I’ve been on a mission to study different curries of Southeast Asia.
Besides learning to cook a few new curries in my travels — Thai green curry and Cambodian fish amok curry — I’ve also been tasting different kinds from all over Thailand. This is a roundup of those Thai curries.
1. Green Curry with Roti
Green curry is generally thought to have originated in the central part of Thailand, but this one is in the northern style, made with tiny “Thai bird chilies” that are the signature chili found in northern food. The color of the curry comes from the green chilies that are pounded with other ingredients (galangal, lemon grass, kaffir lime rind, among others) into a paste. The roti is an Indian/Malay influence.
In general, where the curry comes from dictates what kind of starch you eat it with. Northern Thais (Lanna people) and northeastern Thais (Ysan people, pronounced EE-san) usually eat their curries with sticky rice. Central Thais eat their curry with regular rice. Southern Thais eat their curry with rice noodles. The one exception to the rule seems to be Khao Soi, a Burmese-influenced northern specialty soup of yellow chicken curry and egg noodles.
2. Khao Soi
Khao Soi is my favorite curry dish in all of Thailand. Pictures from two restaurants.
We just came back from a week up north in Chiang Mai and Pai and ate as much of this as we could. There are crispy noodles on top and soft wavy flat noodles in the soup on the bottom. Note, everyone does their crispy noodles differently.
It tastes like a mixture of Indian yellow curry and a regional northern Thai curry. A woman at a market today told me I could replicate the flavor by mixing yellow curry with panang curry (not to be confused with Malaysia’s Penang).
It has a little bit of heat and the flavor gets even punchier when you eat it with bits of raw shallot, pickled vegetable (usually mustard cabbage) and a squirt of lime, all served on the side. Despite the fact that this is the dish you’re supposed to eat when in Chiang Mai, not every restaurant serves it. We had to shop around a bit to make sure we got our daily fix.
3. Southern Thai Fish Curry with Rice Noodle (Nam Ya Pak Tai)
It’s taken me several weeks to work up the courage to try this curry. I’ve steered clear of southern Thai food because it’s notoriously spicy, even by Thai standards. But two nights ago I took the plunge and ordered a southern Thai fish curry with rice noodles. I asked them to make it mild-medium.
The curry was yellow (from turmeric) and the fish had dissolved into tiny pieces and thickened the curry. A closer inspection showed hundreds of tiny red flecks of fresh red chilies. When cooking curries, you control the spiciness through the size of the chilies you choose and how small you cut them. Typically, the smaller the chili, the hotter it is. And the smaller the pieces you cut, the hotter it gets.
This curry tasted a lot like Cambodian “fish amok” curry — a yellow curry with coconut milk. But fish amok has almost no spice. In fact, Cambodian food in general is essentially Thai food without any spice or hotness.
I was dubious about eating it with rice noodles (I’m not a fan of rice noodles in general). In reality, the rice noodles and the raw veggies really helped cut the heat in the dish, they gave a “cool” texture that pretty perfectly balanced the spiciness. The curry was still spicy like no other and left me eating fast and sniffling with every spoonful towards the end, but it was nothing some iced tea couldn’t fix.
4. Massaman Curry
This yellow peanut-based curry is the sweetest of the Thai curry varieties. It’s made with a choice of meat and potato. It’s typically served with rice or roti. It’s not very spicy, nor very complex in flavor. Personally, not my favorite, but definitely worth a taste!
5. Kaeng Pa aka “Jungle Curry”
This curry is extremely spicy. Worse than the fish curry. My aunt in Bangkok introduced me to it. The dish comes from those wonderfully green, heavily forested areas in the north where there are no coconut trees, and so this curry has no coconut milk.
It’s much darker in color than other curries. Eat in small doses and with lots of rice as there’s no coconut milk to cut the heat.
6. “Dry” Red Chicken Curry
We had this curry at a riverside restaurant in Chiang Mai.
It is made with a red curry paste stir-fried with just a dash of coconut cream. (Add any more coconut milk and it becomes a wet curry.) Delicious and tasted a lot like Malaysian-style curries to me, possibly because of the use of kaffir lime leaf shreds to garnish. Served with rice.
7. Red Duck Curry
The Pai countryside hotel that we stayed at for one night served this “duck curry” at its restaurant. It was a nice red curry that had a bit of sweetness to it. Interestingly, the cook threw in some lychees.
I ordered it thinking that the duck would have some amazing curry flavor, but in fact, it just tasted like chunks of Chinese style roast duck tossed into a red curry. At least the curry was delicious!
8. Yellow Curry with Soft Shell Crab
This last one is perhaps the fanciest variety I’ve eaten: soft shell crab in yellow curry. Served with white rice, this curry was more similar in texture to a dry curry than a wet one, found at a place called Anna & Charlie’s Cafe in Bangkok.
Something about this curry, perhaps liberal doses of lard or butter, makes it extremely rich. You’ll not be wanting dessert after this curry.
So, which one of these curries catches your eye?