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The Traffic Lights of Thai Cuisine

The Traffic Lights of Thai Cuisine

Although the word ‘curry’ comes from the curry plant native to India, the term has travelled the world and expanded it’s meaning.

A curry is regarded as a (generally spicy) sauce to accompany rice or bread. It is usually associated with India, but there are many other Asian countries that are home to their own varieties of ‘curry’.

Curry is a staple dish in Thailand and in India. In many homes it is eaten on a daily basis and made from ingredients growing around the house.  It typically contains less protein and is served over rice. It is an economical, healthy part of the Thai diet. 

Thai variations of the curry are separated with beautiful simplicity into ‘green’, ‘red’ and ‘yellow’. We can call these the traffic lights of Thai cuisine.

A curry paste to start with!

Thai cooking is all about balancing hot, sour, sweet and salty. Thai curries range from soupy to slightly stew-like and are ladled over steamed jasmine rice or rice noodles.  They all contain a protein of choice:  chicken, or any other meat, or fruits and vegetables. The most common vegetables included are bell peppers, broccoli, Thai eggplant, green onion, mango, pineapple, pumpkin and squash.  It’s common for any curry to be garnished with Thai basil or cilantro and chopped or whole – roasted peanuts or cashews.

Thai cooking focuses only on fresh ingredients, especially for the ‘spicy’ elements of their dishes which include fresh chilies, herbs and roots.

As a result, the curries are cooked for a shorter time and the original base to any dish is necessarily a paste, not dry spices.

Thai spicy zing on your taste buds therefore tends to be more powerful than that of Indian curries.

Distinguishing each taste

Hot comes from green, red or yellow Chile peppers.

Sour comes from lemongrass, tamarind, kaffir lime leaves, lime juice and lime zest.

Sweet comes from palm sugar, coconut milk and coconut cream.

Salty comes from fish sauce and shrimp paste.

Thai Green Curry Paste (Semi-Hot-to-Hot & Sweet)

Green curry can be and tends to be just as hot as red curry, given the fact that green chilies are used in the preparation of the curry paste instead of red chilies.  However, green curry, regardless of the heat, has a definite amount of sweetness associated to it similar to that of palm sugar.

Thai Red Curry Paste: (Hot)

Red curry is made from a spicy blend of pounded red chilies, garlic, shallots, galangal root and shrimp paste.  The red curry paste is made using the same ingredients as the above mentioned green curry paste, The only exception is red chilly instead of green. In Thai households, the proportions of the ingredients are adjusted to suit the palate of the family members.

Thai Yellow Curry Paste:  (Extra-Creamy & Mild)

Yellow curry paste (similar in appearance to red) is less spicy than other curry pastes.  In addition to coconut milk, coconut cream is sometimes added to yellow curry to make it even richer and creamier. Its hint of sweetness and subtle spice comes from palm sugar and cinnamon.  It gets its color from yellow chilies along with the vibrant yellow spice known as turmeric.

Curry pastes are traditionally made from scratch in Thai kitchens using a mortar and pestle to pulverize the ingredients, which extract the essential oils and fully bring out the flavors. A food processor or a blender is not a viable substitute for this ancient tool.  Nowadays, most cooks (Thai cooks included) purchase high-quality curry pastes from their Asian market.  

Remember, the color of the curry simply denotes which kind of chilies you should use (i.e. green curry uses green chilies etc.) and their respective spice levels. Green being the hottest; one should be careful while experimenting with it.

Essential Thai ingredients

The ingredients that represent the foundation of most Thai dishes are not always easy to find and their taste is difficult to replicate otherwise. A few of the rarer essentials include:

Galangal, lemongrass, and shrimp paste to name a few.

Galangal – Ginger’s less common sister; Galangal is an aromatic stimulant and carminative. Its stomach soothing properties make it a suitable aid for nausea. It possesses antibacterial qualities which make it a useful ingredient.

Lemongrass – Visually very similar to spring onions but harder to find since they are grown in tropical regions. It has an extremely unique citrus edge.                   

Shrimp paste – Made from fermented shrimp and salt, this is an indispensable part of Thai cuisine.

Trademark coconut milk

Whichever of the traffic light curries you choose to eat (red, yellow, or green), the bulk of the sauce will typically be coconut milk, providing the trademark creamy texture we all love.

If you are a fan of Thai curries like me, you can source the above mentioned ingredients at a local Asian supermarket and try making one of the signature dishes of Thailand in your own kitchen.

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