We’d argue there’s nothing more enigmatic in Southeast Asian cuisine than the dish known as curry. In the country of Thailand, curry dishes are so countless and varied that they’re practically impossible to define.
“There are literally dozens of curries from Thailand,” says Thai cookbook author and Pok Pok chef-owner Andy Ricker. “Often the difference [between them] is small but very important.”
So what defines a Thai curry? As a general rule of thumb, that Thai curries consist of a protein, like meat or seafood, simmered with vegetables. Although spices and seasonings vary, one can always anticipate a sauce with complex, layered flavors. “When I think of Thai curry, I see a paste that has been prepared in an earthenware mortar and pestle to give [the dish] its most intense notes, its bottom notes,” says Jean-Pierre Gabriel, author of Thailand: The Cookbook.
A good Thai curry should be predominantly made of fresh ingredients. “Thai curries are generally made of raw ingredients: chiles, garlic, ginger, cilantro root, lemongrass, kaffir, lime zest,” Gabriel points out, noting that sometimes, dry ingredients (think peppercorns, dried chiles, ground coriander and cumin) are also mixed in.
It’s important to understand that the country’s curries have distinct regional variations: “Curries from the northeast Isaan region are much spicier than other parts of the country,” Gabriel explains. “Southern curry preparations are mostly prepared with coconut milk, because the fat contained in coconut milk captures the aromatic components of curry pastes.”
A number of Thai curries are grouped into color families, like yellow or green. “Red, green and yellow colors are related to the used ingredients,” Gabriel says. “Red curry paste is made of dried red chiles; green curry paste contains fresh green chiles; and the color of yellow curry past is due to dried turmeric and curry powder.” These colors can sometimes correspond with certain protein types. “Green curry, made with fresh chiles, has vegetal notes that can pair better with fish than with meat,” he adds. That being said, there is no real rule: “You can prepare three different beef curries, each cooked with a green, a red or a yellow curry paste.”
Thai curries have a stereotype for being aggressively spicy and aromatic, but that’s not the case for all of them. If you’re new to trying the dish, Gabriel suggests starting with a Massaman beef curry. “Massaman curry, the most famous and renowned Thai curry, is surprisingly made with dry ingredients [rather than fresh]; it’s a heritage of the Muslim food culture, brought to Thailand by Indian or Persian merchants,” he explains. “The taste of this stew-like dish is rounder and more accessible.”
Interested in taking a stab at Thai curry at home? Start with some of our favorite recipes, like Chicken and Green Beans in Green Curry Sauce, Seafood in Coconut Red Curry, and Yellow Chicken Curry, and be sure to check out the rest of our Guide to Thai Cooking.