Several years ago, my husband was lucky enough to do a 5-day cooking course in Thailand. Although I wasn’t with him, he did impart all the paste and curry making know-how to me on his return. Living in the Bay Area means that we have access to all the ingredients we need to continue making the great recipes he learned. Most major cities will also likely have an Asian market, or a large supermarket that carries some of the more unusual ingredients required to get the authentic paste flavors. However, Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk will also have everything you need.
In terms of the dried spices for the pastes, you will need both coriander and cumin seeds. Use the whole seeds – not the powders for the best taste. In order to release the oils and the full flavors, however, you’ll need to toast them in a dry frying pan for about one minute – just until you start to smell their fragrance. Be careful not to burn them, or they will end up tasting really bitter. I usually measure out what I need of each spice, toast them in the pan, and once they have cooled down, I use a spice grinder (I have a coffee mill I use specifically for spices and flours) to grind them into a powder. I tend to buy whole spices whenever possible, then toast and grind them as I need them so that they always taste as fresh as possible. You will also need some whole black peppercorns, which you will not need to toast before use.
The pastes are traditionally made with shrimp paste, but I have discovered that you can easily get that salty flavor by using a vegan fermented soybean paste in its place. The one I like best is pictured here – AFC brand, Chao Do, a fermented, salted red beancurd paste. It provides that salty, sour taste. I sometimes still use the shrimp paste, but because my daughter is vegetarian, the bean paste is an excellent alternative. I don’t eat meat myself, but I do eat fish. Additionally, the tradition is to use fish sauce when making the actual curries, but when in Thailand, and learning to make the curry pastes, my husband was told that using tamari/soy sauce is an acceptable way to get that salty flavor into the curry in a vegetarian version of the curries. You’ll find these options in all of the pastes, as well as in the actual curries on the blog.
You’ll also need some sweet to balance out the salty. I mainly use palm sugar, which is a very hard, molasses-type sugar. It used to be harvested from the palmyra palm, but nowadays is usually taken from the arenga or nipa palm. It is a very hard sugar and you’ll likely need to shave it with a sharp knife, and then chop it finely. As an alternative, I have often used date sugar and even jaggery, which I find has an almost identical taste. The advantage of jaggery is that you can purchase it in a powdered form from an Indian grocery store. In a pinch, you could also use a dark brown sugar.
Kaffir Limes. I just love them! So much, in fact, that we have two small trees in our yard. I figured that I make Thai food so often, that we might as well keep our own supply! When fruit are ripe, I zest and juice them and place in the freezer. I also cut up a bunch of leaves from time to time and freeze that too. That way, I always have what I need quickly on hand to make a curry.
As well as the limes and lime leaves, you’ll also need some fresh lemongrass. The long stalks are quite tough to prepare. When purchasing, make sure you get stalks with really firm stems, and that have no brown discoloration. They should smell really fresh and the outer leaves be very tight and not peeling off. To prepare them, cut off the little ridge at the bottom. Peel off any loose or woody leaf from the stalk. Use a really sharp knife to finely slice – up to about halfway along. The rest of the stalk will likely be too tough to use.
Next up, if you can get fresh turmeric, do use that above the dried powder. The flavor is far superior and you will get a much brighter yellow curry paste out of it. If you can’t get some, then the dried version will certainly work. There’s options for both in the recipes. I usually wear disposable gloves when working with turmeric, along with a plastic cutting board, as it really can stain! Talking of gloves – I always wear them when preparing the chilies needed for the pastes. You’ll need both red dried chilies as well as the small thai birdseye chilies. Soak the dried chilies for about 20 minutes in hot water to soften them first, then drain and deseed them before chopping.
You’re also going to be using fresh ginger. On the left here is regular root ginger. On the right is some galangal, which altough similar looking, is actually quite different. It is usually cream in color and is very hard and woody. It is quite difficult to cut up, and you’ll need to cut it up quite small before grinding it. You can also grate it on a microplane. The taste is also not at all like regular ginger. It is not spicy like fresh ginger, but instead has both a citrus and a woodsy flavor. If you cannot find fresh, you can use either frozen or the powdered form – you should be able to get both in any good Asian market. In a pinch, add a little more fresh ginger, plus some fresh lime juice. The finished curry won’t quite be the same, but the paste will still taste superior to any jarred version.
Once blended, I recommend storing the pastes in sterilized glass containers in the fridge. Always use a clean spoon to scoop out what you need for a recipe, and quickly reseal the container to avoid any contamination. If you make a double quantity of the pastes, you could always make some to give away as gifts! The pastes should keep for up to 3 months, if stored correctly. I suspect you could freeze the pastes in 1 tablespoon-sized portions and they would keep for much longer.
If you eat a lot of Thai food, then I recommend making twice the amount of paste that the recipes suggest – it is certainly easier to blend/process with more ingredients. If not, I suggest you use a small blender to make mixing easier. You can always add a tablespoon or two of water to help the paste come together. Traditionally of course, and the way my husband learned, is to use a mortar and pestle. I have done this myself several times – and even though this is a very nice, calming, meditative process, I do find that it’s so much easier and quicker to use modern technology! Not to mention that the pastes end up being much smoother this way.
You can find the recipes for the pastes, either by using the navigation buttons on the menu, (Recipes, Ethinic Foods, Thai), or by clicking on the links below.