This post has been updated from the original from Nov 2020.
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 since culinary school. Here's what I've learned about how to work with a store bought paste to achieve restaurant quality results:
Use the paste that restaurants use. Restaurants, unless they are very high end, are using store bought pastes. I've noticed Mae Ploy curry pastes in Thai restaurants and I've had very good experiences with them.
Have a written recipe from a trusted source to use as your guide. Often times the recipe written on the curry paste jar is quite basic and leaves out a lot of important steps like - how to stir fry a curry paste, or what ingredients need to be added. If you have a recipe you trust, and you read it completely at least once (2 or 3 times would be best!) you will be well positioned for success. Try to read the entire thing, method and ingredients list, a day or two before you plan to make it, in case there are kitchen tools you need to buy for the dish. I've made a posts of recommended sources for Thai cooking, online line sources and a list of cook books.
Read the curry paste's ingredients label to check if anything has been left out. To accomplish this, you need to know what ingredients are in the specific curry you're making. Good thing you already have a reference recipe! Additionally, I've created a reference tool showing the ingredients of all the most popular Thai curries, click here to download. For example, looking at the Mae Ploy Panang paste and comparing it to my reference tool, I see that they've left out the peanuts. So peanuts will need to be added to achieve the flavor profile of the dish.
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 notice 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 a small amount of my own whole spices, pounding them into a powder in my mortar and pestle, then mixing that powder into my paste. If I'm making a small amount, I will use 1/2 teaspoon cumin and white pepper respectively and 1 teaspoon coriander seed. I toast them separately in my smallest skillet on medium heat and then drop them in my mortar and pestle when they start to smell fragrant, this should only take 3 minutes or so, the cumin will toast (and burn) the fastest. I let them cool and then grind them up all together in the mortar and pestle or spice grinder. Then I mix them into my 50g portion of store bought 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 3/4 cup fresh paste to feed around 4 people. For the May Ploy pastes, I have had success using 50 grams or 3 tablespoons for a 2-3 portion serving. Using more than that will yield a really intense and 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 base of the 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! In your fridge, curry 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 scoopable 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. I fix this by mixing 1/2C of undiluted coconut milk into the paste; this does a great job of loosening everything up so that it can spread across the pan so that it will actually cook!
The second way to use your coconut milk is to control the intensity and spice level of your curry. It's important to taste your curry before serving, to check the seasoning and intensity. If at that final taste you find your flavors are too intense, too spicy, and even tasting a bit metalic, add in some fresh coconut milk. It will mellow out all the flavors and add a lovely fresh coconut aroma. If the opposite is true and the curry is too light in flavor, you can either let it simmer for a long time to further reduce and intensify, or you can stir fry more paste and add it to your curry.
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? Stirfry the paste until you see a brightly colored oil rise to the top!
The steps for cooking a coconut based curry are as follows:
1) Add coconut milk to a skillet and set the burner to medium. Stir it around the pan and allow the water to evaporate from the coconut milk. It will become thick and oily.
2) Stir fry your curry paste (medium low) in the oil until the colored oil releases from the paste and it becomes very fragrant and aromatic (adding a bit more coconut milk to the pan from time to time when it gets too dry) For a store bought paste, mix 1/2 cup coconut milk with the dry paste to loosen, add this to your pan to stir-fry. See video above for the visual of a cooked curry paste!
3) Season your paste with fish sauce and palm sugar to develop depth of flavor. Both fish sauce and palm sugar need a few minutes of heat to fully incorporate into the curry. The fish sauce needs to "cook" to mellow the fishy aroma, and the palm sugar needs heat to melt.
4) Stir fry raw meat in the paste for 2 minutes.
5) Add your coconut milk and simmer until raw protein is nearly cooked.
6) Add vegetables and continue to simmer until the veg and protein are done.
7) If adding herbs, like basil, add them to boiling curry. Fully submerge the leaves in the liquid and cover the pot for 1 minute. Serve right away. This will keep the basil from turning black. It will remain vibrant green and perfume the curry with basil aroma.
*The place where we as foreigners to this cuisine tend to mess up is at the stir fry stage. We don't stir fry for long enough and our dry store-bought paste just rolls around the pan, half of it burning and the other half not cooking at all. This is why I'm recommended loosening the past with undiluted coconut milk. It will make it much easier to develop that beautiful aromatic oil in your curry and evenly cook the paste.
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 possible from the paste. 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!