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It's always more fun to DIY. Every week, we'll spare you a trip to the grocery store and show you how to make small batches of great foods at home.
When I first met my husband, I was pretty green when it came to Thai food. Growing up in a small town in the South doesn't exactly foster culinary exploration. But when you marry someone with a fondness for curries, especially "Thai spicy" curries, you adapt.
We used to buy those little containers of curry paste that you see at most Asian supermarkets, but they lack the fresh, complex flavor that a good curry should have. So we struck out on our own.
More: While you're exploring your spicy side, try a bowl of homemade Pad Thai.
As it turns out, an excellent curry paste is easy to make -- the hardest part is tracking down the ingredients, but you can find most of these ingredients at any Asian supermarket. For particularly hard-to-find ingredients, I've included a reasonable substitution in my recipe. Shrimp paste is an important element in authentic Thai curry paste; despite its aggressive fishy smell (prepare yourself), it adds a subtle note of umami to the finished paste that isn't at all overwhelming. We highly recommend it, but if you are vegan or vegetarian, feel free to leave it out.
We like to make large batches of curry paste, pack it into ice cube trays, freeze it, and then store the frozen cubes in zipper-top bags for ease of use. It keeps very well this way, and because the ice cubes thaw quickly, you can just throw them in the pan without thawing them.
Green chiles vary quite a bit in spiciness; nibble one before you start cooking to see how hot your chiles are. If you like very spicy curries, you may choose to leave all the seeds in. If you only want a moderately spicy curry, remove the seeds from half the chiles. For a milder curry, remove all the seeds.
Makes about 2 1/2 cups
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon white peppercorns
8 ounces green Thai chiles (or serranos), partially seeded and chopped
4 to 5 large shallots (about 3/4 pound), peeled and chopped
3 ounces coriander root (or one bunch of cilantro, both leaves and stems)
1/4 cup peeled and chopped galangal root (alternatively, you may use fresh ginger)
3 tablespoons peeled and chopped fresh turmeric root (do not substitute ground turmeric)
2 stalks lemongrass, tender bottom only, chopped
3 kaffir lime leaves (or the zest of 3 limes), chopped
2 heads garlic, cloves peeled
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon shrimp paste (optional)
Combine the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, and white peppercorns in a small, dry skillet over medium heat. Toast until the spices are fragrant and the white peppercorns are beginning to get a little color, about 3 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Combine the cooled, toasted spices along with the remaining ingredients in a blender or food processor. If you're using a blender, put the lighter ingredients, like cilantro, in first and the heavier ingredients on top.
As you purée the ingredients, the shallots and garlic will release a lot of moisture, but the mixture will still be fairly dry. With this in mind, be sure to use your blender's tamper to help blend the ingredients evenly. If using a food processor, scrape down the bowl regularly to ensure a smooth paste.
Blend until homogenous and fairly smooth. If desired, pack the paste into ice cube trays to freeze. Pop out the frozen cubes and store in a zipper-top bag. You can also store some of the fresh paste in a container in the refrigerator, but be sure to use it within two weeks.
When you use the curry paste, start with one frozen cube (or about 2 tablespoons fresh paste) for a curry that will generously feed two people. This will make a moderately spicy, deeply flavorful curry. If you like very spicy curries, you may want to use up to two frozen cubes (or about 1/4 cup fresh paste). Start small and work your way up.
To get the best flavor from your homemade curry paste, fry it in a couple tablespoons of coconut milk before adding other ingredients.
To make red curry paste, use 2 ounces dried red Thai chiles, soaked in hot water for one hour, in place of the green chilies. Drain the red chilies before adding them to the blender.
Photos by Megan Scott