Curries are confusing. You see them in Indian food, you see them in Thai food, you see them powdered and in a jar in the spice aisle: the myriad of cultures and dishes which have adopted the name have made the concept a bit overwhelming.
So… what is it? What is it made with? And why do they taste different every time I order one? We will provide you with the basics of different curry to clarify the differences in curry definitions and, more importantly, in curry flavors.
The definitions of curry, curry powder and curry leaves
The majority of the confusion regarding curries stems from the word itself: it is a very generic term, and it does not have a specific meaning because it is used in so many different ways and by so many different cultures. We have found that the word “curry” most often refers to one of three things: curry dishes, the curry spice and the curry leaf. If one can differentiate between the three, then the term becomes must less confusing.
Curry dish: On the most basic of levels, all curry dishes are essentially a stew or a soup. It is even believed that the word comes from the Tamil (a language of India) word for “sauce”.
Curry powder: Curry powder is merely a blend of different ground spices: the ingredients in this blend vary but all typically contain coriander, tumeric, cumin and red pepper. Curry powders are incredibly popular in the Western world because they serve as an all-in-one spice blend for those looking to add Indian/curry dish flavors to a dish.
Curry leaves: Curry is also the name for a tree which grows in India. Its leaves are a spice used in all curries from a south India state called Tamil nadu and are so intrinsically connected that the dish and the leaf share the same name in both the Tamil language and in English.
To truly understand curry, you would have to examine its use in each of the cultures which have one. We will of course not do that in one short article, bu since Thai food is so prevalent in the United States, and since were lucky enough to spend three weeks there this summer, we will focus on Thai curry.
The definition of Thai curries
At its most basic, Thai curry means two things: spices (including a lot of chilies!) in the form of a curry paste, and coconut milk. Nearly all curries have the same staple spices, including garlic, shallots, galangal, shrimp paste, kaffir lime rind, coriander root, cumin seeds, lemongrass, and peppercorns. More spices are added to the basic paste to give it different names (yellow, red and green curry paste, for example) and vegetables and meats are of course added to create different dishes, but as a generic definition, curry paste and coconut milk are the staples of a Thai curry.
Changing the spices in the curry paste will allow a chef to create the three most popular Thai curries: red, green and yellow. This confuses many diners because few know the differences between the three dishes, but in actuality, even though these curries taste very different, they are quite similar in regard to ingredients and cooking methods.
Differences between red, yellow and green curries
As we said before, the basis of the three curry pastes is the same: most recipes call for garlic, shallots, galangal, shrimp paste, kaffir lime rind, coriander root, cumin seeds, lemongrass, and peppercorns. Only several slight ingredients make a curry green, red or yellow:
For green curry, green chilies are used
For red curry, red chilies are added
For yellow curry, curry powder (which contains a high amount of turmeric) is used.
Using the paste in a curry
To make a curry paste, the aforementioned ingredients are mixed together using a mortar and pestle. A few tablespoons of the paste are then heated over a wok, which releases the fragrant oils from the chilies, garlic and onion in the paste. Coconut milk is added, followed by the meats/vegetables/etc which make each of the curries so fun and unique. Usually fish sauce and palm sugar are added as well to incorporate salty and sweet flavors into the dish, and often the dish is garnished with fresh herbs (often they are coriander and/or cilantro).
Pre-made red, yellow and green curry pastes can be purchased at almost any Asian food store; however, it can be made at home very easily, provided that you have a mortar and a pestle (our cooking instructor in Thailand told us that this piece of equipment is vital: the grinding motion of the mortal and pestle releases the oils from the curry paste ingredients, thus giving the paste more flavor. Substituting an electric or hand held chopper will not release the oils from the ingredients and will not give you the true flavor of a curry paste).
Differences in taste?
At its most basic, yellow curry dishes are a tad sweeter and are reminiscent of Indian curries, red curries have a bold, spicy flavor with some depth, and green curries have a brighter flavor and a sharpness to their spice.
I love yellow curry: the turmeric gives the dish a little sweetness and tangy flavor which balances so well with the spice from the red chilies in the curry paste. However, I also enjoy the richness of a red curry: the red chilies used in the paste seem to give its dishes a deeper flavor, like if you use a sun-dried tomato over a ripe red one. Green curries, while also delicious, have a definite kick but do not have that rich flavor which you get in a red or yellow curry.
There are dozens of Thai curries, and I am only grazing the surface of this fascinating cuisine, but hopefully it will help you the next time you order a curry in a Thai restaurant… or are brave enough to attempt one at home. Feeling brave now? Check out our recipes for Green Curry with Eggplant (Gaeng Kiaw Wan Gai) and Stir-Fried Chicken with Cashews (Gai Pad Med Mamuang), and follow these spicy and delicious dishes with some sweet Bananas in Coconut Milk.