Serious Eats: Recipes

Seriously Asian: Thai Curries, Part Three

[Photographs: Chichi Wang]

This week concludes our three-part installment of Thai curry pastes. Red, green, and yellow curries are common offerings in restaurants, yet these colors are merely part of the Thai curry range. Two of the lesser-known curry pastes—Penang and Mussaman—are variations on the red and yellow pastes, though with distinctive attributes of their own. Penang curry paste, most similar to red, includes a sizable dose of roasted peanuts. Mussaman curry paste is comprised of the same spices as those of yellow, except the spices must be toasted whole, then freshly ground before being added to the paste.

Just about every guest passing through my apartment this month has been subject to my collection of curry pastes.

"Would you like some red curry with shrimp?" I ask. "No? Well, how about some curry fritters? Curry fried rice? Noodles with curry sauce?"

Eventually the target will succumb to my entreaties. Last night I wooed a friend with pork shoulder stewed in Penang curry. Claiming that eating Thai curry usually leaves her with "stuff pouring from every facial orifice," my friend was pleased to discover that Thai curries don't have to be painfully spicy.

Penang Curry Paste

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Roasted peanuts impart a subtly sweet flavor to Penang curry paste. Sauces made with the paste have a noticeably peanut-y depth. In lieu of roasted peanuts, I often use freshly made peanut butter of the sort that oozes from those machines in the grocery store.

Though I frequently pair Thai curry pastes with seafood for a quick and easy meal, the pastes are just as suited for meat. Choose fatty cuts with some amount of tendon marbled throughout, such as pork shoulder or even hanger steak. Stewed for forty or so minutes, the pork or beef absorbs the flavors of the curry paste and the sauce will have gained some body from being stewed with meat.

Mussaman Curry Paste

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Musalman—the Indian word for Muslim—gives this curry paste its name and distinctive taste. Instead of using ground spices, the recipe begins with toasting whole spices in a cast-iron pan. Whole peppercorns, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, and a stick of cinnamon are browned slightly in the skillet. Then the spices are finely ground, which is best accomplished with a spice or coffee grinder. Such a preparation is akin to that of some Indian curries for which whole spices are toasted and freshly ground.

A sauce made with Mussaman curry paste bears notes of its toasted past, with a deeper, darker flavor. The paste is often used with beef and potatoes, but it is just as suited for richly textured seafood such as jumbo shrimp.

Applications of Curry Pastes

Once you've managed to store just one curry paste in your freezer, you'll find yourself reaching for it with inordinate frequency. A curry paste is an automatic way of introducing bold flavors into your dishes. Generally, complexity takes a while to build; with a curry paste you'll have already done the bulk of the work ahead of time.

The options for incorporating a curry paste into your meal are limitless; the more you employ the paste in a recipe, the more uses you'll likely discover. Here are two of its applications that have been keeping me fed for the past month.

Curry Paste in Tempura Batter

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Tempura with a dashi-based dipping sauce is a peerless combination, but having freshly made dashi on hand is not always realistic. Adding a dollop of curry paste to a tempura batter, on the other hand, is easily accomplished. Just as the recipe for classic Japanese tempura dictates, the batter should be somewhat lumpy to achieve a light, crispy coating when fried. In place of using only water, I like to add an ice cube to the batter to keep the mixture from growing tepid as I deep-fry.

When fried in a curry-based batter, the vegetables are savory and flavorful on their own without needing an accompanying sauce. Just about any vegetable pairs well with the curry, though I am partial to eggplants. Whenever I have stewed kale on hand, I dip large sections into the batter and deep-fry until the leaves are irresistibly crisp.

Curry Paste in Stir-Fried Rice

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Stir-fried rice, that stalwart of a dish, could always use a new twist or pick-me-up. With your day-old rice in hand, crack the coconut to form the base of the sauce. Then add the curry paste as well as the eggs and your choice of vegetables. As usual, just a few tablespoons of the curry paste suffices to flavor the entire dish, yet the presence of lemongrass and galangal will come through.

The Recipes
Penang Curry Paste »
Mussaman Curry Paste »
Pork In Penang Curry Sauce »
Shrimp In Mussaman Curry Sauce »
Curried Vegetable Tempura »


About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, My Chalkboard Fridge.


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