Southern Thai Red Curry Paste: A Blend to Suit Your Soul
While I was in Thailand, I indulged myself everyday with Southern Thai curries. No curries taste as good as the ones you grew up with! In Bangkok you may find them at the food stand known as อาหารปักษ์ใต้ – “Aharn Pak Tai” – Southern Thai Cuisine.
Perhaps it would be best if I could give you a snap shot of what Thai curries are like in my village on Phuket Island. The everyday Thai curries here are mostly red curries enjoyed with steamed jasmine rice. However, behind all these great curries, it is the curry paste itself that makes these curries stand out from each other. There are many curry pastes available in the market such as massaman or yellow curry. These are well-loved, but often for special occasions like a wedding or purchased from special vendors. There are also some green curry pastes available, but they are mostly used in Thai restaurants in the tourist area, and vendors offer them for variety and to venture out to cuisine from Thailand’s central region. For this blog post, I will talk only about the various types of red curry pastes, the mainstay of all Thai curries.
A curry merchant such as Ja (“sister”) above can create a special blend for you with additional dry spices. You can discuss with her what ingredients you want incorporated into your curry and ask for the level of heat you prefer. For example, if you are cooking a game meat, the curry expert would add a few teaspoons of Sa Curry Powder to her recommended type of red curry. In Phuket, curry costs approximately 100 Baht a kilogram – about $3. And a small batch of 1 keet – ๑ ขีด- (100 grams) – ๑๐๐ กรัม sells for 10 Baht, about 35 cents. One hundred grams of curry paste is a good amount for making one curry dish for a family of four.
My favorite curry merchants in Phuket are from Phuket Town Municipal Market and Kamala Beach Open Air Market. On my recent trip, during my first day at the open air market, my sister and I purchased เครื่องแกงส้ม – Krueng Gaeng Som – sour red curry paste; and เครื่องแกงพริก – Krueng Gaeng Prik – water-based red curry paste; เครื่องแกงเผ็ดกะทิ – Krueng Gaeng Kati – coconut milk-based red curry paste; and เครื่องแกงผัดเผ็ด – Krueng Gaeng Phad Phed – stir-fry based curry paste. And most importantly, we also purchased a genuine shrimp paste from a known source and artisan. Shrimp paste plays an important role in curry paste. Most curry pastes in the US have a small amount of shrimp paste already blended in.
The photo above from the left: kapi – shrimp paste; เครื่องแกงผัดเผ็ด – krueng gaeng phad phed – red curry paste for stir-fry style; เครื่องแกงเผ็ดกะทิ – krueng gaeng phed kati – coconut milk based red curry paste
Red curry paste is a mainstay in the Thai curry world. If you walk by food stalls on the street with a display of various curries, it is likely that many of them will be different variations of red curries. One type of curry paste doesn’t limit the home cook to making just one curry. There is no limit to your imagination to create curries with all sorts of combinations, with one type of protein such as meat, seafood or poultry and your choice of available seasonal fresh vegetables. There are many keys to what makes Southern Thai cuisine different from other regions; the southern curries is definitely one of them.
I hope you find the explanation below of four types of red curry pastes and a style of cooking helpful, and that you will get a chance to prepare some of my Thai red curry recipes.
1) Krueng Gaeng Phad Phed - เครื่องแกงผัดเผ็ด – is a red curry paste specifically designed for a sharp, pungent, hot, and bold flavor. It adds an extra bold flavor to all stir-fries. You may add fresh green peppercorns to stir-fried curries. Typically cooking oil is use for stir-frying, with a little water added to make a sauce. But if the taste is too pungent, a tablespoon or two of coconut milk will reduce the intensity. Please see the recipes that I posted previously on this blog: Phad Phed Talay Tua Fak Yao – Thai Spicy Stir-fried Seafood with Yard Long Bean and Phad Phed Sator Goong Phuket – Stir-fried Spicy Stink Beans with Prawns Phuket Style.
2) Krueng Gaeng Phed Kati – เครื่องแกงเผ็ดกะทิ – is a typical red curry paste. It is a basic paste that is typically cooked with meat, seafood, or poultry and vegetables. In America, and around the world, you will see many brands of red curry paste such as Mae Ploy, Thai Kitchen and more. They are not exactly the same as my hometown version, but I often use them to substitute for each other with a hotter flavors and less red in color. For an even hotter version, you can ask a curry merchant for Krueng Gaeng Phed Kati Piset. Please check out my recipe for Gaeng Tapo Pla Kem – Red Curry with Morning Glory and Salted Croaker.
3) Krueng Gang Prik - เครื่องแกงพริก – is a red curry paste specifically for water-based curries such as Gaeng Prik – Phuket Black Pepper Curry, which is similar to Geng Pah – Jungle Curry. Jungle Curry is a rustic curry paste we often use with wild fresh herbs and with wild boar. Gaeng Tai Pla – fish maw curry – has more black peppercorn than regular curry paste. Please check out my recipe Gaeng Pah Marakor – Phuket Jungle Curry with Green Papaya.
4) Krueng Gaeng Som – เครื่องแกงส้ม – is a red curry paste specifically for sour fruit broth / water-based red curry with fish or seafood. The sour broth could be from the fruit, tamarind, or lime juice. The most famous one is Gaeng Som Pla Nor Mai Dong – sour curry fish with bamboo shoots. You can find this anywhere in Thailand. In Pranee’s Thai Kitchen I posted Gaeng Som Pla Talingping – Fish Head Sour Curry with Bilimbi Recipe. There are so many versions of seafood, sour fruit and vegetable pairings that you can create almost a hundred versions of sour curry in Southern Thailand.
Among these four curry pastes, my personal favorites and the ones I have had most often are the Phad Phed and Gaeng Som.