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Different Types of Thai Curry & Common Ingredients Used in Thai Cuisine

Updated on October 30, 2014

There Are Many Types of Curries, and Not All Curries are Hot

For those of you who have never experienced the freshly exciting, hot taste of a Thai curry dish, you may not be aware that there are actually six main distinctive flavors and types of curry, each with a unique blend of various spices and ingredients, each integral to a masterful collaboration of flavor and substance.

In order to make authentic Thai dishes in your own kitchen, or to determine your preference for flavor and levels of heat when ordering in a Thai restaurant, it is a great advantage to be aware of the subtle yet complex differences between the different curries.

Hot or Sweet? Choose your favorite!

Green curry and red curry are easily the most popular curries, utilizing chili peppers, garlic, lemon grass, and coconut milk, among other essential herbs and spices, depending upon the region or brand. Chefs may also have their own particular variations. Green curry is made with fresh, young green chilis, and is significantly hotter than other curries. Red curry is made with bigger red chilis, which are not as hot as their green counterpart, but still packing significant heat. Green curry tends to lean toward a sweeter flavor, while red explores the savory side.

Yellow curry is highly aromatic and brightly colored due to roasted spices and an infusion of turmeric, and is typically paired with fish or poultry. The curry has a rich, bold taste, sweet with subtle hints of spices, and is effectively hot without being overpowering. Yellow curry hails from southern Thailand and is usually made with the addition of yellow peppers.

Masaman curry is by far the sweetest of all the curries, and is an excellent pairing with shrimp or chicken. A rich authentic flavor, usually with hints of tangy tamarind, this mildly hot curry is actually Indian-influenced, and is a popular favorite. A good introduction to curry if you are wary of trying something overly hot.

Spicy curries are also healthy!

A point to consider; curries rich with fiery chilis are also high in Vitamin C, and help to increase metabolism, among other health benefits. It can be inferred that the hotter a dish is, the healthier it may be.
A point to consider; curries rich with fiery chilis are also high in Vitamin C, and help to increase metabolism, among other health benefits. It can be inferred that the hotter a dish is, the healthier it may be.

Thai red chicken curry

Be adventurous when trying Thai curries.

Panang Curry shares many of the same ingredients and is very similar in flavor to Red Curry, save for a slightly sweeter taste, and is slightly less fiery on the tongue. It is extremely flavorful when made with vegetarian dishes or stir-fries.

But certainly no less flavorful than the others is Prik Khing Curry, which is essentially a curry made mainly from chilis and garlic, with a respectable host of other favorite spices and ingredients.

Preparing your own Thai curry and Thai food can be fun!

Most Thai restaurants will have a wide assortment of curries and dishes to choose from, with all of the curries represented. For you own kitchen you should be able to find most if not all of the respective curry pastes in the ethnic food aisle of your supermarket, with instructions and perhaps a recipe or two on how to transform the paste in a marvelous curry.

There are many different ingredients used in Thai cooking

Time to go shopping for Thai food ingredients!

So you've decided you want to prepare your own authentic Thai meal! Recipes are numerous and easily found, either on the internet or in that new Thai cookbook you've recently purchased. But in perusing the various recipes, you've probably discovered that many of the ingredients sound unfamiliar.

Don't feel intimidated. Many supermarkets now carry an extensive supply of ethnic ingredients, as the popularity of such cuisines is steadily growing. But there are still quite a few obscure items that can only be found at Asian supermarkets or specialty shops. I have attempted to provide a comprehensive list of the most common and some uncommon ingredients and items used is Thai cooking. Once you are familiar with some of them, hopefully the task of preparing a Thai meal will seem less daunting and more enjoyable. After all, prepared correctly, a Thai meal is a glorious adventure of satisfying flavor!

Herbs and spices are an essential part of Thai cuisine.

You will find that some recipes often call for an extensive list. Many of them are quite common and may already be in your pantry.

Coriander
More commonly known as cilantro, this is by far the most widely used herb in Thai cooking. You will definitely want to use fresh coriander for a truly superior taste over dried coriander. It will keep in the fridge for almost a week in a plastic bag.

Ginger
Probably the second most commonly used, ginger is readily available in supermarkets in various forms. It is used in most forms of Asian and Eastern cookery for its delicious flavor. Try to purchase ginger in a fresh form; you'll most likely find it in the produce section. A good piece should be firm and unwrinkled. Store it in a plastic bag to prevent it from drying out.

Galangal
You will find many recipes that call for this. A close cousin of ginger and quite similar in appearance, but it possesses a more peppery flavor. If you cannot find galangal then use ginger as a substitute.

Garlic
A mainstay in all cultures and often the guest of honor in Thai dishes, it needs no introduction.

Lemon Grass
Aromatic and alluring, you can find lemon grass in various forms. Groceries will usually stock the ground form, but you may need to go to an Asian grocery for fresh or dried lemon grass stalks. The dried lemon grass will need to be soaked in water approximately 30 minutes before use.

Basil
Regular basil purchased fresh from your supermarket is sufficient; for a more authentic flair, you will want to have Thai basil on hand. There are different varieties of Thai basil; if the recipe does not specify which kind, you will want what is know as Bai Horpha, as it is the most common.

Cardamom
Cardamom is found more often in Indian cuisine but is used here in certain Thai curries. It can be purchased as seeds, pods, or in a ground form.

Cumin
The distinctive flavor of cumin is often used to enhance curries. You can buy it ground or whole.

Turmeric
Available in supermarkets in powdered form, this bitter yellow-orange spice is used in small quantities to add another level of flavor and create a dish with intense color.

More Thai ingredients you might need.

Many Thai dishes have other essential ingredients; again some are easily found, others may require a trip to the Asian grocery. You will often find the culmination of all the ingredients results in an unexpected surprise, each mouthful bursting with intense flavor, as each ingredient adds another essential brick to the construction of your Thai meal!

Chillies
There are literally dozens of chillies to be found in most supermarkets these days. For Thai cuisine, you will want to find the bird's eye chillies – these are small, thin, and either green or red. The smaller the chili, the more intense and hot the flavor will be. If your palette is more suited to a milder heat, remove the seeds before adding the chili to the dish. When handling chillies, it is wise to wear rubber gloves and avoid touching your face, especially your eyes. Afterwards, wash your hands thoroughly. Chillies can be frozen in a plastic bag.

Bean Sprouts
You will want to purchase these fresh and only when you are prepared to cook within a few days, as they will perish rather quickly. You will mainly use these for stir fry dishes.

Coconut Milk
Not to be confused with coconut cream, which is very thick and sometimes used to enrich a curry or dessert dish. Coconut milk is used more often and can be found canned in most supermarkets. You can freeze any leftover amounts, but it will not stay fresh in the fridge.

Fish Sauce (also known as Nam Pla)
This sauce is made from fermented prawns or fish, and is quite salty. You should have no trouble finding it in your local grocery, but if for some reason it is not available, you will want to seek it out, as there is no suitable substitute. Like most sauces, you must store this in the fridge after opening.

Oyster Sauce
Made from dried oysters, this sauce should also be relatively easy to find. Refrigerate after opening.

Spring Roll Wrappers
A thin doughy sheet, these can be purchased and frozen for later use. Used obviously for spring rolls, but you can get creative and use them for other fried items or dumplings.

Of course there are still many ingredients and items waiting to be discovered as you delve deeper into the realm of Thai Cookery, but in the meantime, this list should provide you with the essential knowledge to get started.

You may want to examine the Asian section of your supermarket where you will surely find other items not mentioned here, such as Red and Green Curries, Pad Thai noodles, and more. Most supermarkets now stock items from a company called A Taste of Thai, which produces many items you will certainly find a tasty use for.

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