When I traveled to Thailand for the first time in 1975, I knew next to nothing about Thai food. It wasn’t meant to be a culinary trip after all: I was serving in the Peace Corps, and all I knew was that I wanted to see Asia. But when I got to Thailand there was no escaping the pull of the deeply flavored local cuisine. Thai curries, in particular, captivated me with their heady spiciness and complex harmony of flavors. These rich stews—simmered in broth and, often, coconut milk and finished with a combo of salty, sweet, and hot ingredients like fish sauce, sugar, and fresh chiles—are distinctively flavored with a spicy, powerfully aromatic mix called curry paste (see "The skinny on curry paste" below). They’re among the most popular dishes in Thailand, often prepared for special occasions but also savored daily at small curry shops that line busy town streets.
Substitutions are quicker
In these recipes, authentic ingredients like palm sugar and Thai basil can be replaced with easier-to-find items like light brown sugar and Italian basil. Wild lime leaves have no good substitute, though, so omit them if you can’t find them. We made these curries with both traditional ingredients and substitutions and found that the latter still produce delicious results.
The good news is that you don’t have to go to Thailand to eat a good Thai curry. You don’t even have to go to a Thai restaurant. Thai curries are easy enough to make at home—even on a busy night—without having to hunt far and wide for exotic ingredients. The four steps below give you a basic method for making any Thai curry.
While many Thai cooks and restaurants make curry paste from scratch, you can use store-bought curry paste to speed things up, and you can replace traditional ingredients like palm sugar or Thai basil with more readily available ones, like brown sugar and Italian basil. So after one stop at your local supermarket, cooking a fabulous curry takes just about half an hour. It’s no surprise that in my house Thai curries are high on the list of go-to weeknight dishes.