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.
A meal in a bowl.
Another reason I love making curries on a weeknight is that they’re a perfect one-dish supper. With beef, chicken, seafood, or even tofu and a variety of vegetables, a Thai curry over rice (or noodles) makes a fantastic, satisfying meal.
Not all curries have coconut milk. Thai cooks use coconut milk in many curry dishes, but they also enjoy curries made with just broth. These curries, like the one at right, are called “country-style” or “jungle” curries because they’re rustic and simple enough to make anywhere, anytime, using just meat, vegetables, curry paste, and broth or water. (In Thailand, skipping the coconut milk makes things a lot easier because home cooks make it from scratch, painstakingly squeezing grated coconut flesh.) Because no coconut milk is added to thicken the broth, these curries have the texture of hearty soups rather than stews.
Four steps to making curries
The skinny on curry paste
Curry pastes, an essential ingredient in Thai curries, are intensely flavored combinations of herbs and spices chopped fine and then ground into a thick, sturdy paste. The standard ingredient list includes fresh or dried chiles, lemongrass, galangal, wild lime peel, cilantro root, coriander and cumin seeds, and shrimp paste. (click here to read more about some of these ingredients.)
There are two main types of curry paste: red, made with dried hot red chiles that are usually soaked before grinding, and green, made with fresh hot green chiles. While all curry pastes are spicy, the red ones tend to be milder than the green ones. The heat level, however, will vary with the brand of paste you buy, or if you’re making your own, with the type of chiles you use.
Buy it or make your own: You can find jarred red and green curry paste in the Asian section of most supermarkets. Store it in the refrigerator for up to two weeks after opening. Jarred pastes are ideal for busy weeknights, but if you have a little more time, try making curry paste from scratch. It’ll require a trip to an Asian market for a few ingredients, but it’s worth it: Homemade curry paste will give your curries a more complex, nuanced flavor. And what’s great is that you can make curry paste on a weekend, refrigerate or freeze it, and use it later to whip up a quick curry.