After over a decade of teaching Thai cooking, one question comes up again and again: "What is the best brand of Thai curry paste?" Because let's face it, most of us, (Thai people and restaurants included), are not going to make it from scratch. (Though if you DO want to make your own, I have several recipes on this site.)
While my go-to store-bought paste has been Mae Ploy for years, and I have used many other brands in the past, I've never really compared them side by side or paid close attention to the subtle differences. So, to really find out what is the best brand (at least according to me), a blind taste test is called for.
More of a video person? Watch the Curry Paste Tasting Video here, complete with my live reaction!
How I Chose the Brands for Review
I chose red curry paste for our test because it's the most basic, it's the most commonly available, and it's used in the majority of Thai dishes that use curry paste on my site. More importantly, every brand has a version of red curry paste.
There are a large variety of brands out there, and it’s impossible for me to taste test them all, so I had to narrow it down to a manageable number and here’s how I made the choice.
- I chose only brands that are commonly available outside of Thailand; so nothing obscure, local, or specific to Thailand, the US or Canada.
- I chose only brands that have been around for a long time and have a good reputation; so they’re all coming in with a certain amount of cred. New brands are popping up all the time, but I wanted ones that have at least passed the test of time.
- I chose ones that have all the expected ingredients for a red curry paste. I also checked that they don't have any chemical additives, because a good curry paste should just be a mix of real food ingredients.
Our 5 Contenders
With the above guidelines, I arrived at these 5:
- Maeploy - my current go-to brand. It does contain shrimp paste, which is traditional, but if you’re vegan this one is out by default.
- Aroy-D - another brand that I use quite often cuz it’s widely available; and if Mae Ploy isn't available this is the one I get. They also make my go-to coconut milk.
- Maesri - the only brand that comes in a can, and also the only one with sugar in the ingredient list.
- Namjai - another one in our lineup that contains shrimp paste.
- Thai Kitchen - not a brand I often see at Asian grocery stores, but by far the most common one available in the “international aisle” at non-Asian grocery stores worldwide. So on this list, it's probably the one that the largest number of people have access to. (Sidenote: It is a McKormick brand, but it is made in Thailand.)
Where to buy these curry pastes in your city? Your local Asian grocer will surely have at least one of these, check out our map of Asian grocery stores to locate one near you!
A little background on Thai curry paste
At the basic level, Thai curry paste is simply a mixture of ground herbs and spices - and there are tons of varieties: red, green, yellow, massaman, panang, etc. They're also used in many dishes beyond Thai curries, such as this cauliflower stir fry and Thai fish cakes.
For each type of paste, there’s a basic expectation of what it should taste like; but like any recipe, everyone has their own specific formula, hence all these brands.
If you want to learn more about curry pastes, I highly suggest watching my curry paste 101 video where I go more in depth into what it is, and how to use, store, etc. Also, to explore other ways to use curry paste, here are 5 ways to use curry paste beside making a curry.
But what is a Thai curry paste anyway?
Thai curry pastes are basically a mix of ground fresh herbs and spices. The most common curry paste ingredients are: chiles, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, galangal, cilantro root (coriander root), kaffir lime zest, white peppercorns. Shrimp paste is always added to curry paste in Thailand, though many exported brands omit this to make it vegan and allergy friendly.
The above are included in most curry pastes, and then other ingredients are added depending on the type of curry. For example: yellow curry paste contains curry powder and turmeric, panang curry paste has cumin seeds and coriander seeds, massaman curry paste has a whole truckload of dry spices, and green curry paste uses fresh green chiles.
Curry Paste Tasting Video - Live Reaction
The results are written out below, but for the full experience watch the video for my live reaction and detailed review!
And the best Thai red curry paste is...
Our first test involves making a basic Thai curry sauce following the exact same recipe. The process is shown in the video above, but ingredients added include coconut milk, water, and just a little sugar. I’m not seasoning them with fish sauce for this because most curry pastes already come with quite a bit of salt, and without any meat or veggies any fish sauce added would make at least some of these unpalatably salty.
- Mae Ploy: Came out on top. It has a strong flavour, good level of spice, and has the most umami.
- Namjai: A near-tie to Mae Ploy. It has a redder colour (if that matters to you) and a slightly milder shrimp paste flavor.
- Aroy-D: By far the best of all 3 vegan options. Also a very close runner up to my top 2. *The Aroy-D curry paste I get contains no shrimp paste, however, a viewer has commented that he has seen a version that lists "shrimp powder" on the ingredient list. I don't know if that's an old formula, but it's worth double checking before buying if you don't eat shrimp.
- Maesri: Significantly weaker flavour than the top 3, but has good flavour. It is also less salty which may be a positive for those watching your salt intake. If using this brand, I would use more of it than the 3 above.
- Thai Kitchen: The weakest flavour in the group by a long shot. It is not spicy at all (so kid friendly). In this standardized test the curry sauce was too diluted to even determine how good the flavour was.
Test #2: Is the worst at least workable?
So the bad news is that the most widely available paste is also our worst performing one. But in real life, we don't use a standardized recipe and we can do more with our dishes. So if I do everything I can to make it reach its full potential - use more paste, add more seasonings - can the worst come close to our best curry paste?
So I took our top and bottom picks, Mae Ploy and Thai Kitchen, and made a full curry. It's a basic red curry recipe with bamboo shoots, chicken breast, and Thai basil. I doubled up the paste for Thai Kitchen, and had to add significantly more fish sauce than Mae Ploy to bring it up to the optimal seasoning level.
PS. This happens to be a great "quick curry" recipe, and you can even add makrut (kaffir) lime leaves and bell peppers for a little more pizazz. Here it is: Quick red curry chicken recipe.
I then tasted the two curries with jasmine rice, because Thai curry is always served with rice. And here are the results:
Mae Ploy is still better. It delivers good flavour and a good level of spiciness that I would call a "crowd pleaser level" - not too hot, but not disappointing for Thai food. Thai Kitchen, with double the amount of paste, has a thicker curry sauce, but still delivers weaker flavours. There is essentially NO spiciness to speak of, and indeed this would be great for kids or your meat-and-potatoes-only friends.
Does Thai Kitchen make a curry I would enjoy? As a Thai person, I find it a little unsatisfying, but I wouldn't call it a bad meal. For kids, people sensitive to spice, or someone completely uninitiated to spicy cuisines, this might be a great first step. And you know what, that's probably the audience they're making this paste for.
The main takeaway is that there is a huge range between brands of store-bought curry paste. When following recipes, unless you copy the brand that was used by the recipe writer, you cannot assume that you will get a result that is even close to what they got. So you have to use your judgment and be prepared to adjust as needed, (which is something you should do whenever you cook anything anyway.)
For my recipes, I'm either using Mae Ploy or Aroy-D in my tests, both of which are very similar. If you're using Namjai it will also be similar enough that no adjustments should be necessary.
My Final Recommendations
For most people, I recommend going with one of the top 3: Mae Ploy, Namjai or Aroy-D. They came close enough that you can't go wrong with any of them. But if you're vegan or allergic to shrimp, then Aroy-D would be your only good option.
Maesri is a paste with a good flavour base, but it is significantly weaker than the top 3, and would require a larger amount of paste. If you're sensitive to salt and can handle just a little spice, this is what I would use so that you have room to add more paste without fearing that it would become too salty or spicy.
Thai Kitchen I would use only if this were my only choice. I would also add more chilies, more shrimp paste, and would use a LOT of it, like...the whole jar for a 4-serving curry (which makes it also the most expensive one in this lineup). If I'm cooking for kids or people who cannot handle any spiciness at all, then Thai Kitchen would be a safe choice.
What About Other Kinds of Curry Paste?
Though we did not test other kinds of curry pastes (yellow, green, etc.), I have used them in the past and I am quite certain that the results would not be all that different. The top 3 might switch positions a bit (and it's worth noting that Mae Ploy yellow curry paste doesn't contain shrimp paste), but I highly doubt that the bottom 2 would be different.
This is because the main difference is not in the subtle flavours, but rather the potency of the paste, which I'm assuming should be consistent within each brand.