The Differences Between Typical Thai Curries

The distinctions between red, yellow, and green

Illustration depicting differences in Thai curry
Illustration: Catherine Song. © The Spruce, 2018 

Curries are an important part of Thai cuisine and refer to both the dish as well as the curry paste used to make the dish. There are three main types of Thai curries—red, yellow, and green—which are categorized by the color of the curry paste. The color of the chilies and other ingredients gives each curry its distinct hue.

Traditionally, all Thai curries were made with the same ingredients except for one thing: the chilies. Red curry was made with several red chilies for a fiery hot dish, while green curry was made with green chilies and yellow curry was made with yellow chilies. In Thailand, these chilies have slightly different taste characteristics in addition to their color. Over time, however, other ingredients have been added to the curry pastes to enhance each recipe, making them more distinct from one another. Although all three colors may be spicy-hot depending on the chef, normally green is the mildest and red the hottest with yellow falling somewhere in between. 

Green Curry 

Green curry is considered the most popular curry in Thai cuisine. The green color of Thai green curry sauce has become more vibrant over the years with the addition of fresh coriander (cilantro), kaffir lime leaf and peel, and basil. These herbs are combined with fresh green chilies and several other ingredients such as lemongrass, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, and shallots.

Two common recipes featuring green curry paste (kreung gaeng keo wahn) are Thai green curry with chicken or beef and fish dumplings. Green curry may be the most distinct Thai curry as it is the most different from other countries' curries.

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Red Curry

Red Thai curry paste has more or less remained the same over time, with traditional Thai chefs adding up to 20 red chilies to give it that red color and make it spicy. However, some modern chefs prefer to reduce the number of chilies in exchange for chili powder and sometimes tomato sauce, which have the added benefit of enhancing the red color as well as imparting a deeper flavor.

The most versatile of the curry pastes, red curry paste (kreung gaeng phet daeng) is found in a wide range of dishes, from Thai red curry with chicken to baked salmon in Thai red curry sauce. Both of these recipes incorporate coconut milk in the sauce along with the curry paste, which includes garlic, spices, galangal, and shrimp paste along with the red chilies.

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Yellow Curry 

As in traditional Indian curry, Thai yellow curry includes turmeric as one of the vital ingredients, giving the curry its typical golden-yellow hue. In fact, some Thai yellow curries resemble Indian curry in appearance while remaining distinctly Thai in taste.

Yellow curry paste (nam prik gaeng karee) has a mild, somewhat sweet taste with a little bit of spice. In addition to the turmeric, curry powder is pounded combined with coriander seeds, cumin, lemongrass, galangal or ginger, garlic, and yellow or red chili. Thai yellow curry chicken is a common dish, and the paste is often combined with coconut milk and used in fish stews.

Other Types of Thai Curry

There are numerous other types of Thai curry in addition to red, yellow, and green. These include Massaman curry, Penang curry, and sour curry.

Massaman curry is one of the more unique Thai curries thanks to Persian influence. It originated in the south of Thailand near the border of Malaysia and is a thick sauce with a mild, slightly sweet flavor. Massaman curry dishes distinguish themselves by the inclusion of several whole spices and peanuts, otherwise uncommon in a Thai curry.

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Thai Penang red curry is richer and sweeter yet drier than the other curries. It is named for the island off the west coast of Malaysia and is served sometimes topped with coconut cream. The paste is made of dried or fresh red chilies and is usually prepared to be extremely spicy. You will most often see this curry cooked with beef.

Sour curry paste is made of just five ingredients, earning this the easiest curry to make. It has a looser consistency than the other curries and is usually prepared with fish or pork, similar to this Goan curry. Tamarind, sour pineapple, or other sour fruit give the curry its distinct sour flavor.