Is fresh curry paste a must for making better curry at home?
As someone who loves to cook, I’m always looking for a challenge in the kitchen, especially if it can boost the flavor of my dishes in the process. For example, homemade stock vs. store bought—there’s a clear winner every single time.
But making my own curry paste at home, well, that was something I was always curious about. Recently I tried to make it at home and discovered just how much of a process it really is. And not just to make, either. Thai cuisine thrives on fresh ingredients and so, sourcing things like fresh makrut lime leaves and galangal in Austin was my first challenge.
Even then, when I did manage to find the ingredients, there was the literal elbow grease that went into the making itself—grinding these tough spices into a paste left me exhausted.
All of this is to say, the end result is a flavor that does taste much better than the canned version. But I still had to wonder, do I need to do this every time I want curry?
To find out, I spoke with four chefs: Chef Nan Yimcharoen of KinKan in LA, Chef Jam Santichat of Thai Fresh in Austin, Chef Andrew Ho of Curry Boys BBQ in San Antonio, and Chef Dustin Everett of Fish Cheeks in New York.
The first three all told me the exact same thing: “Homemade is the best, but store bought is a totally sufficient replacement.”
While Chef Everett disagreed, saying "you're really going to taste the difference," he did admit, "it is a lot of work." At Fish Cheeks, they make it with a mortar and pestle, and the flavors are rich, vibrant and unique.
For other chefs, like Chef Ho and Chef Santichat store bought curry paste is good enough quality to use in their restaurants.
“One of the main reasons we use store bought,” Chef Santichat says, “is because making it is so hard. Both finding the ingredients and the labor.”
Chef Ho agrees, “We really struggled to find a lot of the ingredients when we were first opening, so we just decided, store bought will be better.”
While they disagreed on which storebrand was best (Chef Ho prefers Mae Ploy and Chef Santichat likes Mae Si), they did agree that there are a few ways to ensure your store bought curry paste tastes closer to the real thing.
“The first thing you want to make sure you’re doing is cooking your curry paste really low and slow,” says Chef Ho. “A lot of people rush this step and don’t end up with a ton of flavor.”
Chef Santichat agreed: “A Stainless Clad piece of cookware like a Saucier really helps here because you want to see all of the oils seeping out of the paste: that’s the flavor after all.”
Chef Santichat and Chef Ho also said that adding ingredients to their curry helps boost the freshness of flavor. “For example, if I want the fresh flavor of lemongrass or garlic, I’ll sweat those fresh ingredients in the pan with my curry paste,” says Chef Santichat.
She adds, “The curry paste just needs to be a good base. From there you can add fish sauce, more herbs, sauces, ding it up, make it brighter, and you will taste the difference every time.”
The bottom line? While fresh curry paste will always win out, there are ways to make better curry at home that don’t involve making paste from scratch. And one of the most important parts is having the right tools to do it.