I decided to put my reality on hold for spring break, pack my bags and family and head to Thailand, where time stands absolutely still. Besides lying on beautiful white sand beaches, reading a pile of books, while watching my kids surf the huge waves, I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth in their colorful, vibrant curries.
Thai cuisine, I discovered, perfectly embodies the name “The Land of Smiles” as its people and culture are sometimes described as ‘warm, generous, easy-going and refreshing’. Their diverse, fragrant menu revolves around four fundamental tastes: sweet, spicy, salty and sour – and it’s made up of fresh, local ingredients. The secret of this bountiful cuisine adored by many lies in its curry paste. A marvelous aromatic mixture of fresh chilies, lemongrass, galangal, garlic, shallot, kaffir lime, cilantro roots and shrimp paste, form the hallmark of most of the Thai dishes. These herbs and spices are appreciated not only for their taste, but also for their medicinal qualities.
Curry in Thai is called gaeng phet; gaeng means liquid and refers to both soups and curries and phet means spicy. The most common way to characterize curries is by color: green, red, yellow, panang and masaman. Some think it’s also a representation of the intensity of the spiciness of the dish but truth is it all depends on the palate of the cook. The colorful curries are also coconut-based, which are supposed to be milder than the water-based curries such as, sour curry and jungle curry because the coconut fat is meant to alleviate the heat.
Green Curry: One of my favorite colors and choices every time. Green curry paste is considered to be the most Thai because its flavors and ingredients are so different from curries from countries. It’s a blend of fresh green chilies, shallots, lemongrass, white pepper, coriander, garlic, kaffir lime rind, shrimp paste and sea salt. Green curry is the only type of curry made with fresh Thai chilies as opposed to the other curry pastes which are made of dried Thai chilies. I always choose Thai Green chicken curry with sweet basil, round green eggplant and kaffir lime leaves, which adds to the overall gorgeous green hue of the dish. It also goes beautifully with shrimp.
Red curry paste has a rich crimson orange color and I think pairs really well with beef; it’s also the most versatile of the curry pastes as it is used in a variety of dishes and is prepared with chicken, duck, beef, shrimp and stir fries. It’s made of dried long red chilies, cilantro root, coriander, cumin, garlic, shallots, kaffir lime rind, white pepper, lemongrass, shrimp paste, sea salt and galangal.
It’s the Thai version of Indian curry using dried spices, mainly; a mellow sweet-spicy paste created by blending turmeric and curry powder with dried red chilies and the rest of the usual Thai ingredients that make up the curry pastes. This mild paste is usually used for fish stews or chicken curry in coconut milk with potatoes and onions. I think of it as a mild curry for beginners and I prefer to order it for my kids.
A fiery hot curry prepared with beef and is named after the island off Malaysia’s west coast. It’s richer, sweeter and drier, topped with coconut cream and usually served on a plate instead of a bowl. Peanuts are sometimes added to the curry making it very popular with the foreigners.
Masaman: This is another amazing favorit of mine; a thick, sweet stew because of the roasted spices, which I prepare at home occasionally paired with beef and sweet potatoes. It originates in the deep south of Thailand on the border of Malaysia, where the population is largely Muslim, which is the reason it’s usually prepared with lamb and beef. It stands out from the rest of the Thai curries because along with the base Thai spices and herbs, it also includes peanuts, whole spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and white cardamom.