Updated: Jun 26, 2022
I've just returned to the US from studying Thai cuisine in Bangkok for 10 months. Now that I'm home, I'm quite keen to practice the recipes and techniques I've learned and share them with friends and family. I'm finding that sometimes I'll have to rely on a store bought curry paste to prepare the dishes I love, either because I can't find all the fresh herbs I need for the paste, or because I'm looking to save some time. So I've started attempting to work with store bought pastes for the first time. Here's what I've learned about how to work with a store bought paste:
Use the paste that restaurants use. Restaurants, unless they are very high end, are using store bought pastes. I've looked around and spotted Mae Ploy curry pastes in open-kitchen Thai restaurants, so that's what I'm using.
Read the curry paste's ingredients label to check if anything has been left out. For example, looking at the Mae Ploy Panang paste, I see that they've left out the peanuts (likely because they spoil after a few months), so peanuts will need to be added in your preparation of that curry. I've noticed that all the pastes are missing coriander root. To accomplish this, you need to know what ingredients are in the curry you're making. To help, I've created a reference tool showing the ingredients of all the most popular Thai curries, click here to download.
Add in more dried spices. Nearly all the Central Thai curry pastes call for a small amount of white pepper, cumin and coriander seeds. To my taste, the aroma from these spices are among the first I get when I eat green, masaman or panang curry. While the store bought pastes may contain them, in my experience their aromas don't come through. So I've gotten in the habit of toasting my own whole spices, pounding them into a powder in my mortar and pestle, then mixing that powder into my paste.
Use less of the store bought paste than you would with a fresh paste. Gram for gram, the store bought paste is considerably more concentrated and intense than a fresh paste. When we make a curry paste using fresh ingredients, we will yield nearly 3/4C of fresh paste to feed around 4 people. For the May Ploy pastes, I have had success using 50 grams or 3T for a 2-3 portion serving. Using more than that will yield a really intense and almost bitter curry, that will require a lot of extra liquid to mellow out.
Red curry paste is the most versatile. The red curry Mae Ploy makes is a kua curry paste, which is the most foundational curry paste in Thai cuisine. From this paste, all you need is to add in a few other spices and ingredients and you can make a surprising amount of dishes. For example: chicken satay and peanut dipping sauce, Masaman curry, Panang curry, Hung Lay Curry, Southern Style Kua Curry with Crab meat, Kua Kling Dry Curry, Kaeng Tai Pla (Southern style with fermented fish stomach), Sai Oua Northern Thai sausage, Yam Ta-wai Burmese Salad, all have a red kua curry paste as the foundation recipe, to which additional ingredients are added. With that one paste in your arsenal, you're off to the races with an impressive number of other dishes!
Freeze your extras! Keep the paste in 50g portioned balls in your freezer. In your fridge, the paste will last about 1 week, after that it will continuously lose its aroma and freshness. In the freezer, it can be stored at least 3 months. Interestingly, because of the lack of moisture in a store bought paste, it won't freeze hard. It will still be pliable and soft to the touch even when frozen.
Coconut milk makes your life easier. There are a few ways coconut milk can make your life easier when using a store bought paste. The first is to use it to thin out your curry paste so that it cooks evenly. I find that store bought curry pastes are very thick and dry and kind of roll around the pan in chunks when attempting to stir fry it. Combat this by mixing 1/2C of coconut cream into the paste; this does a great job of loosening everything up so that it can spread across the pan and cook evenly. The second way to use your coconut milk is to control the intensity and spice level of your curry. If at the final taste before serving you find your flavors are too strong or spice level is too high, add in some fresh coconut milk; it adds fresh coconut flavor and lightens everything up.
Stick with the classic method of cooking curry. Whether you've pounded the curry paste in a mortar and pestle, whipped it up using a blender or are going the store bought route, the rules stay the same - make sure you're not serving raw curry paste! How do you do that? Cook the paste until you see a brightly colored oil rise to the top! The steps for cooking a coconut based curry paste are as follows: 1) heat up coconut milk until the water evaporates and you're left with only coconut oil 2) stir fry your curry paste (medium low) in the oil until the colored oil releases from the paste and the paste becomes very fragrant and aromatic (adding a bit more coconut milk to the pan from time to time keeps the paste from drying out and burning) 3) season your paste with fish sauce and palm sugar to develop depth of flavor 4) stir fry your raw meat in the paste for 2 minutes 5) add your coconut milk and stew until raw protein is cooked. ** The place where we as foreigners to this cuisine mess up is in the stir fry stage. We don't stir fry for long enough. A very dry paste will cook up quickly, while a water rich paste like a green curry can take quite a long time (around 40 minutes for a large quantity of hand pounded paste!). Look for the brightly colored oil to form on the top and around the bubbles, this is your indicator for a cooked paste. See the video for visuals. Once you get that oil, it's time to move to the next step!
Cook your protein in the paste. This goes along with sticking to classic methods, but I want to state again that when you stir-fry your protein in the paste you're ensuring that protein absorbs the most flavor from the paste as possible. It's a simple step and not to be overlooked!
Do you have any questions about how to cook a restaurant quality Thai curry at home? Leave a comment and I'll do my best to answer them!