Freshness is at the heart of Thai food, and the same applies to curries. So try to use good quality fresh ingredients wherever you can. We would always recommend organic or farm grown for a much fuller experience.
The key to Thai curries is to get the balance of flavours right, whether it is the sourness, sweetness, saltiness or spiciness. To best achieve this, the correct combination of ingredients are needed and in the right proportions. A concentrated paste is made that can be used as the basis of many dishes dish.
There are many herb and spice paste recipes available online and in shops that detail the ingredients needed in each of the curries, but so many of them introduce ingredients that have no traditional place. Some call it poetic license!
Making your own Pastes.
Getting out your pestle and mortar and applying some elbow grease is actually all you need to make your own delicious Thai curry paste, it is exactly what I have been doing for years, sometimes hours at a time, making various batches for occasions or events.
Try to dry pan roasts your dry ingredients, as well as lightly caramelise your shallots and garlic. The thing to remember when combining the ingredients is to blend it as well as you can, making sure you break down the more fibrous ingredients so that the paste is smooth. It's alright for it to be slightly courser but it will need to be cooked for a little longer to avoid it tasting too grainy or bitter.
Alternatively (and unsurprisingly) you can use Mae Jum Herb and Spice pastes, which uses high-quality fresh ingredients blended to a smooth paste ready to cook with.
Getting ready before you start.
Thai cuisine is more in the preparation than the actual cooking. To get the best out of the ingredients you need to avoid overcooking which is one reason why Thai food isn't so difficult or take time to cook.
Short cooking times helps retain all the natural goodness and flavour of the ingredients, and cooking should be done just before you are ready to serve for the best experience.
Vegetables need to be cut into bite-size pieces and introduced into the curry based on the time it would take to cook, root vegetables will need longer so should be added first, while softer vegetables need to be put later, and fresh herbs and lime juice added at the very end.
Meats should be thinly sliced, prawns should be peeled down to the tail and butterflied.
Making the Thai sauce from the paste.
Most Thai curries, other than Jungle curry, use coconut milk to add the texture and sweetness to the dish, so it is very important to use a good quality "full fat" coconut milk, not the low-fat variety, it is just not worth the compromise.
There are so many recipes I have seen, and also some Thai Pastes, that includes OIL as an ingredient, whether it is within the paste, or added to the curry as part of the process. Please don't add ANY oil, there is no need, we want to keep the whole dish as healthy as we can.
Any added oil is usually used to fry off the paste before adding the coconut milk, this is to bring out the flavours of the paste. If you are using Mae Jum's Thai curry paste, then some of the ingredients have already been dry pan roasted.
What I have always done is use the best coconut milk I can find, open the tin and several tablespoons of coconut milk into a non-stick pan. Bring the coconut milk to a boil for a couple of minutes, then combine the paste. You will see that after 3-5 minutes, the natural coconut oil starts to slit from coconut milk. You continue to fry your paste in this natural oil, until you have a smooth thick sauce. Add the remaining coconut milk as you go along, but without over boiling it, you do not want that rest of the coconut milk to split, although some Thais do like it this way.
Adding the other ingredients.
Once the sauce has blended, taste a season with fish sauce and palm sugar, then you can turn off the heat and leave it to one side until you are close to serving.
Avoid cooking everything at the same time and leave it simmering for too long, or leaving it to reheat. The only exception would be Massaman curry, Panang or jungle curry, where beef and root vegetables are used, in this case, it is much better to allow it to stew.
When you are ready to serve, bring the sauce back up to a light boil, then add the vegetables and the thinly sliced meat or prawns or fish. This stage should not take longer than ten minutes if the ingredients have been prepared correctly, vegetables are usually eaten with a bite to them.
If you have several different dishes to serve, they can all be prepared in advance and cooked at the same time. There is nothing like freshly cooked food.
Final steps before serving.
Once the ingredients are cooked and you are ready to serve, comes the time to add any fresh herbs like red chillies, lime leaves, coriander or sweet basil, or other finishing touches like roasted peanuts, dry chilli or a squeeze of lime. The point is to inject some freshness and texture into the dish just before serving. It also looks great to.
As you can see, it isn't so difficult, and you will be amazed at just how authentic you can make your curries by following some simple steps.
Above all, enjoy the experience, experiment with the flavour combinations, and relish in the delights you will share with your family and friends.
If you want to learn more about the basic principals of Thai cooking, then check out my blog.