I love Thai food, but finding authentic flavors in restaurants is not easy. Most food found in Thai restaurants in America is too sweet, does not have enough spices, not enough chilies, and lack real Thai ingredients. Curries taste watered down with too much coconut milk and prepared to suit western tastes. But I really, really wanted to eat good curry. How do I get that spicy authentic flavor? I live 15-20 minutes away from a Thai market! There’s so much that I don’t know about Thai cuisine, and I was determined to learn more about food that had been misunderstood in America for decades. The best way to start, I believed, was to grow Kaffir lime and Thai chilies, and curate the proper ingredients. With my Kaffir limes and leaves, along with the chilies, I am able to make curry paste whenever I like. Even my local Thai markets didn’t sell Kaffir limes for zesting. It’s optional in this curry paste, but adds a great aroma to the finished product. These ingredients can be found at typical Thai grocers.
- Mortar and pestle
- Kitchen scale, optional
- 3 stalks lemongrass, or 3 tablespoons prepared
- 15g dried Thai chilis, or small handful*
- 25g galangal, or 1-inch chunk
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 10g turmeric rhizome, about 2-inches
- 20g garlic, 6-8 cloves
- 25g shallots, about 1 shallot
- 5-10g fresh or frozen red Thai chilis, to taste**
- 1/2 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 2 coriander/cilantro roots, optional
- Zest of 1 small kaffir lime, optional
- 1/2 Tb Thai shrimp paste
* Phrik Haeng: These are larger than the standard fresh Thai chilies, about 3-inches in length and wrinkly on the outside. You can also use a mild variety (not called phrik haeng), which are dark red and have a smooth exterior, about 5-inches in length. You can find these in the dried foods aisle of your Asian / Southeast Asian grocer. If you can’t find these, you can substitute chili de arbol, which can be found in most American or Mexican grocers.
** Phrik Kee Noo: Your standard, fresh Thai chilies. You can usually find these in any Asian market. Red ones will be sweeter tasting than green. Green ones are unripe and have a grassier flavor.
I typically use phrik haeng, or a spicier dried pepper, but since I am using extremely hot Thai chilies from my garden, I decided to use the milder chili this time.
Soak dried chilies in water for 5-10 minutes until softened. Then, using a heavy knife, cut off the ends of your lemongrass stalks. Peel off the outer 2-3 layers and use only the bottom 3-inches of the stalks. The outer parts are too fibrous to be edible. Slice the hearts of the lemongrass thinly. This will make it easier to pound. You will likewise want to slice all other ingredients thinly for your own convenience.
Time for the fun part! In a mortar, pound the fibrous ingredients first: galangal, lemongrass, and soaked-dried chilies with salt. Pound until ingredients are mostly broken down, about 10 minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients. Keep pounding, in a rhythmic motion until a fine paste is formed. This will take 10-15 minutes, depending on your speed. Lastly, incorporate the shrimp paste, pound and scraping down the sides with a spoon. Curry paste can be made 5 days in advance and stored in an air-tight container until ready to use. To store for future use, you may freeze pastes into 2-3 tablespoon portions and freeze.