Why It Works
- Curry powder and fresh turmeric lend the paste warm spice notes and a distinctive orange hue.
- Omitting shrimp paste keeps this curry paste vegetarian.
- Toasting the spices before grinding them intensifies their aroma and flavor.
Before we get to my recipe for prik gaeng garee, or “yellow curry paste,” I want to clear up some confusion about what “yellow curry” is and isn’t.
In Southern Thai cuisine, gaeng leung, which literally translates to “yellow curry,” is a sour and spicy water-based curry that’s commonly paired with fish. It bears little resemblance to the mild but heavily spiced coconut-based curry that’s commonly listed as “yellow curry” on Thai restaurant menus in the United States. That dish is gaeng garee, which combines Thai curry techniques with the warm spice profile of South Asian curries. (“Garee” is a Thai loanword for Indian-style curry, so while a more accurate translation of gaeng garee might be “curry curry,” it would probably be more confusing than the “yellow” misnomer.)
Gaeng garee starts out like many other Thai curries, namely with a pounded prik gaeng, or curry paste. Prik gaeng garee uses many of the same ingredients as other pastes—chiles, lemongrass, garlic, and shallots—but the heat is toned down, which allows its two distinctive ingredients, fresh turmeric and a garam masala-like curry powder, to shine. The curry powder is rich with warm spices, thanks to toasted cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, and coriander. Fresh turmeric lends an herbal bitterness to the paste, along with its bright orange-yellow color, which is bumped up by the ground turmeric in the curry powder. The spice-forward flavor profile of prik gaeng garee bears a closer resemblance to a paste like massaman than the fresh bite of prik gaeng khiao waan.
I’ve also kept this version of prik gaeng garee vegetarian by omitting shrimp paste, a staple ingredient used to provide a savory backbone to most curry pastes (the accompanying gaeng garee makheua yao recipe is vegetarian, too). This recipe produces roughly four ounces (1/2 cup) of curry paste, which is the equivalent of one can of store-bought paste. For this quantity, it’s best to make it using a mortar and pestle, as it can’t be made easily in a standard-sized food processor or blender; the volume of ingredients is too small to be processed properly, and much of it will just get stuck to the sides of the blender jar or processor bowl without getting pulverized.
For this recipe, I’ve provided instructions for making a curry powder from scratch, which involves toasting whole dry spices and then grinding them into a fine powder in a spice grinder. It’s a simple process, but for people who want to save time, or for those who don’t have a well-stocked spice cabinet, using a store-bought curry powder is perfectly acceptable. Either way, the recipe calls for an extra pinch of toasted coriander, cumin, and white peppercorns to ensure that the flavors of those spices come through.
With a little practice, pounding a curry paste doesn’t take all that much effort, especially if you follow some basic principles.
- Make sure to thinly slice the fresh aromatics 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 (because of the small quantities and comparable texture, shallots and garlic can be added at the same time), 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 on to more energetic pounding.
- Embrace the process; once you get the paste going, it becomes easier to incorporate each subsequent ingredient.
- Give yourself some arm relief by grinding whole spices separately in a spice grinder before incorporating them into the paste in the mortar and pestle.
- Ground spices help absorb liquid released by aromatics during pounding, making it easier to generate the abrasive friction between the pestle and mortar that’s required to pound the more fibrous ingredients into a fine paste.
- For the Curry Powder (Optional):
- 5 green cardamom pods
- 2 tablespoons (10g) coriander seeds
- 1 tablespoon (10g) whole cumin seed
- 1 teaspoon (4g) whole cloves
- 1 teaspoon (4g) fennel seed
- 1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
- 1 piece whole nutmeg
- 2 tablespoons (16g) ground turmeric
- 1 tablespoon (8g) Kashmiri chile powder (see note)
- For the Curry Paste:
- 1 tablespoon (5g) coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon (3g) whole cumin seeds
- 1 1/4 teaspoon white peppercorns
- 5 dried spur chiles (about 8g total), stemmed and seeded (see note)
- 1/2 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt
- 2 stalks lemongrass, bottom 4 to 5 inches only, outer leaves discarded, tender core thinly sliced (about 20g sliced lemongrass)
- 1 tablespoon (8g) homemade or store-bought curry powder
- One 3-inch (10g) piece fresh turmeric, thinly sliced
- 3 coriander roots (10g), cleaned and thinly sliced (see note)
- 5 medium garlic cloves (25g), thinly sliced
- 2 small shallots (40g), thinly sliced
For the Curry Powder: Place cardamom, coriander, cumin, cloves, fennel seed, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a medium skillet, and set over medium-low heat. Cook, tossing frequently, until fragrant and toasted-smelling, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool for 2 minutes. Transfer to a spice grinder with ground turmeric and Kashmiri chile and grind into a fine powder. Set aside 1 tablespoon (8g) for the curry paste. The remaining curry powder can be stored in an airtight container in a dark, cool place for up to 6 months.
For the Curry Paste: Place coriander, cumin, and white peppercorns in now-empty skillet and set over medium-low heat. Cook, tossing frequently, until aromatic and toasted-smelling, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool for 2 minutes. Transfer to spice grinder and grind into a fine powder. Set aside.
Place spur chiles in a small heatproof bowl and add enough hot water to cover. Steep until softened, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain, and cut rehydrated chiles into 1-inch pieces. Transfer to a granite mortar and pestle and pound with salt until pulverized, 3 to 5 minutes.
Pounding thoroughly between each addition to break down and incorporate each ingredient into the paste, add lemongrass, curry powder, fresh turmeric, coriander root, garlic, shallots, and ground spice mixture until a very fine paste forms, about 25 minutes. (The additions of the dried spice mixture and curry powder will help absorb moisture released from the other ingredients in the paste, making it easier to pound them into a smooth paste.) 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.
Kashmiri chile powder can be found at South Asian markets and online. If you can’t find Kashmiri chile powder, substitute with 1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne.
Dried spur chiles 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.
The roots of fresh coriander (a.k.a. cilantro) provide a slight herbal note to curry pastes, but unfortunately they're hard to find in the US, as they are often cut off from the stems before cilantro is brought to market (though local farmers markets in the summer and fall often have coriander with the roots still attached). Coriander roots can 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 of fresh cilantro, 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, or frozen for up to 3 months.