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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

              1. Salt and sugar do it for me. Just using fish sauce for the salt can get a bit potent, and I've found that when I adjust for salt with just salt, I can get a darn-near perfect curry. Everything else in moderation, and don't cook it much because the flavors are pretty bright and suffer from stewing for too long. Overseasoning is all too easy to do.

                19 Replies
                1. re: Botch

                  Agree 100%. I think anything with coconut milk calls for extra salt (bad,bad,bad), and too much fish sauce grates.

                  1. re: Robin Joy

                    Try something like ponzu or mushroom soy sauce instead of salt. Why add simple salt when you can add flavor along with sodium? I'll put my Thai red curry up against anyone's any day of the week. Using Maesri red paste, if I had to say which ingredients cause the most pop in flavor out of the thread you linked to, I would say the fresh ginger, the lime juice, the lime leaf, and the ponzu. A SCANT bit of oyster sauce will add that msg laden "fullness." Seriously, I can do better than a lot of Thai joints where I live, and come up with a product extremely similar to the three or four of my favorite Thai joints. I also tend to prefer coconut milk curries with no added sugar, but that's me. out of the 50+ Thai joints here, there seems to be a 50/50 split of those who use extra sugar, and those that do not.

                    I'm also a big fan of Maesri "red" if you can get it. But remember, you gotta cook the paste properly before you use it. when you are doing this, mix the oil in the pan, and the paste together. Cook it until the oil separates back out from the paste when you drag your stirrring utensil through the concoction. It takes a good 3 to 5 min at a temp that makes the concoction sizzle - not brown, though, just sizzle.

                  2. re: Botch

                    Fish sauce doesn't add just salt. It adds an umami component and a brininess to the curry that is hard to replicate. If you find that the fish flavor is too pronounced, try cooking the sauce longer as heat destroys the fishiness and leaves behind a pleasant salt and brine. Alternatively you could switch to a more delicate brand of aged fish sauce, 3 Crabs being particularly popular on these boards.

                    1. re: JungMann

                      Agree... big differences among fish sauce brands (and types)

                      1. re: Cinnamon

                        I started off with Lucky brand (Thai), picked more or less at random. Then tried 3 crabs based on recommendations that I'd read. But it was so pungent that I was afraid to use much of it. So I've switched back to Lucky.

                      2. re: JungMann

                        I wouldnt think you need the fish sauce for umami given the shrimp paste component in most thai red curry pastes.

                        I agree that red curry is best with some suppliementation to the basic coconut milk - canned paste - protein formula - its always good to fry some onion, pepper, whole green chiles to freshen the curry - throwing in some slivered kaffir lime leaves or a big handful of thai basil leaves (at the very end) is also good. finally, I think adding some fresh squeezed lime at the time of service is a good addition - it balances out the sweet from the coconut milk and onions and the salt from the paste..I also wouldnt cook too long after the last add of coconut milk - you want the fresh creaminess in the finished dish in addition to the deep flavor.

                        1. re: jen kalb

                          I looked at shrimp paste at 99Ranch the other day. There was a Malaysian brand in a paper wrapped block. It reminded me of a segment from one of the travel shows from that part of the world (Tony or Andrew). The smell through the paper was interesting, and not particularly objectionable. But I decided it might be hard to keep it well sealed, so I bought a small jar of Thai paste instead. Even so I'll keep that in a plastic bag.

                          1. re: paulj

                            I've been curious how the paste is really different in taste or effect from dried baby shrimp. I've just been using the latter and things seem to taste good (and like my local Thai place that I use as a barometer for whether I'm hitting the mark).

                            1. re: Cinnamon

                              the paste is a fermented product.

                              1. re: jen kalb

                                Ah. Will have to pick some up, then. Cupboard is looking increasingly filled with products my spouse will find unidentifiable or terrifyingly identifiable.

                                1. re: Cinnamon

                                  Good, that will keep him on his toes.

                                    1. re: Cinnamon

                                      I love the look of those claws sticking up out of the pot!

                            2. re: paulj

                              I think you're talking about belachan, which is delicious in Malaysian curries, but is absolutely the most vile smelling ingredient with which I've ever cooked. Opening the brick of shrimp paste in your kitchen and cutting it will leave a smell that will linger for days: just so you're warned.

                              Thai curry paste is a completely different product and does not smell virtually at all. I add it to my homemade curry pastes, as it is generally called for as such in recipes, although I find it doesn't make a vast difference in taste (I have friends who are allergic to shrimp, and thus, I've had to omit it at times).

                              1. re: vorpal

                                I find Thai curry paste - and especially if you throw in some fresh ingredients later - leaves the kitchen smelling fresh and lovely vs. Indian curry, which relies more on pungent dried spices (which I still love). The jasmine rice sometimes served with Thai curry adds to it.

                                1. re: vorpal

                                  Incidentally, this should have read "Thai SHRIMP paste is a completely..."

                                  Ooops.

                            3. re: JungMann

                              While getting used to fish sauce I would use half fish sauce and half low sodium tamari. This worked well. I have also noticed that different brands of fish sauce are much stronger than others. I stick with a mild one and use it full force now. One more point, in a pinch I have used anchovy paste, and while not the same and adequate last minute sub. It might work for someone who doesn't like fish sauce. (I know it isn't authentic, but it tastes okay).

                              1. re: corneygirl

                                I dont think I would like the taste of tamari in thai curries - to me it would be discordant. better just to cut down the fish sauce and add a bit of salt IMO.

                                1. re: corneygirl

                                  People just need to give fish sauce more of a chance. I dislike most fish (apart from nigiri salmon sushi), and was initially horrified by the thought of fish sauce, but while it smells rather bizarre uncooked, when cooked the smell dissipates completely and leaves behind a delightful taste that cannot be adequately captured by any substitute.

                                  If you're unwilling to eat fish sauce, I recommend you just give up on Thai food and focus on other styles of cuisine.

                            4. I use Maesri curry paste exclusively. About 3/4 of a can to a whole can to 6 chicken thighs or a pound of pork. The recipe I have used for years calls for 1 – 2 tbs of soy sauce in addition to the curry paste. I also add either 3 Serrano’s or 6 Hontaka chilies depending on the protein.

                              1. I make my own these days and (maybe I'm pedestrian but) I also love Thai Kitchen's red curry paste:
                                http://www.worldpantry.com/cgi-bin/nc...

                                When you go out are you having a panang curry and then when you go home you're making it according to some recipe for just red curry? Or vice versa? Panang is to me the most intense... usually has the fewest added veggies.

                                You can try adding smashed fresh or roasted bird chilies (why not a bit of both) - which are the tiny chilies (red please) an inch or so long. The shrimp paste also helps with depth of flavor, although I just use dried baby shrimp. Think lots of high-intensity tastes, fresh, spicy, all pounded together.

                                And I hate to even ask this because it sounds like you're well advanced past this mistake first-timers at curry sometimes make... so for anyone else reading the thread who just isn't a curry person: There is a world of difference between Thai curries and Indian curries. They're made with a whole range of different ingredients. So if you're looking for Thai curry paste out, make sure you're getting THAI curry paste, not Indian. And the Thai curries go well with jasmine rice, while the Indian curries go well with basmati, traditionally.

                                6 Replies
                                1. re: Cinnamon

                                  It's pure Red Thai that I'm trying to nail; my Indian efforts seem to give less trouble.

                                  Living part-time in well stocked Central London and riding a motorbike means I can get about and source most things, and all our supermarkets carry jasmine rice, a selection of red pastes (Blue Elephant currently rules pastes for me) etc. Actually there used to be a pre-made cook in sauce made by Sharwood's which was excellent, but I haven't seen it on shelves for a couple of years.

                                  My efforts just taste like they are missing one vital ingredient!.....I'll soldier on.

                                  Edit: This is the Sharwood's sauce:

                                  http://www.sharwoods.com/product-rang...

                                  1. re: Robin Joy

                                    Best wishes with the endeavor! And please do report back when you find out what that ingredient is!

                                    (Trying to recall if tamarind might be in my favorite commercial red curry paste. And I know roasting the hot red peppers gives quite a different taste to fresh peppers.)

                                    1. re: Robin Joy

                                      when using curry pastes, I always think a punch of fresh ingredients is the key: ginger garlic, fish sauce, lime, sugar. It sounds like you have tried some of this?

                                      1. re: cocktailhour

                                        Fresh fish sauce? Does a bottle that's sat on the pantry shelf for two years count?

                                        Fresh sugar?

                                        1. re: paulj

                                          how about "additional" rather than "fresh." I think you get the gist either way.

                                    2. re: Cinnamon

                                      Agreed. I like Indian curry quite a lot and I adore Thai curry (quite possibly more than virtually anything), but they're scarcely related, unless you're talking about Thai mussaman curry, which is a little more like Indian curries than its siblings.

                                      Then there are also other styles of curry: for example, Japanese curry is a completely, radically different beast once again which is probably even less similar to Thai and Inidan curries than they are from each other (I'm surprised it's even called curry, to be honest). Malaysian curries again are quite different and utterly divine.

                                      Anyone who says that they hate curry sounds silly: it's like saying that you hate soup or something. Certainly, you may not like specific soups, but there's bound to be one out there that will capture your heart.

                                      I've rarely met a curry I didn't like. Mussaman and Vindaloo are low on my list, but I still enjoy them.

                                    3. Another brand is "Aroy-D" curry paste and coconut cream. Heat the oil -- Olive/ Soybean in a wok or saucepan over medium heat and add Thai red curry paste, stir regularly to prevent the paste from burning -- like gordeaux said . Add coconut cream -- stir to mix coconut cream and the paste, then chicken and cook (stir) until the paste fragrant. Bring to the boil, add eggplant (any veggies) and kaffir lime leaves, Thai fish sauce, sugar and coconut milk. Simmer until the chicken is cooked and turn off the heat.
                                      Thai Fish Sauce #1 Trachang Brand #2 Tiparos ...

                                      1. I know you want a store bought paste...but I just have to put in a word for making your own with a food processor and freezing the extra you do not use in tablespoon blocks in an ice cube tray. I've been doing this for awhile now...I use the curry paste recipes from McDermott's Real Thai and I have not found it to be overly expensive, wasteful, or time consuming. Granted, a food processor is not the traditional way, and I'm sure freezing isn't either...but these things make it significantly easier to make and use home-made curry paste.

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: megmosa

                                          I've made my own at home in a completely non traditional way. I didn't worry myself with ingredients I couldn't find or anything and it was an excellent paste.

                                          DT

                                          1. re: megmosa

                                            I have to agree. If you can get the necessary ingredients (or reasonable substitutions if you can't), a homemade curry paste is a joy that is hard to parallel. The smell and taste are exquisite, and after eating a curry made with your own paste, you'll never be able to use a prepackaged paste again without remarking how two dimensional the flavours are. Furthermore, while perhaps somewhat time consuming, you'll find that it's not particularly challenging to make your own paste, and the more times you do it, the faster the process goes as you learn to work quickly with the ingredients.

                                          2. I don't use a recipe for curry. For me it just all comes together. I don't write down amounts. I taste, adjust, taste, adjust...

                                            Below is my list of ingredients.

                                            I think MSG and dried galanga root is important. I know MSG is not a popular ingredient but I think many restaurants still use it even when they claim their food is made without it.

                                            - canola oil
                                            - garlic; crushed
                                            - 1 whole chicken; remove the meat and cut into bite-size pieces and use the bones to make a stock (sometimes I just cook the bones with the curry and remove them when everything is cooked)
                                            - Mae Ploy brand red curry paste
                                            - madras curry powder (This adds more curry flavor without adding more heat from the curry paste. I don't like it too spicy.)
                                            - onions; diced (Yellow is fine. Sometimes I'll use red. We don't need anything fancy. Save the Bermuda and Vidalias for a different recipe.)
                                            - MSG; to taste
                                            - salt; to taste
                                            - pepper; to taste
                                            - stock (from reserved chicken bones)
                                            - palm sugar
                                            - Mae Ploy brand coconut milk
                                            - galanga root
                                            - kaffir lime leaves
                                            - lemongrass
                                            - fish sauce; to taste
                                            - sliced green onions
                                            - cilantro, chopped
                                            - thai basl

                                            My veggies always vary but I always like lots of potatoes and bamboo. Choose your favorite combination. I find that restaurant curries do not include enough of my favorite vegetables.
                                            - yukon gold potatoes; peeled and cubed
                                            - white sweet potatoes; peeled and cubed
                                            - diced red bell pepper
                                            - sliced carrots
                                            - Thai aubergines; cut in half or quartered
                                            - butternut squash; cubed
                                            - sugar snap peas
                                            - green beans

                                            Heat oil in a large dutch oven and then brown the chicken with garlic. When the chicken in browned, remove and set aside.

                                            Toast the curry paste and curry powder until fragrant. Add the cream top of the coconut milk and cook for a few minutes.

                                            Return the chicken to the pot. Add the onions. Season with salt, pepper and MSG. Add the stock, the rest of the coconut milk, palm sugar, galanga root, lemon grass, and lime leaves and bring to a boil, turn heat to medium and simmer about five minutes.

                                            Add your vegetables, (starting with the veggies that take the longest to cook; usually the potatoes or root vegetable). Add fish sauce, taste and adjust your seasoning. When chicken and potatoes are cooked, turn off the heat and add green onions, cilantro and thai basil. Remove galanga, lemon grass and lime leaves before serving.

                                            Serve with warm jasmine rice.

                                             
                                             
                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: malisa0607

                                              Actually, I know of very, very few Thai restaurants that use MSG, and of those that do, the vast majority are Chinese owned. Fish sauce provides plenty of umami; there is absolutely no reason to add MSG. Indeed, when I inquire at a Thai restaurant if they use MSG, reactions have often ranged from surprise to outright insult at being asked such a question.

                                              I have been making and studying Thai food - and particularly curries, which are my favourite cooking playground - with excellent results for years and I have never used either MSG or dried galangal root. I'm not sure why you'd use dried galangal over fresh. Would you care to enlighten? Also, while I haven't tried it, I'm curious as to the use of madras curry powder, which is Indian and not Thai. If you wish to go this route, I would suggest instead that you use mussaman curry paste instead, which is Thai and not usually spicy. (What is "curry flavour", anyways?) It is similar in ingredient profile to Indian curry masalas but maintains its distinct Thai characteristic.

                                              I agree that a steadfast recipe does not lend itself well to curry preparation; the best way to make a curry is to stir, taste, adjust, repeat.

                                            2. Hi Robin,
                                              Check this out it from ImportFood.com should help you out. How Thai Curry Paste is Made Our Step-by-Step Photo/Video Recipe.

                                              http://importfood.com/how_curry_paste...

                                               
                                              1. Many years ago now i learnt to make curry at a thai cooking class in Thailand. The technique they used was to bhun (fry) the paste in oil first until the oil started to separate from the paste and then add onions/tofu. Ive never tried boiling in coconut milk but i might give that a go after all the recommendations.

                                                They recommended using pastes, Mae Ploy brand i believe...ive tried Mae Play, Maesri and Cock brand and quite like the Cock Brand Penang at the moment.

                                                Restaurants definitely add quite a bit of sugar, so give that a try. I have also had some success by adding a touch of dairy cream to it as well towards the end, makes it a bit richer. It might not be traditional but it may be one of the tricks some restaurants are using.

                                                One thing i have personally noticed, and read elsewhere also, is that i get much better results if i don't let the coconut milk boil, but just gently let is simmer. People are saying the complete opposite in this thread, so i would suggest trying both approaches.

                                                2 Replies
                                                1. re: solconnection

                                                  I like the simmering approach that solconnection uses. On occasion, a prolonged hard boil will lead the oil to separate out of the coconut milk.

                                                  1. re: zamorski

                                                    ...which, to my understanding, is often a desirable thing to happen in curries. Personally, I prefer them not to separate, but many books direct you otherwise. With many coconut milks being homogenized these days, it's difficult to achieve that effect, and some cookbook authors (David Thompson in particular) recommends adding a tsp or so of veg oil to encourage the process.