When looking at a Thai restaurant menu or browsing a Thai cookbook, you will see a variety of curries, most categorized by the color of the curry paste—red, yellow, and green. It is the color of the chili that imparts each signature hue, and each curry has its own distinct flavor.
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.
This brightly colored curry is considered the most popular curry used in Thai cuisine. The green color has become more vibrant over the years with the addition of fresh coriander (cilantro), kaffir lime leaf, and basil. These herbs are combined with fresh green chilies and several other ingredients such as lemongrass, shrimp paste, garlic, and shallots.
Two common recipes featuring green curry paste (kreung gaeng keo wahn) are Thai green curry with chicken or beef, as well as fish dumplings. Green curry may be the most distinct Thai curry as it is very different from other countries' curries.
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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, which has 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 often includes garlic, lemongrass, turmeric, and shrimp paste, along with the red chilies.
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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, depending on the region, some Thai yellow curries resemble Indian curry 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 together with coriander seeds, cumin, lemongrass, galangal, garlic, and dried red chilies. 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 paste.
- Massaman curry is one of the more unique Thai curries, as it has 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 whole spices and peanuts in the recipes, not common in a Thai curry.
- 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 on a plate topped with some coconut cream. This paste is made of dried red chilies and is usually prepared to be extremely spicy. You will most often see this curry cooked with beef and combined with peanuts.
- 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. It is tamarind, sour pineapple, or other sour fruit that gives this curry its sour flavor.