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Thai Red Curry help please.

I love this in a restaurant, but I just can't seem to achieve the same zap at home. I think I've tried most brand combos of curry pastes, coconut milk/cream/creamed coconut, lime leaves (dried and fresh), palm/ordinary sugar, lemon grass, fish sauce etc. etc. etc. Why can't I get the depth of flavour and punch that I'm looking for?

The only proviso is that I really need to use a bought paste, or is that the root of my problem? Even lower end Thai restaurants here in the UK (London) make Red Curry well, and I don't believe that they all make their own pastes.

All ideas welcome. Thanks.

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  1. My husband and i made curry paste from scratch once. I don't remember the recipe but i do remember what a mess we made in the kitchen. The end product tasted great; as good as any restaurant and better than most (and we've even had the same thing in Thailand). You can do some research and try making it from scratch but it's only really feasible if you're making it in massive quantities. This is so because the recipe contained a long list of ingredients all of which are required only in small quantities. As a result, a lot of what we bought went to waste since.

    When using ready made curry paste, one thing that I find really makes a difference is aubergine. Pop in the slices (a lot of them) in the early stages of cooking. They'll all dissolve and when it's ready you'll see no trace of them. But they go a long way in giving it a fuller flavour. Other than I think the taste is all about fish sauce and lemon grass.

    1 Reply
    1. re: juv

      FWIW, a lot of the fresh ingredients used to make Thai curry paste can be frozen (galangal, kaffir limes, lime leaves, coriander roots, turmeric, chillies, etc). That way, you can pull them out and make more curry paste when you're ready and not waste. In fact, I'd wager that you could even pre-chop lemongrass and freeze it, although I haven't tried it so I don't know for certain.

      Homemade Thai curry paste is definitely worth it, and after you've done it a few times, it isn't all that time consuming: I usually make only enough for one or two recipes at a time, but given that I've made curry paste a few hundred times, it takes less than 20 minutes in most cases now.

    2. It could be the brand of curry paste you're using. I'm partial to Mae Ploy. Go to an Asian grocer for the curry paste. The curry pastes I've seen in regular grocery stores around here are hideously expensive, and don't have as promising an ingredient list as the ones in Asian grocers.

      You should saute the curry paste in some of the coconut oil that floats to the top of the can of coconut milk. It doesn't need to go very long... just long enough that it starts to smell really good. It could also be that you need to use more curry paste. I use three ounces by weight of curry paste for the 14 ounce cans of coconut milk. Add a tablespoon or two of fish sauce and a little brown sugar when you add the coconut milk, and give it a squeeze of lime when it's done cooking.

      5 Replies
      1. re: JK Grence the Cosmic Jester

        Absolutely. Curry paste should be fried in coconut cream (the stuff that floats to the top of the can of coconut milk). You can also buy coconut cream in cans, and I prefer this as it gives a much richer, more luxurious curry.

        Note that you will likely have a very difficult time getting the oil of the coconut to separate during cooking, which is a goal in curry preparation. This is because most coconut milks these days are homogenized. David Thompson recommends adding a tbsp of oil into the coconut milk to simulate and encourage the process. I like to use a tbsp of palm oil and find that it does help considerably.

        Basic curry instructions: 1/2 c coconut cream + 1 tbsp oil, heated to boiling. Add in curry paste of choice in quantity of choice. Stir fry for about five minutes. Add a couple tbsp of fish sauce, palm or coconut sugar, and four or five finely shredded lime leaves. Cook about two more minutes at a rolling boil. Now you are ready for your meats, so add them, cook through, and then add veggies and more coconut milk to achieve desired consistency. Boil for a couple minutes more, remove from heat, and finish with a large handful of Thai basil. This has never failed in making the perfect curry for me. See my panaeng recipe here, which has been a huge hit with my friends and family:

        http://www.chow.com/recipes/27627

        1. re: vorpal

          Another vote for sauteing the paste in coconut cream. I get it in a small box/tetra pack here. Add to a hot pan and let it melt. Add the curry paste and saute for about 5 minutes as noted above. It'll really make a difference.
          I watched a show on TV and they showed a woman in Thailand making curry in her little hut. This is how she did it. Who was I to argue??

          DT

          1. re: Davwud

            If you can get coconut milk / cream in boxes, I highly encourage it over cans. Cans impart a bit of a taste to the milk / cream, which doesn't happen with boxes. I'm fortunate enough to be able to get large boxes here and it generally tastes fresher and cleaner; after trying both, I will not go back unless forced.

          2. re: vorpal

            Oh that is interesting re the homogenization. (Here in L.A. we can get frozen coconut milk that I would at least suspect isn't homogenized, at some Asian grocers - next time I cook with it I'll have to see whether the separation happens. I sometimes just start with a dollop of good coconut oil anyway ... the extra virgin stuff from the health food store in some cases tastes very coconutty and adds to a dish like this, in my opinion. (I think Jarrow is a brand that has that taste... but it's not cheap and is raw, so cooking takes away some of the gorgeousness but I think some of it still comes through vs. the more refined coconut oils.)

        2. A couple of ideas:

          1. Try adding some stock along with the coconut milk.
          2. Try sauteeing some shallots or onions in oil before adding the curry paste.
          3. If you're not vegetarian, are you browning the meat in the pot before adding the curry paste and liquid? I find that that makes a difference.
          4. If you're really determined, go to your local Thai place and ask if they'd share their secrets. They might even let you watch them make a curry sometime.

          Like juv, I tried making curry paste from scratch once. Same problem she had: you buy loads of ingredients and use only a little of each, so it's expensive and wasteful. Plus, my own homemade was good, but still comparable to the store-bought. Definitely not so much better as to warrant doing it regularly.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Kagey

            Perhaps you need a different curry paste recipe? Because I've never had a homemade curry paste that didn't taste leagues ahead of store bought, and my friends and family, who aren't particularly Thai connoisseurs, agree.

            Additionally, as I mentioned above, you can freeze many of the ingredients for curry paste, or the curry paste itself.

            1. re: vorpal

              I've been searching and searching for a great red curry recipe. The pre-made pastes I've tried are not blowing up my skirt.

              I want to make the paste from scratch.

              Any leads on recipes, or links, or a cut-and-paste you can do?

              Would surely appreciate it.

          2. I swear by Maesri curry paste. Like others have suggested, I would sauté it in oil to deepen the flavor. Keep a watchful eye as it scorches quickly. Add a little more oil and add the protein and coconut milk. I use about 15 oz. of coconut milk and 5 oz. of curry for just over a half kilo of protein. When the protein is nearly cooked through, add your vegetables and cook off the burner adding lime zest, fish sauce, palm sugar and chilies as needed. Finish with cilantro and/or holy basil.

            1 Reply
            1. re: JungMann

              I think that sauteing the paste in the coconut cream until the oil starts to separate out may be the key--this step is often skipped by gringo chefs, but I think it makes a big difference.

              I usually make my own curry pastes, and that also makes a difference, though I have to admit it is not enormous. I used to pound and pound with my overly small mortar and pestle, but recently I have been using the Cook's Illustrated approach of making a larger batch in the blender--if you add in a few TB of vegetable oil, it is enough to keep the paste moving in the blender until it is nice and smooth. I portion out the paste and freeze it with good results. With this approach, I can make 6 months worth of my own paste in about 20 minutes (not including the time to get the ingredients at the Thai market).

            2. Thank you Hounds. I'll work on it!

              Just seen this, which I'd forgotten chipping in to:

              http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/561106