Red curry vs green curry… explore the world of complex and fragrant Thai curries, learn the differences and demystify these deliciously spicy Thai dishes.
Thai food is a relatively new discovery for British foodies, but one that has quickly become a firm favourite.
The ubiquitous red and green curries are among the most popular dishes and are the ones we are most likely to attempt at home.
But what is the difference and what gives them those special flavours?
Complex and delicate, yet often packed with fiery heat, the modern Thai curry paste is full of chillies. But it wasn’t always so.
The development of Thai curry
The history of Thai food is a history of migration and culture contacts. The Thai people are believed to have migrated from China, taking their food culture with them.
They were then influenced by waves of missionary visitors from India during the Middle Ages, bringing their cuisine and spices along with their Buddhist faith.
The thin sauces of Thai curries may well reflect the cooking of India at that time, when heat came from ginger, mustard and pepper. The thicker gravies of Indian cooking, like the chilli, came later.
International trade with neighboring Burma (modern Myanmar) and Malaysia, China, India, Portugal and the Netherlands, together with the British and French colonisation of neighboring countries brought new flavours from further afield – especially the chilli!
How red curry and green curry are similar
In addition to all those chillies, most red and green curry pastes contain galangal (Thai ginger), onion, garlic, kaffir lime, and salt.
Sometimes there is lemongrass, coriander root and shrimp paste, and assorted spices.
Ideally, the paste should be fresh and pounded with pestle and mortar. A mechanical grinder that will get hot and partially precook the spices.
Ready made pastes are fantastic for easily making Thai food at home (and keep for ages in the fridge once opened), but may have a more muted colour than curry made with fresh paste.
Vegetarians and vegans need to check for fishy ingredients in the paste. Although Thailand has a Buddhist majority, it does not have a strong tradition of scrupulous vegetarianism.
Thai red curry
The Thai word for a curry dish is gang or gaeng (sometimes transliterated kaeng) and red curry paste is variously kreung gaeng phet daeng or nam prik gaeng daeng or phrik kaeng phet, with phet indicating heat.
Red curry gets its colour from a lot of red chillies, both dried and fresh. The fresher the paste, the brighter the colour, so homemade curry paste packs more of a visual punch.
In the red curries most familiar to us in Europe, the sauce is made up with coconut milk, a style typical of the south of Thailand.
These curries may be vegetarian, with local fruit, vegetables, beancurd and even fruit, or they may contain fish or meat.
Thai green curry
Thai green curry or gang keow wan contains much the same ingredients as red curry, but uses fresh green birdseye chillies instead of red.
There is usually some kaffir lime leaf and zest, and a fragrant aniseed note from Thai and/or holy basil.
The effect is fresher and more herbal. Again, a freshly made paste gives much more colour to the dish.
Did you know that holy basil is neither basil nor native to Thailand? A medicinal herb that has featured in religious practice in India for centuries, Ocimum tenuiflorum is not generally used in Indian cooking. In Thailand, however, it found its way into the local cuisine and adds a distinctive clove note to sauces.
As with red curries, the green curry can consist of whatever is available and in favour locally.
Which is hotter?
No one really seems to agree on whether the red or green curry should be hotter. Either can be served a little sweeter or fiercely pungent.
It all depends on the chef, so take note of those chilli ratings in your local restaurant and order accordingly.
The Scoville scale
Did you know that the heat of different chilis depends how much capsaicin the contain? This is measured with the Scoville scale. A regular bell pepper has a score of 0, pure capsaicin 16,000,000 and the birds eye chilies typically used in Thai curries scoring 225,000.
Other Thai curries
Now that we have covered red curry vs green curry, what about all the types of Thai curry?
Yellow Thai curry
Yellow curry (gang garee) contains much the same ingredients as red curry paste, but sometimes with yellow or orange chillies rather than red, and a low ratio of chilli to other ingredients.
It tends to be milder and contains more Indian style spices – coriander, cumin, cardamom, and above all, plenty of turmeric to create that golden colour.
Like the red and green curries, the sauce is made up with coconut milk.
Gaeng pa is a ‘water curry’, the sauce made with stock rather than coconut milk. It originates in the north of Thailand around Chiang Mai.
The paste is similar to a green curry paste, with lots of fresh green chillies, lemongrass, galangal, peppercorns, kaffir lime and shrimp.
Once this was the way to cook wild boar, but today it is more often prepared with pork or chicken.
The Thai ‘Muslim’ curry is influenced by Indian and Malaysian curries, and belongs to the far south of Thailand.
Made with coconut milk, it is richer and thicker than the red and green curries, and milder too.
It may contain crushed peanuts, potatoes and a wide range of warming spices. It generally uses beef or chicken but not pork.
Penang curry is a thicker red curry, often salty with plenty of lime, and like other southern dishes, it may contain peanuts. It often contains pork.
Sour curry, or gaeng som, is a water curry, made with stock, and more than half way to being a soup. The paste is made with red chillies, ginger, onion and garlic.
How to serve Thai curries
A traditional Thai meal should have a balance of sweet and sour, hot and cool flavours, and be enjoyed with company!
The meal starts with piquant salads and perhaps fried starters, followed by a hot curry, cool rice, a soup and one or two stir fried or steamed dishes. Fruit or desserts may follow.
Thai flavours, fusion food
Now that Thai curry pastes are available around the world, there has been something of an explosion in Thai curry flavours in dishes that are neither curries nor authentically Thai.
These amazing spice pastes are such a gift to our world of food, whether you enjoy them in the traditional way or added to your own innovations. I hope you have enjoyed exploring them with me.