Thai curry refers to dishes in Thai cuisine that are made with various types of curry paste; the term can also refer to the pastes themselves. Thai Cuisine is known for its balance of five fundamental flavors - hot (spicy), sour, sweet, salty and bitter in every meal.
Five curry pastes form the foundation of Thai curry in America: red, yellow, green, massaman and Penang, each possessing a distinctive flavor profile and appearance.
Red curry paste. This chile-packed concoction is bright-red and as hot as it looks. Ingredients include red Thai bird chiles, dried long red chiles, Thai shrimp paste (gkapi), coriander seeds, cumin seeds, white peppercorns, shallots, garlic, kosher salt, lemongrass, galangal, cilantro root and kaffir-lime zest. Red curry dishes commonly feature chicken, beef or duck, as well as sliced bamboo, peppers and/or peas.
The yellow curries of Thailand achieve a brilliant-yellow color and spicy flavor by using ground turmeric in conjunction with a healthy dose of dried long red chiles. Thai yellow curries also usually contain salt, lemongrass, cilantro root, kaffir-lime zest, shallots, garlic and Thai shrimp paste. Yellow curry paste is frequently used with seafood, as well as green papaya and sometimes tomatoes. Tart tamarind pulp is often added to yellow Thai curry to balance the sweetness of its coconut milk and palm sugar.
Green curry’s fire is camouflaged by apparently cool, green pigments. Do not take this curry lightly. The distinctive color is produced by crushing large amounts of green Thai bird chiles, which are just as hot as their more-ripe red counterparts. Green curry paste is also usually made from cumin seeds, coriander seeds, white peppercorns, salt, lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, cilantro root, kaffir-lime zest, shallots, garlic, long green chiles (same as the long red chiles, just less mature) and Thai shrimp paste. The fresh green chiles and cilantro root in green curry paste pair well with pork and eggplant.
Massaman curry paste is entirely different from the rest—much closer to the Muslim curries of India, which contain a more-diverse array of dried spices, including cinnamon and clove, two spices that seem more at home in the sweet realm to the typical U.S. diner. Another unique aspect of massaman curry paste is that it is cooked after pounding, whereas all other curry pastes are left raw until they are incorporated into a curry dish. Massaman curry is typically comprised of dried long red chiles, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, white peppercorns, green cardamom pods, cassia (cinnamon), cloves, mace, nutmeg, salt, lemongrass, galangal, cilantro root, kaffir-lime zest, garlic, shallots, Thai shrimp paste and vegetable oil. The sweet spices of southern Thai massaman are most often paired with beef, potatoes and peanuts.
Surprisingly, Penang curry paste is not found in the cuisine of its namesake, Penang, Malaysia, but is prevalent in southern Thailand, just across the border from Penang. A defining element of this southern Thai curry is the incorporation of roasted peanuts into the paste itself. It also includes dried long red chiles, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, black peppercorns, nutmeg, salt, lemongrass, galangal, cilantro root, kaffir-lime zest, garlic, shallots, red Thai bird chiles and Thai shrimp paste. It is often paired with chicken or seafood.
Robert Danhi, C.C.E., C.H.E., C.E.C., C.C.P., is a leading authority on the cuisines of Asia. His book “Southeast Asian Flavors: Adventures in Learning to Cook the Foods of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia & Singapore,” will be available Oct. 2008. After 23 years in the food business, he now leads Chef Danhi & Co., El Segundo, CA, which consults with food manufacturers, restaurant chains, educational organizations and professional associations. For more information, visit chefdanhi.com or southeastasianflavors.com. Danhi, a member of the Research Chefs Association, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.