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Thai curry pastes (Part One)

OK, I said I’d do rice next but rice is such a complex subject, so I keep procrastinating. Also, every cuisine has its own unique way of cooking it, and it’s not particularly easy to cook it properly unless you have a rice cooker. I don’t have one, so I won’t be advising you to “just put it in the rice cooker and press the button”. Anyway, more on rice later. Let’s do curry pastes for now.

So what are curry pastes? They’re the foundation for flavouring Thai curries. Now, don’t start thinking along the lines of bad “Indian” curries where you add a teaspoon of “Madras” powder and hey presto – you’ve got a Madras curry. (Gak!) Good Indian cooks don’t cook like this any more than the Thais do.

A homemade curry paste is a labour of love and, if you get it right, its exquisite fragrance surpasses any alternative. We’ll look at some of the commercial varieties available before going on to the DIY version.

Because of the growth in popularity in Thai cuisine, many of the large British supermarkets are now stocking bottles and jars of what they call “Thai curry paste”. In my opinion, this gunk bears little relation to the real thing. I wouldn’t recommend it. Some people enjoy it, presumably, or they wouldn’t keep selling it – bear in mind that it’s no more Thai than chop suey.

In the Thai markets, curry paste is heaped on the stalls in brightly coloured conical mounds: red, green, and yellow. You can buy whatever quantity you like, and I guess it must be popular as so many stalls sell it. I’ve never tried this (unless of course I’ve unknowingly eaten it in a restaurant), the reason being that the bright colours are often dulled by a black coating. Now why should that put me off? Because I don’t like flies very much. Urgh!!!

The Thais also produce curry paste commercially in hygienic factories. These pastes are packaged and sold in supermarkets in Thailand. And the good news is that they are also exported to specialist shops in the UK (Wing Yip is my favourite) and elsewhere. Whilst these are not as good as a home-made paste, they are a very decent alternative if you’re in a hurry, or just not fanatical enough to make your own. I just nipped down to the kitchen to check the brand name of the one I like but other than “Green Curry Paste” all the writing was in Thai, so that’s not much help. It did have “Global Foods Ltd” on the back though. Chances are if you find one that was made in Thailand, it’s probably the real thing.

So if you can buy the Global Foods one, why bother to make your own? The reason is that with the commercial pastes, they go heavy on the cheaper ingredients and lighter on the more fragrant, and therefore more expensive, ones. When you make your own, you will make the luxury version. It’s worth it. Trust me.

Well, I think that’s enough for one day. I’ll be doing recipes for red and green curry pastes next (it enables me to postpone rice for another week). Meanwhile, if any of you would like to contribute to our Thai cuisine series, please comment below.

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PG Author: Kay McMahon

Kay has been an expat for nearly 30 years. She set up the British Expat website back in early 2000, whilst living in London and missing the expat life. These days she spends much of her time lugging computers and cameras around the world. (Dave gets to deal with all the really heavy stuff.)

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