When you combine coconut milk with fresh herbs and spices, the result is a fragrant, intensely flavored dish called Thai curry, or kaeng in Thai.
Thai curry almost always has some meat or poultry in it and is served with rice. You can also order Thai curry with tofu, but vegetarians should be aware that Thai curry universally contains shrimp paste and fish sauce. Also, if you’re not a fan of spicier dishes, you can request your curry be made “mai pet,” which is a restaurant term in Thailand for “not spicy.”
If you're visiting Thailand, there is no shortage of restaurants and street markets that offer one of these popular Thai curry dishes. From Penang to Massaman, discover the subtleties of flavor only found in this staple of Thai cuisine.
Food Culture in Thailand
There are a few important elements of Thai food culture you should keep in mind on your trip to Thailand to prevent offending any of the locals as there are a few distinct differences between American traditions and those of the Eastern World.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner meals are often one in the same, with all dishes served throughout the day; whether it’s a Thai kabob or a bowl of rice soup, Thai people enjoy a variety of dishes depending on where they are and the time they have to eat.
Dishes are also typically shared when going out to eat at restaurants in Thailand. Although each person in a dinner party usually orders their “own” dish, the entire party shares the meal. Also, it is considered extremely rude to throw out food, so you should avoid leaving leftovers as it might offend the owners and even other patrons.
Called phanaeng curry in Thailand, this dish may be the most popular of the Thai curries and is known for its slightly sweeter and saltier taste. The curry paste is generally made with peanuts, salt, shrimp paste, shallot, chili peppers, galangal, lemongrass, garlic, kaffir lime zest, cumin seeds, and coriander roots and seeds, which give the dish its unique flavor.
Panang curry is a type of red curry and is typically served with beef (beef phanaeng) or chicken (panang gai), though you can also get it with vegetables or tofu. When ordering, remember to specify your spice level—though this dish isn’t usually that spicy.
Red Beef Curry—Kaeng Phet
Thailand’s staple curry is kaeng phet, which can be served with beef, chicken, pork, shrimp, or duck and includes the same ingredients as panang with the addition of dry red spur chilies.
Tofu, seitan, or savory vegetables like pumpkin can be substituted as a vegetarian option, but keep in mind that most restaurants prepare their red curry paste with shrimp sauce. This dish can also get rather spicy so if you have a low tolerance, you should definitely request your dish be prepared mai pet.
Green Curry—Kaeng Khiao Wan
Literally translated as “sweet green curry,” kaeng khiao wan is one of Thailand’s most interesting and unexpected curries, especially for those not accustomed to Thai flavors.
The base flavors, in addition to the coconut milk and chilies, come from a combination of fresh cilantro and basil. Thai green curry is a little sweeter than most other Thai curries and can be served with rice but it is best eaten with fresh roti.
Hailing from central Thailand, green curry is made with coconut milk, palm sugar, green curry paste, and fish sauce. The main protein for green curry is usually fish balls, pork, beef, or chicken, and preparation for green curry varies slightly by region of Thailand. Some regions even use Thai eggplant, pea aubergine, or other green vegetables and fruits to add to the flavor palette of the dish.
Massaman Curry—Kaeng Matsaman
Hailing from southern Thailand, Massaman curry is less popular than red or green curries across the country but is amazing when made well. The addition of cinnamon and cardamon gives Massaman curry an aromatic and somewhat Indian flavor, and these non-native ingredients probably arrived in Thailand while the court of Ayutthaya ruled the nation during the 17th century.
Massaman is best served with chicken over rice, but can also be made with beef, pork, fish, or vegetable proteins and served with roti or other Thai bread.