Why It Works
- Thinly slicing the fresh aromatics makes them easier to pound into a paste in the mortar and pestle.
- Peanuts give panang curry paste its distinctive nutty flavor and full-bodied texture.
- Fully pulverizing each ingredient, one at a time, in the mortar and pestle creates a smooth and balanced curry paste.
Panang is one of the most well known curries in Thai cuisine, typically found in central and southern regions of the country. As with other types of gaeng (curry), the backbone of flavor for the dish comes from an intensely aromatic curry paste. In the case of panang, the paste starts out with many of the same components as a basic gaeng phet (red curry)—chiles, lemongrass, galangal, makrut lime zest, cilantro roots, garlic, shallots, shrimp paste, white pepper, coriander, and cumin seeds. What sets panang curry paste apart is the addition of roasted peanuts and nutmeg, which lend it a distinctive nutty flavor, warm spice aroma, and rich, full-bodied texture.
Traditionally, Thai curry pastes are pounded by hand using a mortar and pestle. This time-consuming and laborious process has become less common in modern times; these days, many Thai cooks prefer to leave the process to dedicated professionals, purchasing high-quality prepared pastes from small family-owned businesses or larger commercial operations that use mechanical kitchen equipment to produce curry bases at scale. It's common for cooks to then adjust these store-bought pastes to fit their tastes and needs with a few additional fresh aromatics. While this approach can certainly be used to turn a can of store-bought red curry paste into a tasty panang curry, I believe there is great value in learning how to prepare a panang paste from scratch in a mortar and pestle before resorting to time-saving cooking methods.
Along with providing a decent arm workout and stress release, using a mortar and pestle helps to build an understanding of the ingredients' textural and aromatic properties and how they work together to form a well-balanced curry paste. Smell is particularly important: one of the most common questions Thai cooks think about when making a curry paste is, "Does it smell good?" The "good" smell you're trying to achieve is one in which all the components are in harmony, so that none stands out more than any other. It's a beautiful thing to observe how the aroma of the paste transforms with each added ingredient.
In order to not tire yourself out during the process, or spend hours working the ingredients into a paste, it's important to follow some basic mortar and pestle principles.
- Make sure to thinly slice the fresh aromatics—lemongrass, galangal, coriander root, garlic, and shallot—before adding them to the mortar; smaller pieces are much easier to process into a paste.
- Add only one ingredient at a time to the mortar, and don't move on to the next one until you have fully pulverized the latest addition; overcrowding the mortar will just slow you down and make a mess.
- Use the weight of the pestle to your advantage; start by simply tapping the ingredients with the heavy pestle to crush them, and then move onto more energetic pounding.
- Embrace the process; once you get the paste going, it becomes easier to incorporate each subsequent ingredient.
- If you are looking for a little arm relief when making this panang paste, you can grind the the peanuts and whole spices separately in a spice grinder before incorporating them into the paste in the mortar and pestle.
This recipe produces roughly four ounces (1/2 cup) of panang curry paste, which is the equivalent of one can of store-bought paste. This makes for easy like-for-like substituting for times when you don't feel like making curry paste from scratch. It also explains why this recipe can't be made easily in a standard-sized food processor or blender: The ingredient quantities are too small to be processed and would just get stuck to the sides of the blender jar or processor bowl without getting pulverized. Finally, if you want to go the store-bought route, but can't find canned panang curry paste, you can easily doctor up a can of store-bought red curry paste by pounding it in a mortar and pestle with one stalk of lemongrass (prepared following the recipe instructions below), along with the same quantity of peanuts, nutmeg, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, and white peppercorns called for in the recipe.
- 7 dried spur chiles (about 9g total), stemmed and seeded (see note)
- 2 stalks lemongrass, bottom 4 to 5 inches only, outer leaves discarded, tender core thinly sliced (about 20g sliced lemongrass)
- One 2 1/2-inch piece fresh galangal, peeled and thinly sliced (about 1 tablespoon; 10g)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons (3g) finely grated makrut lime zest from 3 makrut limes (optional, see note)
- 2 coriander roots (8g), cleaned and thinly sliced (see note)
- 2 garlic cloves (10g), thinly sliced
- 1 small shallot (20g), thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon (10g) Thai shrimp paste
- 2 tablespoons (25g) roasted unsalted peanuts
- 1/2 piece (6g) whole nutmeg
- 2 teaspoons (4g) whole coriander seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon white peppercorns
Place spur chiles in a small heat-resistant bowl and add enough hot water to cover. Steep until softened, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer rehydrated chiles to a granite mortar and pestle and pound until pulverized, 3 to 5 minutes.
Pounding thoroughly between each addition to break down and incorporate each ingredient into the paste, add lemongrass, galangal, makrut lime zest (if using), coriander roots (if using), garlic, shallot, shrimp paste, peanuts, nutmeg, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, and white peppercorns until a very fine paste forms, about 25 minutes. Use right away or transfer curry paste to an airtight container, covering paste with plastic wrap pressed directly onto its surface to prevent it from drying out, and refrigerate for up to 1 week.
Dried spur chilies are a type of Thai chile known as prik cheefa haeng; they have a fruity, mild flavor, and are prized for the color they impart to curry pastes. They can be hard to come by in the US, but are sometimes available online. Alternatively, you can substitute puya or guajillo chiles, which are available at Central American markets.
Galangal is a rhizome and an integral part of basic red curry pastes. If you are in the US, it's usually best to peel it before slicing as most of what we get is mature galangal, which is very tough to work with. While galangal looks like ginger, they are not interchangeable, as their flavors are very different.
Fresh makrut limes can be hard to find in the US. You can order them online, though they are a seasonal product and may not always be available (note that they are often sold under a different name that we avoid using, as it is a derogatory term in some contexts); you may also be able to find them in the freezer section at Southeast Asian markets. Makrut lime zest freezes well. If you cannot find makrut lime, you are better off omitting it, as the more common Persian lime and other citrus are not good substitutes.
The roots of fresh coriander (a.k.a. cilantro) provide a slight herbal note to curry pastes, but are unfortunately hard to find in the US, as they are often cut off from the stems before going to market (though local farmers markets in the summer and fall often have coriander with the roots still attached). Coriander roots can also be found at Southeast Asian markets. If you can't find the herb with the roots still attached, you can either use the tender stems, which won't make too much of a difference in this particular curry, or omit it altogether. And, to clarify, although they are called coriander "roots," Thai cooks usually also use some of the tender green stem.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Curry paste can be refrigerated in an airtight container, with plastic wrap pressed directly against the surface of the paste to prevent it from drying out, for up to 1 week.