ensure all the flavors in your mixture are being broken and blended slowly, releasing all the spicey nuances of your favorite curry mixture. 

Toasting Spices, Nuts and Seeds for Curry Paste 

DO NOT skip this step. Toasting dry spices before adding them to curry pastes helps the oils inside spices release more of their aromatic properties. This helps flavors to blend and develop into a deeper, more complex flavor.

Heat a heavy skillet over medium-high and add dry spice ingredients. Stir until spices are a shade or two darker and are very fragrant. Be careful not to burn spices.

To toast nuts and seeds, spread over a baking sheet and place in a 350 degree oven for 5-10 minutes or until golden. 

Rehydrating Dried Chillies and Spices

In the case of dried chillies, often you will need to rehydrate them. This method allows them to blend more evenly into the curry pastes. I like to use the same method to wake up dried or frozen kaffir lime leaves or remove tough outer pods from black cardamom. Place the ingredients in a small heat safe bowl and cover with boiling water and wait 10 minutes. 

Traditional Thai Curry Paste Recipes 

Most Thai curry pastes have similar starting points in terms of ingredients. The variations are often very slight but change the flavor profile entirely. Red curry shares the majority of its ingredients with most other pastes. The mother of Thai curry paste is used to build almost all  other regional variations. Here’s our list of our favorite curry pastes. 

Once you have measured your ingredients and toasted your dry spices,add them to your mortar and pestle then start smashing! You’re only about 15 minutes away from a traditionally prepared Thai curry paste, enjoy!

Recipe to Roam Tip: Use a tea towel draped over the mortar while smashing to protect your eyes from being assaulted by fiery, freaking hot chilli juice splatter.

chicken khao soi recipe
The perfect curry, and our favorite, Khao Soy.

Red Curry Paste

10 chillies red dried big chillies (chopped and rehydrated) 

3 tbsp chopped shallots 

2 tbsp minced garlic 

1 tbsp chopped galangal 

1 tbsp chopped lemongrass 

1 tbsp Thai ginseng

1 tbsp shrimp paste or sub salt ¼ tsp

1 tbsp chopped kaffir lime peel 

1 tbsp fresh coriander root 

Green Curry Paste

10 fresh green chillies 

1 tbsp green peppercorns (optional) 

2 stalks of sweet basil 

3 tbsp chopped shallots 

2 tbsp minced garlic 

1 tbsp chopped galangal 

2 tbsp chopped lemongrass 

1 tbsp Thai ginseng

1 tbsp shrimp paste or sub salt ¼ tsp

1 tbsp chopped kaffir lime peel 

1 tbsp fresh coriander root 

Yellow Curry Paste

10 chillies red dried big chillies (chopped and boiled) 

3 tbsp chopped shallots 

2 tbsp minced garlic 

2 tbsp chopped galangal 

1 tbsp chopped lemongrass 

1 tbsp Thai ginseng

1 tbsp shrimp paste or sub salt ¼ tsp 

1 tbsp chopped kaffir lime peel 

1 tbsp fresh coriander root 

½ tsp coriander seeds

½ tsp cumin seeds 

¼ dry white pepper corn 

1 tsp curry powder 

1-2 tbsp turmeric 

Panang Curry Paste 

10 chillies red dried big chillies (chopped and rehydrated) 

3 tbsp chopped shallots 

2 tbsp minced garlic 

1 tbsp chopped galangal 

1 tbsp chopped lemongrass

1 tbsp Thai ginseng

1 tbsp shrimp paste or sub salt ¼ tsp 

1 tbsp chopped kaffir lime peel 

1 tbsp fresh coriander root 

2 tbsp roasted peanuts 

½  tsp coriander seeds 

¼  dry white pepper corn 

1 tsp curry powder 

1 tbsp turmeric 

Jungle Curry Paste

10 chillies red dried big chillies (chopped and boiled) 

3-5 fresh red chili

3 tbsp chopped shallots 

3 tbsp minced garlic 

1 tbsp chopped galangal 

2 tbsp chopped lemongrass

1 tbsp thai ginseng

1 tbsp shrimp paste or sub salt ¼ tsp 

1 tbsp chopped kaffir lime peel 

1 tbsp fresh coriander root 

Massaman Curry Paste (Nam Prik Gaeng Mussaman)

5 chillies red dried big chillies (chopped and rehydrated) 

3 tbsp chopped shallots 

2 tbsp minced garlic 

1 tbsp chopped galangal 

1 tbsp chopped lemongrass 

1 tbsp Thai ginseng

½ tbsp shrimp paste or sub salt ¼ tsp 

1 tbsp chopped kaffir lime peel 

1 tbsp fresh coriander root 

1 tbsp turmeric

½ tsp coriander 

½ cumin seeds 

½  tsp dry peppercorn 

½ tbsp curry powder 

1 tsp cinnamon 

1 tsp black cardamom 

1 tbsp cloves 

2 star anise pods

Khao Soy Curry Paste 

10 chillies red dried big chillies (chopped and boiled) 

3 tbsp chopped shallots 

2 tbsp minced garlic 

1 tbsp chopped galangal 

1 tbsp chopped lemongrass 

1 tbsp thai ginseng

1 tbsp shrimp paste or sub salt ¼ tsp 

1 tbsp chopped kaffir lime peel 

1 tbsp fresh coriander root ½ tsp coriander seeds

½ tsp cumin seeds 

¼ dry white peppercorn 

1 tbsp curry powder 

1 tbsp black cardamom 

1-2 tbsp fresh turmeric or ½ tsp dried 

How long does curry paste last?

Basic curry pastes can be stored in a covered glass jar in a refrigerator for 1 month, or frozen for up to 4 months. Curry recipes make enough paste for most recipes serving 3-4. Enjoy!

Did this get you hungry? Add our Thai curry pastes to your personal cookbook and check out more of our Thai recipes for a true taste of Thailand.

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