Why It Works
- A combination of fresh and dried chiles and ground black pepper provide layered background heat as well as bright floral spiciness to the curry paste.
- Fresh turmeric lends herbal bitterness and bright orange color to the paste.
- Thinly slicing the fresh aromatics makes them easier to pound into a paste in the mortar and pestle.
Prik gaeng pak dtai, a Southern Thai curry paste, is the foundation of many curries and stir fries. It’s quite similar to a prik gaeng khua or “khua-style" red curry paste, which typically includes dried red spur chiles, lemongrass, galangal, makrut lime zest, coriander roots, garlic, shallots, and shrimp paste, but it’s a little spicier, as the spur chiles (prik cheefa) are swapped out for spicier Thai chiles (prik jinda), both dried and fresh, and a rather large amount of ground black peppercorns are added, too. The addition of fresh turmeric stains the paste a yellowy-orange hue, in addition to imparting its characteristic bitter earthiness.
Since this recipe makes four ounces (1/2 cup) of curry paste, a relatively small amount of paste but the equivalent of a can of store-bought curry paste, we suggest going the traditional route and using a pestle and mortar; the small amount of ingredients would mostly stick to the sides of a standard-size food processor or blender. However, since it calls for dried chiles and spices, you can use a spice grinder to pulverize those and save you some time. When pounding the other ingredients, it’s important to focus your energy on pounding the concave sides of the mortar, which forces the pestle to grind and pound at the same time; avoid constantly pounding directly in the center of the mortar.
However, if you want to scale up the recipe to make a much larger batch of paste, the high moisture content of the chiles will work to your advantage, as it makes it easy to purée the ingredients in a blender. The paste can then be divided into four-ounce portions and frozen for months. That said, I do recommend making this recipe in a mortar and pestle to get a feel for the process and the desired texture of the paste. With a little practice, pounding a curry paste doesn’t take all that much effort, especially if you follow some basic technique 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.
If you’d like to doctor up store-bought curry paste to approximate this freshly made one, I suggest purchasing either red curry paste or khua red curry paste, and then pounding together the quantities of fresh turmeric, ground dried red Thai chiles, and ground black peppercorns indicated in the curry paste recipe in a mortar and pestle, in that order. You can then pound one can of prepared paste into that mixture.
With your paste in hand, whether freshly made or freshly doctored up, you can use it to make my recipe for gaeng khua prik krong moo, or Southern Thai curry with pork ribs.
- 18 dried Thai chiles (10g), stemmed
- 1 teaspoon (3g) freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon (4g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt
- 5 fresh red Thai chiles (8g), stemmed
- One 2-inch piece fresh galangal, peeled and thinly sliced (about 2 tablespoons; 15g) (see note)
- 2 stalks lemongrass, bottom 4 to 5 inches only, outer leaves discarded, tender core thinly sliced (about 20g sliced lemongrass)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons (3g) peeled makrut lime zest from 1 makrut lime (optional, see note)
- One 3-inch (10g) piece fresh turmeric, thinly sliced
- 3 small garlic cloves (10g)
- 1 small shallot (20g), thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon (10g) Thai shrimp paste
Place dried Thai chiles in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle, and grind into a fine powder. If using a spice grinder, transfer ground chiles to a granite mortar and pestle. Add black pepper, salt, and fresh Thai chiles to the mortar. Pound until fresh chiles are slightly broken down, making sure to keep the pestle as close to the chiles as possible to avoid splattering chile juices over yourself, 2 to 3 minutes.
Pounding thoroughly between each addition to break down and incorporate ingredients into the paste (3 to 4 minutes of pounding per addition) add in the following order: galangal; lemongrass; makrut lime zest (if using); turmeric; garlic and shallots; shrimp paste. It should take about 25 minutes total to pound ingredients into a very fine paste with just a few visible pieces of fresh chile skin. 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 or freeze for up to 3 months.
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.
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.