Thai Curries: What’s the Difference?

Back in the states, I frequented Thai restaurants fairly often. It was always a favorite and if I had the opportunity, I would almost always make the trip. I will admit though, my visits to these restaurants were always boring. I always ordered one of the same two dishes over and over again – Panang curry and Pad Thai. I didn’t really mind; I obviously loved both of the dishes. However, the reason for my picky eating habits was not because I didn’t enjoy other Thai cuisine, it’s just that I didn’t know what the heck it was! Specifically, I didn’t understand the Thai curries.

I knew I loved Panang curry, but I would often have the urge to branch out. I was itching to try some of the other curries listed – green, red, yellow – but I had no idea what they were and always was too afraid to try. Thai food is expensive, and what if I didn’t like it?! The list of ingredients didn’t help either. Most were very similar and as a newbie, I had no idea what I would be getting myself into. So, I stuck with my favorite and called it good.

Here in Thailand, I have been given the opportunity to learn about all different kinds of curry and I am so thankful for that. They are all so good for their own reasons, combining some similar ingredients to make distinctly unique flavors. When I head back to the states, I will never make the mistake again of always ordering the same dish. Now I know how many amazing things are on the menu!

For those of you already back in the states, I thought I would give  a quick crash course so the next time you hit up a Thai restaurants, you aren’t as shy about trying something new.

A Long Time Ago

Traditionally, all Thai curries started from the same base and their differences were derived from the types of chilies that were used. Not surprisingly, red curry used red chilies, green curry used green, and yellow curry used yellow. Over the years, each kind of curry began to take on its own style by adding different vegetables, flavors, and spices.

Red Curry

Red curry is traditionally made with up to 20 different types of red chilies and was often extremely hot. The more modern versions have toned down a bit and the majority of pastes these days are made with only a few different types of chilies and some other distinct Thai spices. Red curry is definitely spicy and is made in a coconut milk base. Usually red curry is made with chicken, pork, or beef (rather than seafood) and basic vegetables can be added. This curry is served more as a soup with a plate a rice to go with it.

My Opinion: ♥ ♥ ♥

I have never ordered Red curry. If every other Red curry tastes like the one I made at home today then I am definitely a fan. It is spicier than I am used to but I am getting used to that here in Thailand and actually am starting to enjoy it. I will be ordering more Red curries in the future.

Green Curry

Green Curry is given its name not only because of the use of green chilies but because of the distinct color of the dish. The addition of Kaffir leaves, Thai basil, and Thai eggplant add to the overall “greenness” of the dish. Green curry is often just as hot as Red curry, but has a distinct sweetness to it at well. When cooking, the paste is added to a coconut base and includes a protein, usually beef, chicken, or pork. A few vegetables are added, namely Thai eggplant, and this soup is usually served more soup-like than some of the others.

My Opinion: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

I really like Green curry because of the added sweetness to the dish. Even if the curry is spicy, it is rounded out with this added sweet flavor. I am not a huge fan of the eggplant addition to this dish. Sometimes it tastes great, other times not so much. Overall though, this is a pretty consistent dish and I order it fairly regularly.

Yellow Curry

Yellow curry is known to be richer and creamer than some of the other Thai curries because of the addition of both coconut milk and coconut cream. Additionally, Yellow curry is often defined by an added ingredient like palm sugar or tamarind that add a special sweetness to the dish. Both the added sweetness and the coconut cream make this dish far less spicy than some of the others. Yellow curry is made with all kinds of protein from beef and chicken to fish and shrimp.

My Opinion: ??

I have never had Yellow curry! I always seem to go for the curries that I know I love. I need to branch out a little more I guess.

Panang Curry

Panang curry isn’t actually from Thailand. It originated in Malaysia hence being named after a state in the northern region of that country. The basic curry paste of Panang curry starts with all of the same ingredients as Red curry; however, it takes on its own unique flair with the addition of crushed roasted peanuts. Often, Panang curry is made with fewer chilies as well to create a more savory palate as opposed to spicy. When cooking, Panang curry is made with a coconut milk base, a protein (usually poultry), and simple vegetables. Sometimes the vegetables are omitted and the protein stands alone.

My Opinion: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

I am a huge fan of Panang curry, mostly because I do not like crazy spicy food. I have never received a dish of Panang curry that was too hot for me to eat nor have I received a plate that I just haven’t liked. I have received a range of styles from very thick with no vegetables, to very soup like with many vegetables. I love them all!

Massaman Curry

Unlike the other Thai curries, this curry stems from the south of Thailand and the Muslim community. Massaman curry is by far the most different of all the curries. Usually made with beef, this dish also includes coconut milk, roasted peanuts, and potatoes. Rather than being spicy, this dish is almost always known for its savory and sweet flavors created by the addition of tamarind sauce, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and palm sugar.

My Opinion: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

If you are a stew enthusiast then you would love this dish. The combination of beef, potatoes, and a hint of sweetness make this dish incredible. I absolutely love it. I could eat it for days. Definitely give it a shot next time you are at a Thai restaurant!

A Tour: My Kitchen

So, for the last few weeks I have been posting entries with recipes, cooking tips, and stories of my cooking successes and follies. I thought it was about time to give you a tour of The Kitchen where all of the cooking magic happens.

I’ll warn you …

It’s nothing spectacular.

In fact, it’s just two tables and a stove.

However, I thought that it might be interesting for you all to see how much can be accomplished in such a small space with very few pieces of equipment.

So, here we go! Welcome to my kitchen.

The Original Kitchen

This was my original kitchen, prior to the cooking challenge. This was the only table I had to store all my food and prepare all my food. My rack of non-perishables and spices is off to the right, and my covered plate of veggies and other foods is on the left. For someone who loves to cook and bake, it took some getting used to having only this small tabletop area to make the magic happen.

The Original Kitchen

The New Kitchen

Table #1:

This is the original table, but in it’s new form. I added a second table (description and picture below), which opened up some new space on this first table. I now have room for my rice cooker (in the middle) and my water heater (in the back). There is still a little bit of room for actual prep and cook but the majority of that is done on the new table.

New Kitchen: Table One

Table #2:

This table was added two weeks ago when I decided to start this cooking challenge. It was originally my desk in my front room, but obviously this is a far more appropriate and important place for it! I was able to find space for my dishes, as well as all of my spices. This is actually where I do most of my prep work now as the table space is a bit bigger … plus I can open the curtains and look out the window. 🙂

New Kitchen: Table Two

Shelf:

This is my one shelf in the kitchen. Mainly I store my pots and pans here (some are currently waiting to be cleaned from today’s cooking adventure!). I also store my cleaning supplies near the bottom. I’m thinking of getting another. Things here can get a bit cluttered!

The Shelf

The Stove:

And this would be my stove. Yes, this is it. This tiny little gas powered stove is where all of my cooking adventures take place. I’m not all that happy with it. When I was just making soup or Mac ‘n Cheese it definitely did the trick, but now it’s proving a bit more difficult. Trying to balance a wok or pot, trying to get the right heat. It’s all rather difficult. But, it’s what I have and sometimes you just have to make the best of it!

The Magical Stove

Clean Up!

… my bathroom. I have no sink. I have no dishwasher. All I have is my bathroom floor. This is where all my cleaning happens. I promise, it’s sanitary. I don’t actually set anything on the floor once washed — it moves directly to the tables in the kitchen for drying. As you can see, my next project is to clean up from today’s cooking adventure!

The Bathroom

And finally …

The Cookbook!

This is the cookbook that started this entire cooking challenge. I received this cookbook during the cooking class up in Chiang Mai and it has provided the majority of my recipes so far. This was the inspiration for this entire blog and cooking adventure and will continue to provide new recipes, ideas, and motivation. I love it! Thank you Smart Cook Chiang Mai!

So, there you have it … the brief tour of my very small kitchen.

I hope you enjoyed!

And, when you are reading through the recipes and pictures and wondering whether you would be able to pull this recipe off, just remember what I’m working with! If I can do it, you most definitely can too!

Sticky or Not Sticky?

One of my biggest questions when I arrived here in Thailand, aside from wondering what people were saying or why everyone was smiling at me all the time, was how to tell the difference between regular rice and sticky rice.

Once cooked, the differences are quite obvious. Sticky rice sticks together and regular rice doesn’t. It’s as simple as that.

The process leading up to the final product is what confused me. Do you use the same type of rice? Do you cook it in the same way? What gives sticky rice it’s stick?

I’m still not all that clear on the topic, but I have learned enough to give you a brief rundown in case you also were wondering.

First and foremost, the more glutenous the rice, the more sticky. So, rice with more gluten, when cooked, is going to stick together more. This is what attributes to the differences in stickiness between rice in Thailand (not very sticky) and rice in countries like Korea, China, and Japan (more sticky).

Generally, rice that is longer is less glutenous and therefore less sticky … hence long grain rice in the states being a part of the non-sticky variety.

As for how to tell the two apart, the length of the grain is the first factor. Again, the longer the grain, the less sticky. The shorter the grain, the more sticky. Additionally, the color of the rice can help you decipher stickiness. If the rice is white, it’s most likely not going to be sticky. If the rice is opaque (aka you can see through it), you’re on the right track to the sticky version.

If you’re going out to buy rice at the store, you’ll most likely only find “sticky” rice at an Asian market or store and it will most likely have a name such as “Sweet Rice” or something of the sort. You can ask them to help you find the right one. I haven’t tried it so I’m not really sure how the search would go.

When it comes to actually cooking the rice, there are two very different methods. I’ll admit, at the moment I’m not an expert in these differences. I know how to cook regular rice in a pot or rice cooker. I’ve never made sticky rice (not yet at least!). I do know though that the main difference is the use of water. With regular rice you boil and let the water evaporate/get soaked into the rice, and in the end your rice is nice and fluffy. With sticky rice, you don’t use water. You soak the rice for a half hour or so, but then you drain it and use a sticky rice steamer to steam the rice. Again, not quite sure how this works, but in the end you get the sticky concoction rather than the fluffy kind.

Looking back at this article I realize I have a long way to go in my knowledge of Thai cooking! Hopefully I can provide you a better update down the line once I’ve tried my hand in this rice cooking business!

A Tasty Tease

It’s going to be a little while before you get my first attempt at a recipe, but I thought I’d whet your appetite by giving you some pictures of the meals Cory and I made during our cooking class. I will definitely be attempting these recipes again along the way. Enjoy!

Tom Kaa Kai
Pad Thai: A Traditional Favorite
Tom Yam Gung and Kai Phat Met Ma Muang
Paw Pia Tawt
Som Tam
Laab Gai
Geng Kiao Waan Gai
Paneng Gai
Gluai Buat Shee
Fresh Spring Rolls
Kaao Niao Ma Muang

Smart Cooking Chiang Mai

Smart Cooking is the company through which Cory and I found our passion for Thai food! It’s one of the many cooking schools available up in the Chiang Mai area and while I haven’t been to any of the other schools, I’m going to recommend this one above all of them. It was an amazing experience!

For about $30 U.S. dollars you get the following:

  • Pick up and drop off from your hotel
  • Train ticket (and beautiful ride) to a local town
  • Bicycle ride to the cooking studio (a quaint little house)
  • Opportunity to learn about Thai herbs and pick your own from the organic garden on site
  • Personal instruction on cooking six different dishes and one curry paste (all of your own selection)
  • Great company from both the Thai instructor and your classmates
  • Beer service! They’ll even do a beer run so you have something to drink while you eat your yummy food!

All in all, this was a fantastic experience. Cory and I both agree that this was by far the best thing that we did on our trip. If you’re ever in Thailand, specifically Chiang Mai, I would highly insist you check them out!

You can find them online at http://www.chiangmaismartcook.com!