My grandmother was known for her jaw-droppingly delicious chicken curry. She would painstakingly toast, pound, and grind every element until she had a mound of nuanced, complex curry paste.
Old-school Thai grandmas like mine use a traditional granite mortar and pestle to mash each ingredient by hand. It was the only way—that is, until my mother’s generation discovered food processors and began puréeing their curry pastes in a fraction of the time, much to their mothers’ chagrin.
And then there is my generation. We often take it one step lazier, employing a can opener to release commercially prepared paste from a metal shell. But I am also of the DIY generation that enthusiastically grows our own yeast starters—one for baking and one for brewing—and attends four-hour farm-to-table dinners. We’ll spend scouring obscure neighborhoods for that one difficult-to-find ingredient for the perfect mole sauce. These extra efforts help us to acquire a better appreciation for the food and a fuller understanding of what goes in the food and why.
That said, let’s talk about why spending 40 minutes smashing food into a rock using another rock is better than blitzing the same food using a motorized blade. In Thai, curry paste ingredients are called khreung gaeng, which translates to “the engine of the curry.” Comparing khreung gaeng prepared with a mortar and pestle to ones prepared with a food processor is like pitting a Bugatti against a Buick. They’ll both get you where you want to go, but one will provide a much more exhilarating experience.
The pounding and grinding motions used in a mortar and pestle crush the food fibers to unleash the full range of oils and aromatics from the chiles, spices, and herbs, giving the paste brightness and depth of flavor. This is the soul of the curry paste—and consequently the resulting curry dish. A food processor, on the other hand, mainly chops and shreds, resulting in a coarsely chopped mixture—not technically a paste—that lacks robust flavor.
Incidentally, I put this theory to the test one day. My mom used to make all the curry pastes at her restaurant with a food processor. I decided to try her recipe at home, using a mortar and pestle instead. After grinding it to a fine paste, I fried up the fresh red curry paste, added coconut milk, shrimp, and crushed pineapple, and served it to Mom. Had I come close to emulating her brilliant recipe? “No,” my mom replied, “you made it better.”
8 Essential Ingredients for Thai Curry Paste
These eight fundamentals make a red curry paste called prik gaeng kua. As béchamel is to French sauces, prik gaeng kua is the “mother” paste for all Thai curries. You can use it on its own, or tailor it to fit specific curries by adding particular ingredients. For instance, adding freshly toasted coriander seeds, peppercorns, and cumin seeds makes panang curry paste. Replace the dried chiles for fresh chiles, and you’ve got green curry paste. Sub in turmeric for some of the chiles, and you’ve made yellow curry paste. The variations are endless, but I’ve focused on the three primary curries to get you started—and, I hope, hooked—on making your own curries from scratch.
3. Dried red chiles
6. Kaffir lime zest
7. Cilantro roots
8. Shrimp paste
Tips for Using a Mortar and Pestle
SHOPPING I recommend a 7- to 8-inch mortar and pestle (preferably granite) with at least a 2-cup capacity. If the inside of the mortar looks chalky, grind wet rice in it until the residue is gone.
TECHNIQUE Pound the ingredients into the area of the mortar where the sides curve into the bowl at a 65-degree angle. Pounding straight down into the center of the mortar will just spit food into your face (somehow always in an eye—not fun when you’re pounding chiles). For insurance, cover the mortar with your non-pounding hand to defend against strays. And don’t just pound. You want to pound and drag with the pestle to separate the fibers into a fine paste.
ORDER OF INGREDIENTS Driest and/or hardest ingredients go in first, followed by ingredients with more moisture. Always leave the shrimp paste for last.
EXPERIENCE Take the time to add ingredients one or two at a time, and taste after each addition. It’ll give you a better understanding of what each herb and spice adds to the mix, allowing you to customize the paste to your own taste.