Thai curry paste, four ways

December 4, 2010 at 10:58 pm (Derek's faves, East and SE Asia, Nancie McDermott, Other, Sauce/dressing, unrated)

I was making roasted veggies for dinner tonight, and Derek asked me to make some Thai curry paste to go along with them.  Amazingly, I actually happened to have all the ingredients on hand.  I used to make Thai curry paste all the time back in grad school, but I haven’t made it much (if at all) since coming to Germany.   But now that it’s snowy and cold in Saarbruecken, the intense heat of a curry paste sounded very appealing.

The recipe I made tonight is a green curry from Nancie McDermott’s Real Vegetarian Thai.  It’s one of five different curry recipes in her book.  All of them are fiery and very fresh tasting–a great accompaniment to the sweetness in  roasted carrots and parsnips.  Traditional Thai curry paste includes shrimp paste, but McDermott’s vegetarian version is not missing a thing: it’s fresh, complex, and intensely spicy. 

I’ve included a base recipe here and then the instructions on how to customize the recipe to make four different thai curries:  a red curry, a green curry, a mussamun curry, and a yellow curry.  In Real Vegetarian Thai there’s also a “quick green curry” that uses more common American supermarket ingredients, and is quicker to make.  For the recipe buy the cookbook.  You won’t regret it!

  • The red curry paste takes its name from the dried red chilies that make it so spicy.  For a less spicy curry, choose larger red chilies.  For a more fiery curry, choose the smallest dried chilies you can find.
  • Green curry paste takes its name from the fresh green chili peppers that make it spicy.  The color of the finished curry is actually more brown than green.  If you want a truly green curry, you can add more cilantro or some parsley.
  • Yellow curry paste is red curry paste with a little less heat and the addition of standard curry powder for flavor and turmeric for color.
  • Mussamun means “Muslim style”.  It’s typically added to a stew with coconut milk, peanuts, a cinnamon stick, and cardamom pods.

The base ingredients:

  • chilies (see below for types and amounts)
  • 10 peppercorns (about 1 tsp.)
  • 1 Tbs. whole coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp. whole cumin seeds
  • additional spices (see below for types and amounts)
  • 3 stalks lemongrass
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro roots, or leaves and stems
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped shallots
  • 2 Tbs. coarsely chopped garlic
  • 1 Tbs. coarsely chopped peeled fresh galanga or ginger
  • 1 tsp. finely minced fresh lime peel
  • 3 kaffir lime leaves (optional)
  • 1 tsp. salt

To customize your curry, choose your chilies and spices.  Here are four different standard Thai combinations from McDermott’s book:

green red yellow mussamun
chilies 5 serranos, 4 green jalapenos, or 10 green Thai bird chilies (all fresh) 20 dried finger-length chilies such as chiles de arbol or chiles japones 15 dried red finger-length chilies such as chiles de arbol or chiles japones 15 dried red finger-length chilies such as chiles de arbol or chiles japones
other spices 1 tsp. curry powder and 1 tsp. turmeric 1 tsp. each: cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom (all should be ground)


  1. Prep the chilies: If using dried chilies, stem them and shake out and discard a lot of the seeds.  Break into large pieces.  Place the chilies in a small bowl, add warm water to cover, and set aside to soften for about 20 minutes.  If using fresh chilies, just stem them.  Small birds-eye chilies can be left whole but large chilies should be chopped coarsely.
  2. Prepare the base spices:  Add the peppercorns to a small bowl.  In a small skillet over medium heat, dry-fry the coriander seeds until they are fragrant and darken a shade or two, about 2 to 3 minutes.  Move to the small bowl.  Toast the cumin seeds in the same way, for about 1 to 2 minutes, until fragrant.  Move to the bowl.    Grind the three spices to a fine powder in a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle.  (If you don’t have whole spices you can substitute the same amount of ground spices.  But the ground spices will roast faster and you’ll need to stir them to prevent burning.
  3. Prepare lemongrass:  Discard root section below the bulb and cut away the top portion, leaving a stalk about 6 inches long, including the base. Remove any dried, wilted, or yellowed leaves. Slice the stalk as thin as possible, then chop the slices.
  4. Combine the lemongrass, the chilies (drained if they were soaking), and the ground toasted spices with the remaining ingredients in a blender or mini processor and grind them to a fairly smooth paste.  (Don’t try to use a large food processor.) You’ll probably have to add a few tablespoons of water to get the mixture blending, but try to add as little as possible.  Make sure you scrape down the sides a few times to get everything well mixed. If your paste is watery it will separate as it sits.  Just give it a stir before you use it.

Makes about 1 cup.  You can store the paste in a sealed jar in the refrigerator for about 1 month, or freeze the paste in tablespoons. (Ice cube trays work well for divvying up the paste.)   Since the curry paste stores well, I recommend making two different recipes at a time.  Start with red and green.  When you use up one of the two, make yellow and Mussamun.  That way you’ll have always have more than one curry paste on hand!

Curry pastes can be used to add flavor to any dish.  To get you started, here are a few recipe ideas:

  • Add 2-3 Tbs. to a stir-fry to serve 4.
  • Use 1-3 Tbs. with 1 can of coconut milk, veggies, and tofu to make a Thai curried soup or stew that serves 4-6.
  • Toss hot roasted or steamed veggies with a few teaspoons of curry paste.
  • Use as a garnish for eggs.
  • Add to mashed root veggies, like potatoes, sweet potatoes, or parsnips.
  • Add a tsp. to a bowl of bean soup, to add a fresh, fiery flavor.
  • Add a little to a vegetable-broth based soup, to make a country-style Thai curry.  Serve with rice and tofu.
  • Spread a very thin layer on pizza, as you would use an Italian pesto, then top with feta and veggies.  Make sure the paste isn’t watery though, or your pizza will become soggy.  Curry paste also makes a nice addition to a quesadilla.
  • Add to mashed avocados for a Thai-style guacamole.

For specific recipes I recommend Nancie McDermott’s cookbook Real Vegetarian Thai.  Feel free to make other recipe suggestions in the comments!

1 Comment

  1. Red curry with winter vegetables and cashews « The captious vegetarian said,

    […] Tbs. red curry paste (ideally […]

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