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Why is my curry sauce so pale?

The curry sauces I make are often pale instead of a dark rich colour as they appear in my cookbooks. For example, I just made David Thompson's "aromatic duck curry" and it turned out a very pale beige, almost no colour at all, and with no oil floating on top, instead of the rich dark brown in the photo. The flavour is good, it's just the appearance I'm concerned with. Any suggestions?

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  1. I don't have this exact recipe in my head, but there are generally four reasons why my curries are pale.
    a) Forgetting to roast the dry spices for the curry paste (when that's required).
    b) Using cheap coconut milk/cream.
    c) Using too much coconut milk and/or not enough curry paste.
    d) Holding back on the red chilies when making the paste, as can be the case when having tender-mouthed family members for dinner.

    Generic coconut milk from tins most often contains stabilizers to make it look better and prevent it from forming a solid lump of coconut cream at the top. This also prevents the cream from cracking at high heat, which is actually desirable when you're frying the paste to make it aromatic.
    Try to find tins that are labelled "100 percent", at least for the initial frying. For the cream you're adding later, it's not that important.
    (The fact that you see no oil forming at the top of the dish is most likely the same stabilizers from the coconut milk, so there's your answer to that problem too.)
    Totally discard tins from the large generic supermarket lables that often contain as little as 61 percent coconut material.

    If you can't get your hands on some proper produce, you can simulate the cracked cream by adding a tablespoon of oil before frying it. Or even better, make your own coconut cream from fresh coconut.

    Point d) is a common problem in our house. I usually cheat by adding red bell peppers and a tablespoon ore two of good paprika powder and hope it doesn't affect the taste too much.

    Anyway, I do see your problem. Serving pale curry isn't fun.. Appearance really has a lot to say for how the food is perceived on the palate of the guests.

    1. Traditional indian cooking calls for browning the onions until they are caramelized to a rich brown color. One of my peeves in Indian cookbooks is when the recipe calls for sauteeing the onions until soft or translucent. When you cook them long enough, the oil starts to seep/separate out. That's a sign that the onions are ready, and that's the oil you see on the top of the finished product.

      I am not familiar with this specific recipe, but if you didn't cook the onions enough, you aren't going to have the flavor and color you should have in your finished dish.

      1. I've never run into this problem, but turmeric is usually present in my curry spice roasting mix. Turmeric is a pretty powerful coloring agent. I cook it into rice I intend to make fried tice with just to make it pop.

        1 Reply
        1. re: hrwise89

          Yes, but the coloring agent in tumeric is yellow "known as curcumin, C.I. 75300, or Natural Yellow 3" according to Wikipedia.
          That's what makes a yellow curry yellow.
          What makes red curry red are the chilies (or paprika if you're cheateing).

        2. Just to be clear the OP is talking about Thai Curries, thus the reference to David Thompson

          1 Reply
          1. re: chefj

            Thanks for clarifying. I'm not familiar with David Thompson, or this cookbook or recipe. My brain is programmed to automatically assume "Indian" when someone mentions curry.

          2. If this is the recipe in question, then the sauce will be pale (nothing much in it to make it brown), as in the accompanying photo:


            Keep in mind that food stylists are at times utterly shameless at tweaking either the recipe or the photo itself to get the look they want.

            1. In addition to roasting your spices, don't forget the paprika.

              5 Replies
              1. re: law_doc89

                The Recipe does not call for Paprika
                The dish should not have a strong color, at the restaurant Thompson's dish is diescibed as "dun colored" by the Observer

                1. re: chefj

                  yes, but in Indian cuisine, paprika is what is essential for a "red" curry. I think the recipe is one of those that left out an essential ingredient. There are some real SOB's who love giving partial recipes.

                  My preference in cook books is always towards those that emphasize techniques, not recipes. If still in print, get "Indian Cookery" by Dharamjit Singh. But since this recipe professes to be Thai, "South East Asian Food" by Rosemay Brisenden. (Thai curry duck is Panggang itek, broiled whole, not the professed recipe)

                  1. re: law_doc89

                    This is not an Indian recipe it is Thai. And in the Chef's own version, in his Restaurant it is a is a pale duff color.

                    1. re: chefj

                      Which belies the point of the OP. My point, again, is learn techniques, not recipes. The "recipe" from the link is not something I recognize. The "chef" should call it "Thai inspired."

                      This gets back to the OP's question of why his product looks different.

                      BTW, are you familiar with the books I referenced? Have you ever made or eaten Panggang itek?

                      The "recipe" cited sounds more like Khao na pet, but I have no idea what it is, actually.

                    2. re: law_doc89

                      The redness in an Indian curry is usually obtained by browning the onions well, toasting the spices, and using Kashmiri Mirch. Its a bright red, slightly spicy chilli powder. Brighter and spicier than paprika. Some restaurants use red food color instead.

                2. Hrwise is right---turmeric will solve your problem.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Querencia

                    The curry is not superposed to be yellow

                  2. I guess the problem is with the photo in the book then. If it is a pale beige in the restaurant, that must be how it is supposed to look. I just don't find it particularly appetizing to look at, and so I don't want to serve it to guests. I will try Thompson's Massaman chicken next, because I've read that many people love that one.

                    Thanks for all the responses!

                    1. If the issue is simply the colour of the dish, you can easily compensate for that by adding a bit of this or that or playing with the contrasting items on the plate. Change the colour of the sauce to green (toss in some pureed spinach), red (paprika), yellow (turmeric), purple (beets!), or even your desired brown (caramel colour, e.g., Kitchen Bouquet). Or toss in a few colourful vegetables (bits of green, yellow, orange, or red peppers; leafy greens, carrot, etc.). Or pimp it out with some garnishes: Cilantro, darkly fried onions or shallots, etc. Finally, let it be what it is and just add the colour in the form of side dishes (some nice stir-fried gai lan, turmeric rice, a radish rose, pretty carrot roses, blood orange slices, etc.). Of all of the problems with a dish, colour is one of the easiest ones to address.

                      1. Is this the recipe?
                        geng gari bpet

                        I just bought 'Curry Cuisine', which is a compilation of recipes from many countries. David Thompson contributed the Thai chapter. It has Geng gari gai - the same thing but with chicken.

                        I think most of the color in that recipe will come from frying the spices in the cracked coconut cream. The coconut milk itself tends to lighten the color of most dishes.

                        Facing that recipe in CC is a Chiang Mai pork curry. I just made that, or at least used it as a rough guide. There's no coconut or coconut cream in that. I got a good brown color without much effort, mainly from the tamarind water and the dark packaged Matsuman paste that I used.

                        The CC book doesn't have pictures of either of these. But many of the other Thai curries are not dark. There is, for example, a coconut and turmeric curry that is colored just as I would expect from those ingredients, turmeric yellow tempered with coconut white. And there is no frying. Everything is simmered in water and coconut milk. 'Its important that the cream does not separate but forms a smooth emulsion with the paste.'

                        There's no one rule for cooking method or color.

                        1. Yes, that is the dish.