“So, what’s the difference between all these?” the bewildered woman asked, gesturing to a wall loaded with canned curry pastes of every color. I was at Manhattan’s Bangkok Center Grocery, a stalwart in the city for Thai cooks and those wanting to cook accurate renditions of Thai cuisine, picking up supplies for a dish from Leela Punyaratabandhu's Simple Thai Food: Classic Recipes from the Thai Home Kitchen.
For our Cookbook Club members this month, stores like Bangkok Center Grocery have become indispensable, as we’ve stocked up on lime leaves, palm sugar, and of course, invaluable curry pastes whose colors and flavor profiles run the gamut. If you’re equally confused and don’t know your nam phrik kaeng phet from your nam phrik kaeng kari, here’s your primer:
Red Curry Paste (nam phrik kaeng phet)
One of the most common curry pastes called for in Simple Thai Food is nam phrik kaeng phet, or red curry paste. The striking color comes from two kinds of dried peppers, the petite bird’s eye chilies, and the larger Thai long chilies. (Although, if you can’t find those, dried Mexican chilies, such as guajillo and chile de Arbol make for great substitutes.)
Red curry paste can be used with virtually any protein and, for the extra adventurous, makes a great hot sauce substitute.
Green Curry Paste (nam phrik kaeng khiao wan)
Probably the best-known of all Thai curry pastes, green curry paste is also the one that’s worth making from scratch. While there’s no shame in using pre-made curry paste (Punyaratabandhu says it’s quite common in Thailand), “I find that a greater chasm of quality exists between homemade green curry paste and commercial green curry paste than with other curry pastes,” she writes.
Unlike its peers, green curry paste is made with fresh chilies, not dried. While Simple Thai Food calls for traditional Thai long chilies and bird’s eye chilies, many Americanized versions use serrano peppers instead. Aside from the use of fresh peppers, the ingredient list is virtually identical to that of red curry, consisting of lemongrass, garlic, shrimp paste, galangal, and other spices and aromatics.
Matsaman Curry Paste (nam phrik kaeng matsaman)
While you might have known your red from your green, fewer cooks know Matsaman (sometimes stylized as “Massaman”) curry paste. Quite commonly served with potatoes, the origin of Matsaman curry can be traced back to Thai Muslim cuisine.
This mild paste also contains dried chilies, albeit in fewer amounts than red curry paste. Punyaratabandhu’s version includes fragrant cardamom and cloves.
Kari (Yellow) Curry Paste (nam phrik kaeng kari)
Another more mild curry, vibrant kari curry paste gets its color from the addition of turmeric and traditional curry powder. It’s often fed to children because of its lack of spice. If you’re shopping for pre-made yellow curry paste, beware that your Thai market may have two different options: a Southern-style sour curry (more on that later) and this version, which will reference karee or kari on the label. (Punyaratabandhu points out that the label’s art can be a helpful hint, too. A finished dish showing potatoes means you’ve got the right one!)
Sour Curry Paste (nam phrik kaeng som)
“Sour curry is both one of the easiest curries to make and one of the most difficult to master,” Punyaratabandhu writes. It’s also likely the least-known in American kitchens.
Nam phrik kaeng som calls for nothing more than dried long chilies, shallots, garlic and shrimp paste. The finished product is commonly used in soups calling for fish or vegetables, and unlike most Thai curries, it’s not typically used with coconut milk.
Which one(s) are you most partial to? Fill us in below!