The secrets of Thai curries and pastes


There is no word as such in the Thai dialect for curry, all pastes are known as geng, which has a far wider meaning than the English word suggests. It basically means any wet savoury dish that is enriched and thickened by a paste.

Frying the paste until fragrant in split coconut cream.
Curry pastes have been used for centuries and every Thai cook has their own favourite which may have been passed down through the generations. Most pastes use the same basic ingredients, but their proportions can vary in order to change the characteristics of the curry, also the way in which the curry is finished also determines what type of curry it is. There are hundreds of geng pastes in Thailand and there are hundreds of ways in which they can be used but most of them fall into two categories; boiled or fried.

In these recipes you will learn about two of the most popular curry pastes, green and red. We will also learn how best to cook the paste and the best proteins with which to use.

There are also recipes for tom yum paste for the classic Thai soup and a very basic paste with only three ingredients that the Thai call holy trinity paste that can enhance any dish and lift it to another level.

Green curry;

Green curry is one of the most well know curries outside of Thailand. But what is a real green curry, it’s hard for anyone to really say what is correct and which is wrong as the changing of the seasons, regional variations, personal tastes and different techniques can all change the main characteristic of what is thought to be right and what is wrong. So an ordinary green curry, which should be very familiar, becomes the source of debate all over Thailand and around the world. So in the recipe that follows this is my version. The paste can be altered depending on the protein that is to be cooked in the curry, for example add less chilli and less dried spices if the curry is to be used for prawns or seafood, as the chillies and spices can mask the natural flavour and sweetness that comes from seafood.

In Thailand a green curry should be very hot with no sweetness, but I find a little sweetness is more suited to our Western palates. They suit chicken, fish and all types of seafood very well.

Thai green seafood curry

10 coriander seeds
10 cumin seeds
10 white peppercorns
8 green birds eye chillies, finely chopped
6 long green chillies, seeded and chopped
4 lemongrass stalks, chopped
4 bulbs of galangal, peeled and chopped
8 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
1tsp turmeric
5 lime leaves chopped
Grated zest of 1 lime
2tsp shrimp paste, wrapped in foil and roasted until fragrant

Lightly pan roast the coriander seeds and the cumin, place into the mortar along with the peppercorns and grind until fine, add the chillies and continue to pound with a pestle. Keep adding all the ingredients in order making sure that each is well bashed before adding the next. Once all the ingredients have been added continue to pound the ingredients to a smooth paste.

Green curry of chicken;

4 tins of coconut milk poured into a container and set in the fridge a couple of hours before you start the recipe. This allows the cream and the milk to separate.
100ml curry oil or veg oil
6 lime leaves
4tblsp fish sauce or to taste
1tblsp palm sugar
500g chicken breast or thigh, diced
1 medium white onion, sliced
1 small courgette, sliced
1 green chilli, sliced
100g green beans, topped and tailed
1 bunch of scallions, sliced
1tblsp chopped coriander and basil mixed

 Place a wok over high heat and add 200ml of solidified coconut cream and the oil, cook, stirring all the time until the cream splits and the sizzling dies down. This stage releases the fragrant oil from the coconut cream and adds a nicer balance to the overall dish. Add the paste to the wok along with the lime leaves and cook until the paste is very fragrant stirring all the time. Use your sense of smell to tell when the paste is ready. First you should smell the garlic then the aromatic aroma from the lemongrass and galangal and finally the shrimp paste and the dried spices, when you can smell all of these aromas blend together you know the paste is ready.
At this stage add the fish sauce, palm sugar and the chicken and cook for 4mins, longer if using the thigh meat. Then add the onion, courgette, chilli and green beans. Toss everything well in the wok and add the remaining coconut milk, bring to the boil, turn to a simmer and cook for a further 4-5mins. Finish the dish with scallions and herbs and serve at once.

Red curry;

Fresh Thai red curry paste being made
Red curry is again a very popular curry outside of Thailand. The description ‘red curry’ can cover the largest range of curries in Thailand; the only distinguishable similarity in a lot of these curries is the fact that they are red. So again like the green curry it is very difficult to find what some people would call an authentic recipe.
But that said a red curry paste will usually contain similar ingredients such as dried red chillies, garlic, shrimp paste and it is always fried. Red curry paste takes longer to cook than the green paste because of the dried chillies and spices, but the addition of palm sugar to the paste allows prolonged cooking of the paste as the sugar melts.
Red curries can either be served with a lot of liquid or quite dry. I like to serve duck with pineapple, beef with peanuts or even squab, venison or lobsters are good. Like the green curry the paste is fried in separated coconut cream until fragrant, then the sugar is added and caramelised until deep and golden, this helps to deepen the curry and allows the paste to cook a little longer without burning.
Red curries can be finished with coconut milk or stock, sometimes tamarind is added or lime juice at the end, along with lime leaves, sliced red chillies and holy basil.
The final flavour of a red curry should be slightly sweet and salty with a good kick from the chillies.


1tsp white peppercorns
2tsp cumin, roasted
1tsp coriander seeds, roasted
6 star anise, roasted
3 pieces of cassia bark, roasted
10 cloves of garlic, chopped
3 sticks of lemongrass, chopped
1 bulb of galangal, peeled and chopped
3tblsp shrimp paste, wrapped in foil and roasted until fragrant
6 dried red chillies, soaked, deseeded and chopped
7 long red chillies, seeded and chopped
1tblsp paprika

Place all of the dried spices into a mortar and pound with a pestle until ground, add the remaining ingredients one at a time making sure that each ingredients is well pounded before adding the next. Once all the ingredients have been added continue to pound the ingredients to a smooth paste.

Red curry of beef with peanuts;

4 tins of coconut milk the same as for green curry
100ml curry oil or vegetable oil
6 lime leaves
5tblsp of palm sugar or to taste
150g roasted peanuts
4tblsp fish sauce or to taste
1 red onion, sliced
1pkt baby corn
1 aubergine diced
2 Bok choi, cut into pieces
500g braised topside of beef
4 red chillies, sliced
1tblsp Thai basil, chopped

Place a wok over high heat and add 300ml of the solidified coconut cream and the oil, cook, stirring all the time until the cream splits and the sizzling dies down. Add the paste to the wok along with the lime leaves and cook until the paste is very fragrant stirring all the time. When the paste is ready add the palm sugar and continue to cook until the sugar caramelises and turn golden brown, add the peanuts and toss to coat in the caramel, then add the fish sauce, being careful as the sugar will spit when the liquid hits it. Then add the onions, baby corn, and aubergine. Now add the coconut milk and bring to the boil. Put in the beef and simmer for five minutes, add the Bok choi, chillies and basil and cook for 30 seconds. Serve at once.

Seasoning pastes;

Seasoning pastes are very handy paste in Thai cookery they are never used as a sole flavouring for any dish but they do add a wonderful dimension of flavour to dishes such as stir fries, relishes, soups, broths, salads or even as a marinade. There are a lot of different base pastes or seasoning paste but in these recipes I will show you two that I find indispensable in my own cookery. The first is a very simple paste of white peppercorns, garlic and coriander and this can be used in so many different ways and it adds a wonderful fragrance to any dish. The second is a black chilli paste, which makes a magical addition to soup, curries, broths and salad dressings.

Thai holy trinity paste;

20 white peppercorns
10 cloves of garlic, peeled
3tblsp coriander

Place the peppercorns into a mortar and pound until smooth, add the garlic and repeat, then add the coriander and pound all the ingredients until everything is a smooth paste.
This paste works well for marinating meat. Marinate strips of thinly sliced beef rump in this marinade with a little fish sauec and palm sugar, place in the fridge for 1 hour, then remove from the fridge, dust the beef strips in cornflour and deep fry until crisp. this is a classic dish known in Thailand as heavenly beef. Or add the paste to equal quantities of minced pork and minced prawns, marinate for 30mins, then stir fry in a wok. When golden brown add fish sauce, palm sugar and a little coconut cream, delicious!!!!!!!!

Black chilli paste;

This is a very versatile paste that can be used in soups, dressings, relishes or curries.
It is never used as a sole base for a curry but as an addition to other pastes. Because it is already cooked it is best used as a boiled curry paste stirred into soups and curries as the liquid is simmering.
It is a great base for shellfish cooked in chilli coconut broth or the famous Thai tom yum soup.

Fresh black chilli paste being made

300ml peanut oil
300g diced red onion
1 head garlic, sliced
6tblsp dried shrimp
200g palm sugar
300ml tamarind
3tblsp chilli powder
100ml fish sauce

Heat the oil in a wok until smoking, add the onions and fry until dark brown, remove.
Add the garlic and fry until brown, remove.
Add the shrimp and fry until brown, when browned return the onion and garlic to the shrimp, add the sugar and caramelise, add remaining ingredients and bring to the boil, simmer for 1 minute then process until smooth.

Comment (1)

I made my own Thai Green Curry earlier tonight. I wish I had seen this before though. I didn't know about the coconut milk separation method - I will definitely be trying this next time and let you know how I get on with the recipe.

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