Monday, November 1, 2010

How to make your own Thai curry paste

Wow, the trifecta!

Our guide for today is Chat Mingkwan and his Buddha's Table.  First, as a somewhat Buddhist myself, I love the title.  Chat Mingkwan is not himself a vegetarian, or a Buddhist, but went vegetarian for nine months for health, animal cruelty, and environmental reasons, as he states in his Introduction.  He doesn't mention why he returned to eating and cooking meat.  In any case, this book is my introduction to authentic Thai food, and here I am making my own curry paste according to instructions.

These are the ingredients for the Massamun curry paste (Namprik gaeng massamun), which has Indian influences--cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon.  While I had the ingredients out, I also made the Green curry paste (Namprik gaeng keow wang).  New (to me) ingredients:

Galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves.

To be honest, the taste of all three of these items is difficult to describe.  As the books always say, don't substitute, and now that I've tried these (after substituting all my life ;-), I have to agree.  Let me try:

Galangal:  Tart; pleasant; fragrant, like flowers; texture like ginger but not spicy-hot like ginger, though strong.  Before today, I only knew this in the form of literature, namely Alfred Lord Tennyson's The Lotos Eaters, which, by the way, is one of my favorite poems of all time:

The charmed sunset linger'd low adown
In the red West: thro' mountain clefts the dale
Was seen far inland, and the yellow down
Border'd with palm, and many a winding vale
And meadow, set with slender galingale;
A land where all things always seem'd the same!
And round about the keel with faces pale,
Dark faces pale against that rosy flame,
The mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters came.

I am assuming that slender refers to its manner of growing, much like ginger, if you've ever kept ginger around long enough for it to sprout.  The sprouts are slender.

Lemongrass:  Not very lemony but somewhat; a little like galangal in taste; tough-textured--recipes are always, like, just use the tender inner leaves, but there really aren't any; you would never eat this without pulverizing it first; comparatively mild.

Kaffir lime leaves:  Look innocent, but with a taste strong enough to border on nausea.  In no way lime-like. If you're going to bite it, take just a little bite.  A bit goes a long way.  This is something you would grind up for a mix like this or use whole to flavour a dish but not eat, like bay leaves.  I had actually frozen the leaves shown above, but they're apparently evergreen, and came out of the freezer in the same shape and texture as they had fresh.

Green Thai curry paste ingredients
So to make curry paste, what you do is, first, roast the spices:

Chat Mingkwan doesn't say so, but do yourself and your food processor a favour and grind these roasted spices up in a coffee- or spice grinder before adding them to the other ingredients in the food processor.  Actually, Chat Mingkwan recommends grinding all this stuff up by hand in a mortar and pestle.  To me it is incredible that you could ever grind these things into a paste by hand.  Unless of course you have super powers.  Food processor + coffee grinder is the way to go. 

All there is to making curry paste is just to combine all these ingredients and pulverize them.  Here are the pastes in their final form:

And here's what I had for supper.  To use the curry paste, either fry a tablespoon or two of the paste (depending on its heat and the strength of its flavours, which will depend mainly on the type of chilis you've used) in a saucepan for a minute or two or heat it in coconut milk, add vegetables, vegetable broth and (sometimes) more spices, and simmer until the vegetables are tender.  In this case I used potatoes, cauliflower, red onion, orange sweet pepper, and roasted peanuts.

The end result was very orange.  My fault; this would have benefited aesthetically from some peas or red pepper shreds; these were my own choice of vegetables, not from the book.  But it was delicious.  The green curry tasted even better (raw; I haven't cooked with it yet), and I'm eager to try it.  Curry paste freezes well, I'm told, and I like the idea of freezing it in small amounts, each just enough for one batch of curry.  Once the paste is made, the whole meal can come together in the time it takes to cook rice.


  1. This is a great advertisement for buying prepared jarred curry paste!

    Speaking of Tennyson, how about a little 'May Queen'?

  2. I love Buddha's Table and just made the yellow curry paste. Yum. It doesn't take that much time and is way better than any jarred curry paste I've ever had!

  3. I don't know why I don't cook Thai more often at home but I think that's about to change as this is very inspiring!

  4. Your pastes look spectacular — so much better than the jarred stuff. I've never bought fresh galangal but I have cooked with the other stuff, and I have to agree with you about the inner leaves of lemongrass. What inner leaves? (Lemongrass is pretty easy to grow in a summer garden.)

  5. Beautiful pictures and descriptions of the spices. I'm sure many yummy dishes will be coming from those pastes; they turned out in such deep rich colors.

  6. Thanks, dirtyduck!

    Shenandoah, I don't think you want to go down that road:

    "I sleep so sound all night, mother, that I shall never wake / If you do not call me loud when the day begins to break..." I can do this so infinitely. One reason I don't attend parties very often is that I'm terrified of becoming so drunk that I begin to hallucinate the belief that my fellow partiers would be pleased and honoured to listen to my rendition of the first 250 lines of Paradise Lost that I learned as a lonely and idealistic student and that still backwash on me in weak moments...

    And I do admit that although my curry paste had a fine fresh taste I'd never experienced before, the Thai Kitchen brand that I would normally use is pretty good too. Very different-tasting from what I made, but good.

    Jen, you're right. Once you have the ingredients, the pastes come together fast. Plus, once you were sure of what you were doing, you could make quite a bit and freeze some if you wanted.

    Renae, as always, I'm very eager to see the results of your efforts!

    Andrea, really, you can grow lemongrass in northern latitudes? I'll have to look into that. How awesome would that be? The coriander, incidentally, was from my garden, since I didn't have any whole in jars...I just went out and, you know, snapped off a few of the stalks...

    Thanks, Rose. I'm looking forward to experimenting more with the pastes, and now that I get the basic recipes and understand how the ingredients work together, trying my own mixes.

  7. Zoa, you sound like a great party guest to me! I would very much enjoy a glass of merlot while listening to you recite Paradise Lost.

  8. Your pastes look beautiful. I have a kaffir lime plant, but I haven't used the leaves yet. Good to know I can store them in the freezer!