Fresh, fiery, bright Thai curry pastes

Homemade Thai curry paste in three shades: red, yellow, and green. Photo: Kate Williams Homemade Thai curry paste in three shades: red, yellow, and green. Photo: Kate Williams
Homemade Thai curry paste in three shades: red, yellow, and green. Photo: Kate Williams

By Kate Williams / Bay Area Bites

For many years, I was a slave to the power of store-bought Thai curry paste. The convenience was simply too good to pass up. Grab a jar of the Thai Kitchen stuff and dinner was only a quick simmer away. It was only after I amassed a solid collection of Thai cookbooks that I realized how much better curry could be if I started with fresh ingredients.

Making Thai curry paste at home isn’t terribly difficult, especially if you use a food processor. There are many Thai cookbook authors who may shudder at the thought of using an electric blade to chop and blend the paste — I’ll let them stick to the mortar and pestle. Yes, I have made curry paste by hand, and yes, it does have a different flavor and texture. Is that improved flavor and texture worth the extra effort? Not unless I’m trying to impress a Thai cook.

When using a food processor, the hardest part of making curry paste is finding the ingredients. Some, like dried chiles and whole spices, are easily found at most grocery stores these days. Others, like kaffir limes and fresh turmeric, can be a bit challenging. Berkeley Bowl, Rainbow Grocery, and Asian supermarkets like Ranch 99 are all good sources to obtain these items. In the ingredients list, I’ve included substitutes for some of the harder-to-find items. (The preferred ingredient is listed first.)


The most common curry pastes that I used to buy pre-made are categorized by their color: red, yellow, and green. After reading through several Thai cookbooks, it became clear that these three pastes have quite a bit in common. Their main ingredients — cumin, coriander, lemongrass, galangal, garlic, and shallots — are consistent throughout each variety. The items that give the pastes their own character are small in number. Red curry paste is fiery from an abundance of dried red chiles. Yellow gets a colorful, earthy boost from fresh turmeric root. Green is bright and crisp, spiked with fresh green chiles and a sprinkle of mustard seeds. Armed with this knowledge, it is easy to shift between styles of curry and personalize the recipes at home.

Here’s what you’ll need:

The “trinity” of curry paste spices is made up of whole cumin, coriander, and white peppercorns, which are toasted and ground before using. Additionally, I like to add fennel seeds and curry powder to my yellow curry and mustard seeds to my green curry.

The “trinity” of curry paste spices is made up of whole cumin, coriander, and white peppercorns, which are toasted and ground before using. Additionally, I like to add fennel seeds and curry powder to my yellow curry and mustard seeds to my green curry. Photo: Kate Williams
The “trinity” of curry paste spices. Photo: Kate Williams

While many curry paste recipes call for a mix of many different dried peppers like long chiles and bird’s eye chiles, I typically stick with what is readily available: dried red Thai chiles or chiles arbol. For my green curry, I use the fresh version while they are still green.

While many curry paste recipes call for a mix of many different dried peppers like long chiles and bird’s eye chiles, I typically stick with what is readily available: dried red Thai chiles or chiles arbol. For my green curry, I use the fresh version while they are still green. Photo: Kate Williams
Dried red Thai chiles or chiles arbol and fresh green chiles. Photo: Kate Williams

Shallots and garlic are the bass note of any curry paste. They are used in abundance — don’t be shy.


Shallots and garlic are the bass note of any curry paste. They are used in abundance — don’t be shy. Photo: Kate Williams
Shallots and garlic are the bass note of any curry paste. Photo: Kate Williams

Cilantro roots are a common curry paste ingredient. The root is challenging to source (I’ve only seen them in my CSA). The next-best ingredient is the chopped cilantro stem. Cilantro stems are bright and fresh while roots are on the earthy side, but they’ll still carry the herb’s signature bite.

Cilantro roots are a common curry paste ingredient. The root is challenging to source (I’ve only seen them in my CSA). The next-best ingredient is the chopped cilantro stem. Cilantro stems are bright and fresh while roots are on the earthy side, but they’ll still carry the herb’s signature bite. Photo: Kate Williams
Cilantro roots are a common curry paste ingredient. Photo: Kate Williams

Traditional curry pastes use fragrant galangal as a base ingredient. Galangal can be difficult to find, so ginger is often substituted. Using ginger instead of galangal will result in a very different curry paste, but it will still make a decent curry. Yellow curry paste gets its color from fresh turmeric. The fresh ingredient has brighter, stronger flavor than the dried spice.

Traditional curry pastes use fragrant galangal (far left) as a base ingredient. Galangal can be difficult to find, so ginger (far right) is often substituted. Using ginger instead of galangal will result in a very different curry paste, but it will still make a decent curry. Yellow curry paste gets its color from fresh turmeric (center). The fresh ingredient has brighter, stronger flavor than the dried spice. Photo: Kate Williams
Galangal, fresh turmeric and ginger. Photo: Kate Williams

Lemongrass provides a fragrant note to the curry paste. To prepare it, you’ll need to trim off the top half of the grass (use it to make tea) along with the fibrous stem. Peel away the outer layers to reveal a pliable, soft inner core. Chop this to use in the curry paste.

Lemongrass provides a fragrant note to the curry paste. To prepare it, you’ll need to trim off the top half of the grass (use it to make tea) along with the fibrous stem. Peel away the outer layers to reveal a pliable, soft inner core. Chop this to use in the curry paste. Photo: Kate Williams
Lemongrass. Photo: Kate Williams

Kaffir limes have a distinct floral character that isn’t seen in standard lime varieties. They are also sweeter and less tart than their cousins. Kaffir limes have a mottled exterior and a round shape, similar to a miniature navel orange. If you can’t find kaffir limes, you can substitute chopped fresh kaffir lime leaves or standard lime zest.

Kaffir limes have a distinct floral character that isn’t seen in standard lime varieties. They are also sweeter and less tart than their cousins. Kaffir limes have a mottled exterior and a round shape, similar to a miniature navel orange. If you can’t find kaffir limes, you can substitute chopped fresh kaffir lime leaves or standard lime zest. Photo: Kate Williams
Kaffir limes. Photo: Kate Williams

Like fish sauce, shrimp paste has an overpowering aroma upon first whiff. But, like its fermented partner, shrimp paste blends in to the final dish, adding complex umami and vibrant salinity. In the recipe below, I’ve given a range for the shrimp paste. At 2 teaspoons, the shrimp flavor is barely present in the final paste. Add up to another teaspoon for more assertive flavor. Most shrimp pastes come sealed with a wax coating. Be sure to remove it before scooping and measuring the paste.


Like fish sauce, shrimp paste has an overpowering aroma upon first whiff. But, like its fermented partner, shrimp paste blends in to the final dish, adding complex umami and vibrant salinity. In the recipe below, I’ve given a range for the shrimp paste. At 2 teaspoons, the shrimp flavor is barely present in the final paste. Add up to another teaspoon for more assertive flavor. Most shrimp pastes come sealed with a wax coating. Be sure to remove it before scooping and measuring the paste.
Shrimp paste.

Once you’ve gathered your ingredients, making the curry paste is as simple as 1, 2, 3: Soak and drain the dried chiles, toast and grind the spices, and blend everything together in a food processor. This recipe makes a whole cup of curry paste, which can be frozen for long-term storage.

Homemade Thai red curry paste. Photo: Kate Williams
Homemade Thai red curry paste. Photo: Kate Williams

Recipe: Thai Curry Paste

Makes about 1 cup

Note: You will need to choose between red, green, or yellow curry paste and add those ingredients to the base.

INGREDIENTS

Red curry:

  • 12 dried red Thai chiles or chiles arbol, seeded, soaked for 15 minutes in warm water, and drained

Green curry:

  • 1/2 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
  • 12 fresh green Thai chiles, seeded and chopped

Yellow curry:

  • 6 dried red Thai chiles, seeded, soaked for 15 minutes in warm water, and drained
  • 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
  • 2 tablespoons curry powder
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh turmeric or 2 teaspoons dried turmeric

Base:

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon white peppercorns
  • 10 cloves peeled garlic
  • 1/2 cup sliced shallots (about 1 large)
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro roots or stems
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped galangal or ginger
  • 2 tablespoons sliced lemongrass from 7-8 stalks
  • 2 teaspoons kaffir lime zest, kaffir lime leaves, or standard lime zest
  • 2-3 teaspoons shrimp paste
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt

INSTRUCTIONS:

  1. If using dried chiles, place in a small bowl and cover with warm water. Let soak for 15 minutes. Drain well and pat dry.
  2. In small skillet over medium heat, toast coriander seeds, cumin seeds, and fennel or mustard seeds, if using, until fragrant, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Remove from skillet and let cool completely. Combine toasted seeds and white peppercorns in a spice grinder and grind to a fine powder.
  3. Combine ground seeds, chiles, and remaining ingredients in a food processor. Process until mixture has turned into a relatively smooth paste. Transfer to storage jar, cover top of curry paste with plastic wrap, seal jar, and freeze. Use one to two tablespoons of curry paste for every quart of cooking liquid when making curry. (A mix of coconut milk and chicken broth makes a particularly good base.)

Kate Williams grew up outside of Atlanta, where twenty-pound baskets of peaches were an end-of-summer tradition. After spending time in Boston developing recipes for America’s Test Kitchen and pretending to be a New Englander, she moved to sunny Berkeley. Here she works as a personal chef and food writer, covering topics ranging from taco trucks to modernist cookbooks. Her work appears on KQED’s Bay Area Bites, Kate’s work appears on Serious Eats, Berkeleyside NOSH, The Oxford American, America’s Test Kitchen cookbooks, and Food52.

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