Thai "curries" are typically made using a "curry" paste. However that is an oversimplification: firstly the word used for these dishes in Thai is kaeng (pronounced 'gang') and it covers soups, stews and of course curries. A paste which is used could be used just as well for a soup as for a curry.
Secondly, of course, it is not true that Thais call them curry: the word for curry is kari and it is only applied to a small number of dishes: the dishes that appear on western Thai restaurant menus as 'curries' are kaengs, and they are made not with curry paste but with a sauce made from prik kaeng (which in this case could be translated better as chile paste).
There are many different prik kaeng in Thai cuisine and from them you could make a vast number of different dishes by using different protein ingredients, and vegetable ingredients and so on to the extent that it is said that most Thai housewives could cook a different kaeng every day of the year.
However if you know the four basic pastes listed here, and the basic techniques, you can make a vast array of dishes, if not perhaps quite one per day for a year.
A rough rule of thumb is that one cup of raw chiles yields a cup or so of paste (since there is air in the chiles). Further it will keep about 3 months in a preserving jar in the fridge.
Since the average kaeng will require (depending on how hot you make it) between 2 and 8 tablespoons of paste, and since there are roughly 16 tablespoons in a cup, you can scale this recipe up to suit your needs. Suffice it to say that we make these pastes on a cycle over 8 weeks and make 6-8 portions of each of them. As they say in US motor advertisements: your mileage may vary!
Prik Kaeng Kiao Wan
This is a paste for a green curry, and the 'wan' indicates that it should be slightly sweet as well as hot.
If you can't get prik ki nu, you can use half a pound of habanero chiles or one pound of jalapeno chiles. If you use the latter deseed them before use. Note that if you use a substitute you will get a different volume of paste, and that you will need to use different amounts in subsequent recipes.
If you can't get kha, use ginger.
if you can't get bai makroot, use lime zest.
if you can't get coriander root, use coriander leaves.
Prik Kaeng Phet
Phet means hot incidentally.
(Note that except for the sugar and the use of red chiles, this is the same as the prik kaeng kiao wan.)
Prik Kaeng Panaeng
This is a paste for a 'dry chile' ingredients.
Prik Kaeng Masaman
Masaman is a mild hot and sour dish equivalent to the Indian vindaloo.
Thai cooking tips:
I am frequently asked the questions that led to these three "hintlets"
1: Thai food and fat [cholesterol]
Coconut milk is a vegetable product, and cholesterol is an animal fat. Hence, I am told, there is actually no cholesterol in coconut milk. There is however a lot of fat. (We seem, as a culture, to have reached the point of saying "cholesterol" when we mean fat.) If fat is an issue with you, then I suggest you "cut" the coconut milk with stock. Thus if you are making a pork curry, mix two parts of good pork stock with one part of coconut milk, and use the mixture in place of the pure coconut milk specified in the recipe.
2: Thai food and salt
Salt, as such, virtually never appears as an ingredient in a Thai dish (it is occasionally added to fruit juices and effervescent soft drinks, but that is as a replacement for salt lost in perspiration in our tropical climate). There is however quite a lot of salt in fish sauce. If sodium in the diet is a problem, then I suggest you replace fish sauce by a good quality low sodium soy sauce.
3: The wok, and cooking styles.
There is nothing magical about a wok: it is a low tech solution to the cooking needs of the region. True 95% of Thai households own at least one, and probably 95% of all cooking is done with a wok (and a rice cooker). But Thailand is a third world country: the wok that sells for 300 baht or so in the market ($12) is costing - when you allow for the difference in wage levels and costs of living - roughly the equivalent of a pan costing $200 in America. In the circumstances it is not surprising that the poor families of rural Thailand optimize the use of their pan.
But a wok is only a frying pan, with a curved base suitable for high heat over unregulated high pressure gas cookers or charcoal braziers. You might just as easily use a modern high tech, nonstick deep sided flat bottomed sauté pan. Indeed one of my wife's favorite pans is a Farberware sauté pan, 40 cm in diameter, 8cm deep and very effective.
However Thais cook at high temperatures (certainly higher than electric woks), and at these temperatures little oil is absorbed by the food. Also the design of the wok means you need very little oil to start with.
However I would add two comments: in many cases in a nonstick pan, you need little or no oil, and in many cases you can replace "stir fry" by "stir poach" in which you use a little water or stock as the medium in which you stir cook the food.
In 95% of cases you won't notice the difference, except perhaps that the food will have a cleaner purer taste, and be less oily (it doesn't work for belly pork though).
Don't let the rich peasant nature of the food put you off: try it, experiment, be bold.
Posted by WingsFan91 at Recipe Goldmine 11/14/2001 6:07 pm.
Special thanks to Muoi Khuntilanont.