HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >


How to make my weeknight Thai taste more like restaurant Thai?

Hi all,
My weeknight cooking is limited to about 30 minutes, and is mostly vegetarian (meat probably once a week). I like to rotate rough facsimiles of different ethnic cuisines to keep things interesting (Mexican, Greek, Italian, Indian, etc.) and I've been tinkering with Thai lately. In this thread, I am mostly concerned with capturing the major flavors of the cuisine. (On weekdays, I'll dabble in more elaborate projects, and I'm always interested in _eating_ authentic preparations!!!)
The couple of quick Thai-ish meals I've made have been good, but really seem to be lacking some flavor.
For example-- tonight I made a quick green curry recipe that I found on Epicurious. Ingredients....

1 tablespoon vegetable oil ***(I used olive oil)
3/4 cup sliced shallots (about 5 large) ***(I used a yellow onion)
1 3/4 teaspoons Thai green curry paste ***(I used more like 3 tsp)
1 14-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
2 teaspoons fish sauce (such as nam pla or nuoc nam)
1 pound skinless boneless chicken breast halves, cut into thin strips ***(did veggies instead)
1 large red bell pepper, cut into strips ***(omitted)
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil plus sprigs for garnish ***(used cilantro instead)
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice plus wedges for garnish ***(omitted)

The ingredients in the green curry paste (Thai Kitchen brand) are green chile , garlic, lemongrass, galangal, salt, shallot, and kaffir lime. I felt it was missing something when I served it over rice, so I added a little soy sauce.

What can I do to capture Thai flavor in a short amount of time? What key ingredients/spices/flavors am I missing-- adapted for the weeknight, sometimes improvising cook?

Thanks in advance!!!


  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Thai basil in place of sweet basil. Palm sugar in place of brown or white sugar. Use of dried shrimp and shrimp paste where appropriate as well as tamarind. Bird chilies instead of other varieties

    6 Replies
      1. re: scubadoo97

        +1. Especially shrimp paste (the really funky dryish paste that looks like dirt). Also, buy some fresh lime leaves and lemongrass, freeze them. As needed, you can easily chop thin slices off the bottom of the frozen lemongrass. Adding lime and lemongrass to pre-made curry sauces (like Maesri) adds a lot of freshness and "thai" flavor.

        1. re: sbp

          Forgot about the lemongrass and the kafir lime leaves. Was just thinking those are a given

          1. re: sbp

            Thank you! Great suggestions. I'll have to investigate where to find lemongrass in my area.

            1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

              Find an Asian market in your area and you will be greatly rewarded

          2. I am just ready to cook my dinner but I want to stick my nose in to not only get more facts but go look in my cabinet to find the Thai green curry paste I use that is good but needs a little tweeking. I hope that's okay..... it is Maesri curry paste. They make all kinds of paste and noodle sauces and satay sauces that are good but are only in my Asian grocers. They are really good but miss a little something that the restaurants do. I am interested to know what I am missing... kaffir, lemongrass, fish sauce? What is it and what else?

            1. More salt or fish sauce, but not soy sauce. Check your curry paste, too, some are bland.

              9 Replies
              1. re: jaykayen

                Make your own curry paste, it's simple and very easy to find the ingredients in any bigger grocery store. It's also fun to tweak it to fit your tastes as opposed to what's on the shelve.


                  1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                    Paste for Green Curry of Chicken from David Thompson's 'Thai Food:'

                    3 tablespoons green bird's eye chillies (scuds)
                    large Pinch of salt
                    1 tablespoon chopped galangal
                    2 tablespoons chopped lemongrass
                    1 tablespoon finely chopped kaffir lime zest
                    1 tablespoon scraped and chopped coriander root
                    1 teaspoon chopped red turmeric
                    3 tablespoons chopped red shallot
                    2 tablespoons chopped garlic
                    1 teaspoon shrimp paste (gapi)
                    10 white peppercorns
                    1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds, roasted and ground
                    1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds, roasted and ground

                    Pound together in this order in mortar and pestle, adding ingredients 1 by 1 until incorporated.

                    1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                      For a truly authentic Thai green curry, you'd probably need to prepare your curry paste from scratch. Try this recipe (translated from a Thai cookbook I bought from Bangkok) when you have the time:

                      Curry paste
                      5 dried chillies
                      10 cloves garlic
                      1 teaspoon sliced galangal (blue ginger)
                      1 Tablespoon lemongrass
                      1/2 teaspoon sliced kaffir lime rind
                      1 teaspoon coriander root
                      5 whole peppercors
                      1 teaspoon roasted coriander seeds
                      1 teaspoon roasted cumin seeds
                      1 teaspoon salt
                      1 teaspoon shrimp paste

                      Blend all the above till fine, fry in oil over low heat till fragrant. Add coconut milk (2.5 cups) gradually, bring to boil then lower heat to simmer.

                      Add chicken pieces (1/2 lb) and 2 kaffir lime leaves (tear into pieces). Add 1 Tablespoon palm sugar & 2 Tablespoon fish sauce. Bring to boil, then add quartered eggplants (3 ounces). When chicken is cooked, add 2 stems of sweet basil.

                      Probably a challenge to find all the ingredients where you are, but Asian grocery stores should have them. Well, at least you'll already know what goes into an authentic Thai curry ;-)

                      1. re: klyeoh

                        Thank you adamj and klyeoh. I'll poke around some of our local Asian markets this weekend to see what I can find. Is this the type of thing I could make in bulk and freeze in small portions?

                          1. re: klyeoh

                            I've had my curry pastes keep for months in the refrigerator, this is almost certainly not ideal, but I've never had any molds or off smells. Slight fading of their color, and perhaps frying slightly longer to get to the nice 'fragrant' stage before you add the liquid and everything else, are the only issues I've noticed.

                            I've never tried freezing curry pastes, but I would hesitate because of the 'weeping' you might come across, specifically from the shallots. In my experience Thai curry pastes are pungent and concentrated enough to fight off any of the 'nasties' for much longer than you'd expect, and certainly last longer when mashed together than the raw ingredients do... I find chilis, lemongrass, galangal, coriander root(leaves are usually another story, but being attached to the root helps though), turmeric, keffir limes(not so much the leaves), etc. can usually keep up to a couple weeks in the fridge if they're quite fresh to start.

                      2. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                        Another recipe for Green Curry paste, from Chef McDang (Sirichalerm Svasti) is:

                        -5 fresh green chili peppers, sliced (prik chee fah)
                        -20 fresh small green Thai Chili peppers, sliced (prik kee noo)
                        -1 tsp salt
                        -2 Tbs lemongrass (purple part only), sliced thinly
                        -1.5 Tbs galangal, finely chopped
                        -1 tsp kaffir lime rind, chopped
                        -1 stem fresh cilantro, both roots and leaves, chopped
                        -2.5 tsp Thai shallots, peeled and sliced
                        -2 Tbs Thai garlic, peeled and sliced
                        -1 tsp shrimp paste
                        -1 tsp cumin, roasted and ground
                        -1 Tbs coriander seeds, roasted and ground
                        -.5 tsp (freshly) ground white pepper

                        Pound together in this order in mortar and pestle, adding ingredients 1 by 1 until well incorporated.

                        If you can even find Thai garlic the cloves are tiny, and even coming up with 2 Tbs. will be a major pain in the ass. Our western garlic is more convenient, and pungent, so go scant on the 2 Tbs. if substituting.

                        Use Sarawak Creamy white peppercorns if possible, it sucks to spend all this time and effort on a green curry paste just to f* it (this makes a very noticeable difference) with some nasty cheap, dank, musty white peppercorns.

                    2. re: jaykayen

                      Thanks. I did add more salt and fish sauce but still felt it lacked salt or something. I figured the soy sauce was off the mark but at that point I was starving so.... :)

                    3. Add Thai Panang Curry to your rotation. We use a T or two of peanut butter as well. Although Mr. Shallots won't try tofu, I think there are so many flavors in Panang that the tofu would shine well there.

                      For Thai vegetarian curry, try Karee, which is really also delicious with carrots or potatoes or both.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: shallots

                        Thanks! Do you have any specific recipes you like that you can link to?

                        1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                          I just follow the directions on the side of the can. I do check on heat as somebatches seem a bit hotter than others.

                          If I have the time, I may start off by grating some fresh ginger, some garlic and some onion in just a bit of oil, then add the heavier part of the coconut milk, and then add the paste du jour.

                          I probably shouldn't admit this, but there's something about the Keree paste that I find to be really perfect for my tastebuds, and I could eat it by the 1/4tsp right out of the can.

                          I would try to make these from scratch, but I have never even found fresh galangal within 150 miles of where I live. The other problem is that there are a gazillion chillis out there and I'm not sure if I'd ever use the correct ones (having had a habanero mistake about twenty years ago.)

                          You MUST try the Keree with carrots. I think it's that good.

                      2. The amount of curry paste is too low. This recipe and many others on the internet uses about 2-4 times as much for that quantity of coconut milk.


                        More generally, your recipe is underpowered and off the mark IMO. I would try to adhere more to the recipe I posted.

                        8 Replies
                        1. re: AlkieGourmand

                          Thank you for the recipe. Looking at that, I see I was missing three elements: spicy (the curry paste is a little spicy but not when diluted with the coconut milk, and I didn't have any peppers), sweet (didn't think to add any sugar), and citrus (didn't have lime-- would lemon have worked?).

                          1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                            The lime leaves are mostly for fragrance, lemon juice will not help. It won't smell the same, but you could finely grate a little lemon zest into the curry just before serving to recreate the fragrant aspect of the dish, it just won't be quite the expected fraggrance. ;)

                            1. re: MikeG

                              And Kaffir lime leaves smell and perfume a dish very differently than the standard Persian lime leaf will

                              1. re: MikeG

                                Thank you. I've never seen kaffir limes but I'm going to try to find them this weekend!

                                1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                                  I have never seen the fruit in Asian markets, just the leaves. You will find them in the refrigerated coolers in most Asian markets. They freeze well too.

                                    1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                                      PS: you can't eat the leaves whole like a vegetable (very fibrous). Chop them up as finely as you can.

                                  1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                                    The Kaffir limes are always the hardest ingredient for me to find, but I'm lucky enough to find them quite regularly here in Arctic Norway! They aren't much bigger than the Asian shallots, and have wrinkly skin. I think their zest smells almost closer to a citronella candle than a regular Persian lime, more astringent. I've substituted the zest of regular Persian limes in the past, and I doubt I would be able to pick out the difference in a side-by-side curry taste test.

                            2. If I had to 'fix' this recipe I would, some of which has been mentioned: eliminate the shallots, mix the solidified 'head' of the coconut milk with the oil, let it bubble and reduce for a few minutes. Then use about 4x more curry paste, which I would fry for about 5 minutes in the coconut head/oil mixture before adding the thin part of the coconut milk. I'd toss the chicken with fish sauce about 1/2 an hour ahead of time. Do not use salt or pepper to season, only fish sauce, lime juice(added after it's off the heat) and fresh sliced green chili(as a garnish). Do not use sweet/Italian basil, only Thai, a few Keffir lime leaves will also add a nice perfume.

                              If you want to go really authentic, have access to a good Asian market, and have time on weekends then you could look into making your own curry pastes. It's a really fun project, and they keep very well refrigerated for a couple weeks, ready for a quick weeknight meal. Do some research about it and you'll end up with a better curry than you find in lots of Thai restaurants.

                              good luck & have fun :)

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: adamj880

                                Thank you for your suggestions! I'll hit a few Asian markets nearby this weekend to see if I can find what I need.

                                1. re: adamj880

                                  The other thing is you may recognize flavors in a favored Thai restaurant are coming out of cans.

                                  1. re: shallots

                                    Hopefully that's not the case! We recently enjoyed pok pok in portland which is a pretty well respected Thai restaurant. Our favored local place doesn't seem to take shortcuts but who knows for sure.

                                2. In addition to perusing Asian markets for kaffir limes, galangal, and lemongrass, if you have the inclination to keep houseplants (or live where you could grown them outside), you could grow your own so you'll have a ready fresh supply.
                                  I have been able to find lemongrass and kaffir lime from a plant dealer at my farmers' market. Both are quite easy to keep alive and freeze well. Some local garden centers may have them, and online plant retailers certainly offer them. Here are a couple:

                                  Next summer, I'm going to grow Thai basil, which is available from most seed suppliers, but many other herbs can be grown nearly year round. Cilantro/coriander for example overwinters here in zone 7, so I can get my own coriander root. Of course you could grow your own Thai hot peppers and even eggplants too: http://rareseeds.com/catalogsearch/re...

                                  http://shesimmers.com/ is a good resource.
                                  I've been trying to make my own curry paste because I love Thai flavors but not the heat (lame I know). My only snag has been the disgusting palm sugar from the Thai market (they don't have great turnover so the products suffer or are inferior to begin with). I've got everything but the galangal so far, but ginger (a similar plant) is easy to grow so I'm going to try galangal next.
                                  good luck!

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: valadelphia

                                    I the Asian market I frequent the lemon grass is sold with roots. Makes it really easy to cut off the rooted end and plant them. I have a big bush outside my kitchen. It grows like a weed

                                    1. re: scubadoo97

                                      I grow mine as well. Condo dweller here so I just keep it in a large deep pot on my terrace. It's great to have it on hand!

                                    2. re: valadelphia

                                      I agree, http://shesimmers.com/ is an excellent resource. Her recipes and opinions are great. I love palm sugar, and always end up snacking on it as I'm cooking (I have a big sweet tooth), hope you can get your hands on some good stuff! I wish I could grow these plants, but I doubt they would work here even as houseplants without a proper grow light.

                                    3. Just went to my local Asian market- got lemongrass, bird chiles , shrimp paste, ginger (no galangal unfortunately) and coconut milk (much cheaper than Stop and Shop!). No kaffir lime leaves but I have a lead on those at another market. I'll post more when I start experimenting!

                                      11 Replies
                                        1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                                          You are on your way. Did you smell the shrimp paste, hehe

                                          1. re: scubadoo97

                                            Haha no haven't opened it yet but if it smells anything like fish sauce I will probably just hold my nose while adding it! Does a little go a long way?

                                              1. re: scubadoo97

                                                Yeah, if fish sauce could fart, it would smell like shrimp paste.

                                              2. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                                                Shrimp paste's pretty salty - use sparingly. Store it in an airtight glass jar. It smells a bit strong prior to cooking, but the smell goes away thereafter.

                                                If you can't find galangal, you can use ginger in its place for your green curry recipe.

                                                P.S. - However, if cooking "tom yum" soup - ginger is *not* a good substitute for galangal - that'll change the whole constitution of the soup.

                                                1. re: klyeoh

                                                  I wouldn't even recommend ginger as a substitute for galangal in a curry paste. They both look a bit similar, as rhizomes, but the flavor is very different. If I couldn't get my hands on galangal I would go for a prepared curry paste.

                                                  If you've got Vietnamese vendors at your market maybe write down 'riềng' and show them, you probably shouldn't even try to pronounce it, or you may very well end up as that morning's joke :-) I've had a lot of success writing down the Vietnamese name of obscure ingredients, making a deal with the shopkeeper, and picking it up the next week (they seem to always get their shipment in wed/thurs... at least across Europe).

                                                  1. re: adamj880

                                                    Thanks. I'll see if the place that supposedly has kaffir lime leaves has galangal too. I needed the ginger anyway.

                                              3. re: scubadoo97

                                                I bought some shrimp paste at our corner market...I had to argue with the owner first, though, because he told me it was too smelly and I wouldn't like it. For a while there I really thought that he wasn't going to sell it to me...

                                                  1. re: gimlis1mum

                                                    lol, I've never had to argue for it, but when I lived in Prague and was buying it from the Vietnamese for the first time I remember the "are you f'n kidding me" look I got. By my third jar we were exchanging 'to je velmi dobre' (it's very good) in our mutually crappy Czech while we smiled and nodded.

                                              4. Hi. First of all,
                                                -try using vegetable oil because sometimes olive oil gives out a distinct flavor that isn't usually in thai cuisine. Or you could opt for light tasting olive oil instead.
                                                - Use the basil and lime juice and bell pepper.
                                                - Try adding more fish sauce, pepper to taste

                                                I hope this helps.

                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: pangrumboon

                                                  I love cooking Thai food, and have found I cannot make a restaurant worthy curry either. But, 2 dishes I can make, that are quick and fairly easy (I am sure that they could be made vegetarian too) are Tom ka kai (coconut chicken soup), and Gai prad kapow (basil chicken stirfry, I often use beef or pork, sometimes ground, sometimes sliced)


                                                2. Great thread- thank you for precipitating this avalanche of info. I heartily second the suggestions fo housemade curry paste (freezing in heavy ziplock bags as a sheet/flat block works great); kaffir lime leaves- a must for curries; and Thai basil- cannot have a proper drunken noodles without this essential ingredient. Golden Mountain sauce also.