We did a taste test of 5 different curry pastes and here are our findings.
Curry is a dish that may seem daunting to make at home, but it’s actually relatively simple. Many of the ingredients are easily found at your local grocery store—aromatics like ginger, garlic and shallots, fresh vegetables, your protein of choice and coconut milk.
But of course, the real star of the dish is the curry paste. While there’s no shame in using store bought curry paste, we needed to know which is best.
To do this, I conducted a blind taste test of five different red curry pastes. Several should be readily available in “traditional” grocery stores, while a few others you may need to order online, if you aren’t lucky enough to have a Thai grocery store within walking distance of your home.
To test them, I first tasted them plain (not a super pleasant process, I must admit) jotting down tasting notes, and then, using my Saucier, cooked them into an ultra simple curry involving shallots, garlic, ginger and coconut milk.
The following is what I found out in order of my personal preference, going from least likely to recommend to most.
Spice Level: Low
Appearance: Dark red and smooth, texturally similar to tomato paste
Smell: Tomatoey and earthy
Tasting Notes: Very salty, somewhat funky, bitter aftertaste
Contains Fish: No
When Cooked: Yields a grainy curry with some oil separation, meaning that the curry does not blend well with the coconut milk. The funky taste cooked out so there was little depth or complexity. The bitter aftertaste was even more pronounced and unpleasant after cooking.
Bottom Line: While this curry paste is readily available at places like Whole Foods, it does not yield a smooth or tasty curry. Would not recommend.
Spice Level: Medium-high, lingers on the tongue
Appearance: Dark red, matte, and fibrous with obvious pieces of galangal visible
Smell: Deeply fishy and fermented
Tasting Notes: Salty, fishy, and quite spicy and heavy on galangal
Contains Fish: Yes, but a vegetarian version is available
When Cooked: Yields a lumpy chili, flecked curry, where the paste does not blend smoothly with the coconut milk. It is also very salty, which might balance out with the addition of more vegetables, protein, and lime juice.The fishy smell and flavor is pronounced when cooking but the end result is pleasantly funky and does not taste overly fish-forward.
Bottom Line: While I don’t dislike the flavor, the texture is very off-putting. The paste does not blend well at all and for that reason, I hesitate to recommend it. That said, Chef Jam Sanitchat of Thai Fresh and Chef Nam Yimcharoen of Kinkan prefer it.
Spice Level: Medium-high, burns the back of the throat
Appearance: Matte, clay red
Smell: Fishy with heavy lime notes
Tasting Notes: Earthy, and fishy, the lime tastes almost artificial
Contains Fish: Yes
When Cooked: Yields a decently spicy curry with briney notes that are decidedly shrimp-flavored. The paste blends nicely with the coconut milk creating a rich, smooth curry. The only flavor I did not like was the somewhat artificial tinge of the lime.
Bottom Line: The texture of this curry was very nice, even if the flavor was not quite as balanced between heat, spices and citrus as I would have liked. The paste will likely have to be ordered online unless you have a well-stocked Thai or international market nearby. While it is not my favorite, I would still recommend this one over the above based on texture alone.
Spice Level: Low with slight lingering heat on the tongue
Appearance: Two tone red, possibly from oil separation, fibrous
Smell: Garlicky and sharp
Tasting Notes: Heavy on garlic and salt, slightly bitter aftertaste
Contains Fish: No
When Cooked: Yields a smooth curry, despite being the most oily of the bunch by far. Quite salty but also pleasantly sweet. If you like a hotter curry as I do, you might want to add some extra spice in the way of minced chilies when you’re sautéing your aromatics.
Bottom Line: Since I did this as a blind taste test, I was surprised when I found out this one was Thai Kitchen, a brand I had long avoided because of negative feelings towards their coconut milk. It is by far the easiest curry to source, often found at large supermarkets and it makes a lovely curry. I especially liked the subtle sweetness even though it’s not as spicy as I would like. A great option for home chefs just learning how to make curry.
Spice Level: Medium high, lingers on the tongue
Appearance: Bright orange-red, fibrous, oily
Smell: Sharp and citrusy
Tasting Notes: Salty, spicy, pronounced lime flavor
Contains Fish: No
When Cooked: Yields a spicy curry that thickens up quickly. It may seem grainy at first but that dissipates when stirred together with the coconut milk. The other spices in the paste, particularly coriander, really shine through, making it the most complex flavor profile of the bunch. Be warned, the spice will intensify as it cooks and will be even hotter the next day.
Bottom Line: This to me, is the perfect curry. Spicy, heavy on the aromatics, bright and deeply flavored. The only thing that would make it better is a generous squeeze of lime. The paste can be found at some H Mart locations as well as online. Great for beginners and curry veterans alike.