If you ask most fans of Thai food in the West what their favorite curries are, they’ll probably rattle off a list pretty quickly—red, yellow, green, massaman, panang—because they’re so ubiquitous that they’ve become as familiar as pho or sushi. However, for many people, they also happen to be the only curries they know, because they’re the only ones offered by most Thai restaurants.
That’s a shame because there are countless kinds of curry in Thailand, more than even someone born and raised in Thailand, like me, can ever fully know. There are curries that are popular throughout the country, like the ones listed above, but then there are others that are unique to each region, to each province, and there are even curries whose recipes are unique to specific families.
This guide isn’t just intended to introduce people to different kinds of curries; it’s goal is to offer a thorough explanation of what Thai curries are and what they can look like so that you can start making them at home with confidence. And, hopefully, with that added confidence, you can begin experimenting with them at home.
What is Thai Curry?
I don’t like to offer strict definitions for food, but what Thais call gaeng, which translates roughly to curry, is a dish whose primary source of flavor is a prik gaeng, or a curry paste. The other defining feature of a gaeng is that it has a significant amount of liquid, even if the category contains dishes that range from completely soupy toi just saucy.
A prik gaeng is simply a paste of ground up herbs and spices, the most important of which are the prik, or chiles. (To read more about curry pastes, what they are, and the many ways to make them, check out my guide to curry pastes.)
Gaeng can be one of our most humble, everyday dishes, but it can also be a part of a very fancy meal. They’re so much a part of the Thai diet that it wouldn’t surprise me if someone said they eat at least one curry for dinner every single day. For a multi-dish meal with family or company, a curry is often present; for a solo lunch, one of the most popular dishes is a plate of rice with curry on top, which you can get from street vendors and food courts anywhere in the country.
Even though the variations are endless, you can divide curries into two general categories based on what kind of liquid they use: coconut milk or water.
The majority of Thai curries are made with coconut milk as the main liquid, which produces creamier curries, but they’re not necessarily “rich.” The amount of coconut milk can vary by quite a lot, depending on the texture one is looking for: massaman curry, for example, is quite rich because it uses coconut milk and is typically simmered for longer periods of time, whereas green curry uses a combination of water/stock and coconut milk and is typically cooked for shorter periods of time, yielding a curry with a lighter consistency.
Examples of Coconut-Based Curries
Gaeng Khiao Waan. This is the world-famous green curry. It’s a classic example of a coconut-based curry as the texture, consistency, and cooking method is similar to how most others are made. It uses a combination of coconut milk and water/stock, so the end result is creamy but still has a brothy consistency.
Gaeng Massaman. Richer and thicker than green curry, massaman is loaded with dry spices and is usually paired with slow-cooked meats like dark meat chicken and red meat, and it always contains some type of potatoes and onion; it’s like an extremely aromatic stew.
Nam ya. A curry few people know, nam ya is an herbaceous sauce that’s poured over rice vermicelli known as kanom jeen; it’s kind of like a pasta dish. Unlike other curries, nam ya doesn’t have pieces of meat and fish in the curry, but cooked and mashed fish is added to the curry to thicken it, which helps it to cling to the noodles. The vegetables that accompany the curry and noodles are served on the side.
Basic Method for Making Coconut-Based Curry
- Sauté the curry paste. Curry pastes are sautéed to develop and bloom the flavors of the aromatics and spices, and also to take away any “raw” flavors. While some people like to fry the paste in vegetable oil to save time, traditionally, the paste is sautéed in reduced coconut milk. Coconut milk is simmered down until there’s no more water and the emulsion breaks, leaving behind coconut oil, which then serves as the frying medium for the paste.
- Add long-cooking protein. If you’re braising meat for the curry, add it at this point and “stir fry” it with the paste briefly. If you’re using seafood or proteins that only take a few minutes to cook, skip this step.
- Add the remaining liquid and whole spices and sturdy herbs. Add the remaining coconut milk and any water or stock. Also add any herbs or spices that require longer periods of time to infuse, like makrut lime leaves or cinnamon sticks. It’s important to allow the curry to simmer for at least 5-10 minutes to allow the flavors from the paste to infuse the liquid. As the paste simmers, you’ll see the color of the coconut milk change and intensify. If you’re braising something in the curry, like short ribs, for example, at this point the curry can be simmered for however long it takes until the meat is done.
- Add seasoning, quick-cooking proteins, and vegetables. Once the curry sauce has simmered, I like to stir in some of the seasoning before I add the meats and vegetables so that they are seasoned properly as well. So add your fish sauce, sugar, tamarind, or whatever else you’re using first, then add the meat and vegetables, staggering these latter additions as needed so that they all finish cooking at the same time.
- Taste and adjust final seasoning. It’s important to make sure the curry is strongly seasoned, since it will be served with rice. Once everything is properly cooked, check for seasoning and add whatever you think it needs.
- Add finishing herbs. Once you’re done, turn off the heat and stir in any delicate herbs you’re using, like Thai basil or holy basil. The residual heat is enough to wilt and infuse the flavours of these herbs, and over-cooking them will turn them an unappealing black.
While it may be surprising to some, curries can sometimes look like soups; since they have no added creamy ingredient and sometimes don’t even have any added fat, they can also eat like soups. So it’s fair to wonder what the difference is between these curries and our soups.
Let’s go back to our definition of a gaeng. One of its defining qualities is the presence of a curry paste. Soups don’t use pastes; instead, soups are made by simmering large pieces of aromatics and herbs, like lemongrass, galangal, makrut lime leaves, chiles, etc., to infuse broth with their flavor; once cooked, the aromatics and herbs aren’t eaten. A curry may use exactly the same ingredients as a soup, but since those ingredients are finely ground into a paste, they become a part of the sauce. Even the lightest, most soup-like, water-based curry is going be slightly thicker than a soup because of the paste.
One important note: When I say “water-based,” I don’t necessarily mean these curries must be made with water; you could also use stock. In fact, if you’re using quick-cooking, boneless proteins, you absolutely should use stock, for the extra body and flavor it provides.
Example of Water-Based Curries
Gaeng Som. “Som” means orange, and refers to the color of the broth, but it also refers to the sour taste the curry is known for. This is one of the most popular water-based curries in Thailand because it’s so simple to make. The Southern version is called gaeng leuang (literally “yellow curry”), and it gets its characteristic color from turmeric. Because of its sour flavor profile, it’s most commonly paired with fish and seafood, but that’s not a rule.
Gaeng Om. A specialty of the North and Northeast, gaeng om is a light curry that’s loaded with fresh vegetables, like Thai eggplant, squash, and cabbage, but the unique thing about gaeng om is that it uses dill, an herb rarely seen in other Thai dishes. Pla ra, a fermented fish paste, is also added for saltiness and funk.
Gaeng Kua Dtai. Hailing from the South, gaeng kua dtai is anything but light because it’s cooked down until it has a “saucy” amount of liquid. Typically made with halved pork spareribs, the fat from the pork also adds to the richness. The paste is similar to a red curry paste except it has a ton of chiles, turmeric, and black pepper.
Gaeng Pa. Literally “jungle curry,” this is perhaps the most well-known water-based curry in the West, though versions found in North American Thai restaurants are rarely “fully loaded.” “Jungle” refers to the abundance of herbs that the curry is typically garnished with, which makes it look like you’ve thrown the entire jungle in the bowl. It’s relentlessly spicy and uses a paste similar to red curry but with the addition of fresh chiles.
Basic Method for Making Water-Based Curry
- Simmer the curry paste. Unlike coconut-based curries where the paste is almost always sautéed, with water-based curries the paste is often added to the boiling water or stock and simmered to cook the herbs and allow the flavors to infuse. However, when the curry uses a more complex paste, like gaeng kua dtai, the paste can be sautéed in vegetable oil, in which case the steps are the same as the coconut-based curry above.
- Add seasoning, proteins, and vegetables. Once the curry paste has simmered, add your fish sauce, sugar, tamarind, or whatever else you’re using for seasoing, then add the meat and vegetables, staggering them as needed so that they will finish cooking at the same time.
- Taste and adjust final seasoning. Again, it’s very important to taste the curry to ensure it’s properly seasoned before serving it with rice. Once everything is properly cooked, check for seasoning and add whatever you think it needs.
- Add finishing herbs. Turn off the heat and stir in any delicate herbs.
How to Experiment with Thai Curries at Home
If you’re new to Thai curry-making, I suggest first making various types of traditional curries so that you have a good idea of the range of methods, ingredients, and flavors. You’ll also get to know combinations of ingredients that “work.”
But with this article, along with the complementary article about Thai curry paste, you should have a good idea of the basic building blocks of Thai curries. When making your own curry, you have to decide on a few things:
- The type of curry paste (buying some in a store is totally fine).
- The kind of liquid (coconut milk, water, and/or stock).
- The proteins and vegetables you want to include.
- The seasonings you’d like to use (fish sauce, sugar, tamarind, etc.).
- Any extra herbs and spices.
With this structure you can create a custom-built curry that’s unique to you. The only thing I’d encourage is that you stick with Thai ingredients, to keep the flavors authentic, and to be mindful of richness when picking meats and vegetables. For example, if it’s a heavily spiced, rich curry, don’t pair it with delicate fish and tender greens. Choose something that can hold up to the richness.
What you create may not be a “traditional” curry, but don’t worry. Thai people ad lib their curries all the time, using whatever’s in their kitchen. Sure, you may not end up picking a combination that works well every single time, but that’s what experimentation is all about!