The Story of Thai Curry, According to a Chef and a Lifelong Fan

There's a lot more to gaeng (or kaeng, or gang, or geng) than just red, green, and yellow.

Gang Gai Khao Mun (Thai Chicken Curry)
Photo: Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Claire Spollen

Growing up in my family's Thai restaurant, the aromas and flavors of Thai curry have become an inseparable part of my identity. Thai curry has been part of my life from the beginning, to celebrate every moment in my life, big and small. When I was in elementary school, I barely had the strength to grind curry paste with my grandmother's mortar and pestle. But today, when I make it in my tiny apartment, I do so in remembrance of home; eating curry makes me feel comforted in a warm embrace. And while it's exciting to see it on the world stage as an international culinary delight, there is so much more depth to Thai curry than the repertoire of red, green, and yellow curry often presented.

Chef Nok Suntararon from Philadelphia's Kalaya Thai Kitchen shares that sentiment. "Thai curry is the storytelling about our culture and life from different regions of Thailand," she says, noting that in Thailand, curry is just as diverse and expansive as the different regions and cultures existing throughout the country. Thai curry draws on influences from all over the world; it has no strict definition, but its origins trace back to early Indian merchants. This intriguing history makes it widely misunderstood, even despite gastro-diplomatic initiatives enacted by the government. Here's what you should know to start.

Where does Thai curry come from?

With a long history in royal households, religious strongholds, and foreign trade, contemporary Thai curry highlights the cultural diversity of Thailand (formerly known as Siam). It's believed that during the fourth century, Indian traders and Buddhist missionaries shared aromatics, spices, and herbs like tamarind, cumin, shallots, and lemongrass throughout the Kingdom of Siam. The 13th century gave rise to nam prik, a type of thick pastes of varying ingredients that included lemongrass, fish sauce, peppercorns, and tamarind. Nam priks are used as a universal sauce for many Thai dishes, including a set of dishes called gaeng, kaeng, gang, or geng — what today are known as Thai curries. From the 14th to the 18th centuries, kapi, or shrimp paste, was added to these dishes, contributing a deep, umami flavor. Then, with the arrival of Portuguese merchants in the 16th century came the hot chilies that gave Thai cuisine the kick for which it has become renowned. Today, Thai curries still carry these ingredients, flavors, and cooking methods. That distinct blend of sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and spicy ingredients combined with the variety of preparations makes Thai curry push the boundaries of Western notions of curry.

The exact date the term "Thai curry" was coined is unknown, but in the pages of the first known Thai dictionary published in 1873, kaeng was defined as a watery dish with shrimp paste, onions, shallots, garlic, and chillies. Though this early text only loosely categorized the dish, after the Vietnam War, when more Western consumers began to encounter Thai cuisine, the many varieties of kaeng started to be referred to as a single "Thai curry."

In 2002, a Thai government-led gastrodiplomacy campaign created the Global Thai Program, which aimed to promote Thai restaurants and flavors worldwide. As part of this promotion, many restaurants adopted cookie-cutter menus curated by the Thai government. This included a set of standardized Thai curries: red, yellow, and green.

While the initiative made Thailand's curries a worldwide sensation, it also had the effect of limiting what Thai curries were cooked around the world. The diverse and highly regional category of dishes was reduced to a handful of broad categories.

What exactly is Thai curry?

In its simplest form, Thai curry consists of a spiced sauce or paste that blends aromatic spices, is mixed with protein and vegetables, and typically served with rice or noodles. The result is an array of intense, diverse flavors. Bright, fresh herbs like Thai basil and coriander and warm spices such as cumin and galangal offset the spicy heat of hot chilies, while sour citrus and citrus juices balance out the richness. The beauty of Thai curry lies in its unbounded variety, able to be customized according to how much heat, salt, sour, and sweet you enjoy.

As Suntararon notes, Thai curry tells the story of the culture from the different regions throughout the country. "Curry from the southern part [of Thailand] has the perfect weather to grow peppercorn and turmeric that is widely used in southern dishes that goes back to the history of the spice trade from India and Malay," she adds. "On the other hand, in the curry paste from Bangkok, there will be almost no turmeric involved. They use more red and dry chilis and galangal. Thai curry reflects the richness and diversity of each region."

What are some Thai curries?

The standardization of Thai cuisine divides Thai curries into three categories based on the color of the paste: red, yellow, and green. These curries are often coconut milk-based, and get their distinctive colors from the chilies, herbs, and spices used.

Red Curry

Red curry includes red bell pepper, coriander, lemongrass, ginger, cumin, and the red chilies that offer its iconic heat. It can be customized according to spice preferences, making it one of the most versatile curry pastes.

Yellow Curry

The bright, earthy color of yellow curry is a result of turmeric, which also gives it a savory, earthy flavor. Typically, it also contains galangal, ginger, cumin, garlic, and lemongrass. Compared to other Thai curries, this one is typically sweeter.

Green Curry

The vibrant, fresh, green color of green curry comes from cilantro, makrut lime leaves, and Thai basil. It is among the most popular curries in Thailand, with lemongrass, garlic, and shallots combined with the herbs to give this dish an earthy, sour taste.

Think beyond the basics

While the colors of each curry help consumers categorize them, there is much more to each type of curry than their pigment. My grandma taught me to think of red, yellow, and green curry as loose building blocks rather than strict recipes, as technique and available ingredients create endless, delicious opportunities that stray from the tri-colored narrative. Here are two next-level curries to try.

Massaman Curry

Massaman curry is a thick, mild, slightly sweet gravy that originates in the south of Thailand near Malaysia's border and is often served as a celebration dish for Thai's native central Bangkok, like my family. It is distinguished from other Thai curries by its use of whole spices like cumin, cinnamon, coriander, and nutmeg and peanuts.

Penang Curry

My personal favorite,Penang curry (also called panang, phanaeng, and phanang), can be considered as a variant of red curry, but its richer, sweeter, sauce sets it apart. It is named for Penang, an island off the coast of Malaysia, and though it is rich with red chilies, the added sweetness it boasts compliments the spice, making this dish stand out.

How do you make Thai curry?

Once you have picked a base, consider what else you will mix into your curry. Often, Thai curries are made using coconut milk as the main liquid, which results in a creamy consistency. You can use as much or as little coconut milk as you wish based on your preference for texture, spice, and flavor. Water and stock can also be used as a base in Thai curries, which might surprise westerners who are more familiar with the coconut-creamier bases.

Or, skip the liquid and make a dry curry. Also known as khua kling, dry curry paste seasons the meat directly when you stir-fry the curry paste instead of integrating it into a liquid.

How do I adjust the heat levels?

If you want to play with the heat levels of your curry, it's all in the paste! The ratio of paste to liquid (coconut milk or water) determines the strength of the spice. For a spicier curry, add more paste. If you prefer a milder curry, dilute the paste with more liquid to your individual preference.

Keep in mind that you can always add heat, but you can't take it away. If you're a beginner to Thai curry, start with less paste and add as you see fit. From my experience, it's better to develop that spice rather than go all in.

This is just a start to all that the world of Thai curries has to offer; there's much more to research and eat. Suntararon recommends researching and exploring the many different varieties and flavors of this flavorful dish. "Thai curry has a lot more to offer than red, yellow, and green," Suntararon adds. "When you go into a restaurant or make curry at home, be adventurous and look into more recipes that Thai curries have to offer."Wanna try your hand at making a Thai curry? Start with one of my favorites, Nok Suntararon's Gang Gai Khao Mun (Thai Chicken Curry) recipe.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles