If you're ready to take your Thai cooking to the next level, making your own Thai curry pastes is the way to go. Red curry paste is the most versatile paste in Thai cuisine, and I use it in many recipes. So if you were to only make one paste from scratch, this is the one!
In this post I'm showing you how to make red curry paste two ways: the easy way using electrical appliances, and the hard-but-traditional way using a mortar and pestle. I'll also answer all the questions you might have related to the process!
- Video: Red Curry Paste - The Easy and Hard Way
- Why You Should (Or Shouldn't) Make Curry Paste
- What is a Red Curry Paste Anyway?
- How to Make Red Curry Paste
- Curry Paste Making Tools
- Ways to Use Red Curry Paste (beside making a curry!)
- Other curry pastes you can make
- Authentic Thai Red Curry Paste Recipe
Video: Red Curry Paste - The Easy and Hard Way
If this is your first time making this recipe, I highly recommend watching the video tutorial first so you'll see how the herbs should be prepped, all the tools, and what the consistency of the paste should look like. It will ensure success!
Why You Should (Or Shouldn't) Make Curry Paste
Some people feel that a homemade curry paste is the only way to have a "legit" Thai curry. This is not true. MOST Thai people do not make our own curry paste. We buy it either in bulk from the wet market or buy packaged ones just like what you can find in the West.
It's similar to jam in the Western context. Do most people make their own? Probably not. Do some people? Of course. Is homemade jam always better? If you're good at it, sure, but not always! Replace the word jam with Thai curry paste, and it'll be true.
Having said that, here are some good reasons for making your own curry paste:
- You want to be able to control the spiciness of your curry paste. This is one problem with store bought - if it's too spicy, the only thing you can do is to use less; but that also means weaker flavours. Making your own is a great way to make it as mild as you can tolerate.
- You want to be able to control the salt level. Many commercial pastes are very salty because salt helps preserve the paste. But sometimes I have to limit how much paste I can use because of how salty it is. When you make your own you can control this, and you don't even have to add ANY salt if you don't want to.
- You can get all the ingredients, have the right tools, and want to see if you can make it better!
- You are not happy with what's available on the market. Then making your own is definitely worth a try. But also check out my red curry paste review to see if you've been buying one that's not recommended!
If one of the above sounds like you, let's get started!
What is a Red Curry Paste Anyway?
A curry paste, or prik gaeng พริกแกง, in the context of Thai cuisine refers to a paste of ground up herbs and spices. It's a very broad definition, and that's why we have so many varieties! Some are complex, such as massaman curry paste. Others are simple, such as sour curry paste.
Red curry paste is the most "basic" paste in Thai cuisine in a sense that it doesn't contain any ingredients that are unique to it. Everything in a red curry paste is also commonly used in other pastes. It's kind of like the basic tomato sauce in Italian cuisine.
This makes it the most versatile. It is the paste that gets incorporated into the greatest number of dishes because it has that "basic" flavour that works for any application. Aside from making red curry we also stir fry with it, and even put it in fish cakes!
Here are all the ingredients for Thai red curry paste. Try not to make any more substitutions than are recommended below, otherwise the flavour will not be right, and you would be better off buying a good brand of store-bought paste!
- Mild dried red chillies. This is the red in red curry. In Thailand we use dried spur chilies or prik chee fa, but here guajillo or puya peppers are perfect. You want to use mild chilies as the bulk of your curry paste so you can add as much as needed without worrying about it becoming too hot.
- Spicy dried red chilies. This is where you customize the heat level. Add as little or as much as you want to achieve your desired level. Dried Thai chilies are great if you can find them, but here I use arbol chilies. The generic dried chilies sold at most Asian markets will also work.
*If you only have spicy dried chilies available, and you do not want a very spicy paste, remove all of the seeds and the white pith, and use only the red part of the chilies.
- White peppercorns.
- Salt. If pounding the chilies by hand use coarse salt. If using a coffee grinder, any salt will do. It is not actually necessary to add salt if you're going to freeze it or use it right away - all the seasoning can happen during the cooking - but it is traditionally added to make the paste last longer.
- Lemongrass. Use only the bottom half of the lemongrass stalk as that is the most flavourful part.
- Galangal. Use fresh or frozen galangal for the best flavour. Don't use dried or powdered galangal.
- Makrut lime zest (kaffir lime zest). Probably the most difficult thing to find on this list, but not to worry. The zest has the same aroma as the more common makrut lime leaves, but the leaves are very tough and hard to grind down into a paste. So you can omit the zest and add a few extra leaves into the dish when you cook instead. If making a curry, add 5-6 torn leaves and let them infuse, or add finely julienned leaves into stir fries or other dishes.
- Cilantro roots or cilantro stems. Roots of cilantro are very aromatic and have the same aroma as the leaves. But unlike the more tender leaves, the roots can withstand cooking without turning into black mush. Stems can serve as a great substitute for this purpose.
- Fermented shrimp paste. Called gapi in Thai, this funky paste adds a lot of depth and umami. You can substitute Malaysian or Indonesian shrimp paste (belacan or terasi). If vegan, substitute miso paste and/or some finely grated dried shiitake mushrooms, as I do in this vegan green curry recipe. You can also omit it altogether then add more fish sauce to the curry itself, or use soy sauce if vegan.
- Coriander seeds and cumin seeds (optional). See 2 Types of Red Curry Paste below.
Note: 2 Types of Red Curry Paste
There are actually two pastes that both go by the name "red curry paste" in English: prik gaeng kua and prik gaeng ped. The difference between these two is slight: gaeng ped includes coriander seeds and cumin seeds, whereas gaeng kua does not. At least, this is the line I draw, but people don’t always agree on it.
I personally prefer prik gaeng kua (sans extra spices) but it is a matter of preference so feel free to make whichever you prefer. They are similar enough to be interchangeable as the amount of spices added is not much.
How to Make Red Curry Paste
Here's a bird's eye view of the process using two different methods. For a demonstration, see the video tutorial. For the full recipe with ingredient amounts, see the recipe card below.
Method 1: The Easy Way (the method I use)
- Using a coffee grinder, grind the dried chilies and any dried spices into a powder.
- Place the lemongrass, galangal, cilantro roots, and makrut lime zest into a narrow container; such as a glass measuring cup. Top it with the garlic and shallots and then use an immersion blender to blend everything until fine. You will need to lift and reposition the blender several times, stopping to scrape the bottom and bringing it to the top halfway through. See more about tools for making curry paste below.
- Once the mixture is fine, add the ground chili mixture, salt and shrimp paste and blend to mix.
- You can use right away, refrigerate for a few days, or freeze for a few months.
If using a mortar and pestle:
- Cut the dried chilies into 1-inch chunks and soak them in room temp water for at least half an hour (longer is better) until they are softened. Drain and pat dry as much as possible.
- Add the chilies to the mortar and add some coarse salt and pound into a paste.
- Once it's about 70% fine, add any dried spices you're using.
- Add lemongrass, galangal, makrut lime zest and cilantro stems and pound into a fine paste.
- Add the garlic and shallots and pound into a paste.
- At this stage get it as fine as you can. A smooth paste will mean a flavourful curry sauce and a smooth texture. (It took me about 16 minutes from start to finish)
- Add shrimp paste and pound to mix.
- Use right away, refrigerate for a few days, or freeze for a few months.
Curry Paste Making Tools
See the video tutorial for a demonstration of how to use these tools.
I have figured out through much trial and error that the most efficient way to make a curry paste is to use two tools:
- a coffee grinder/spice grinder for the dried ingredients; any cheap one will do, and here's what I use. I don't suggest sharing the same grinder with your coffee beans; but if you do, be sure to wash it thoroughly after!
- an immersion blender for the fresh herbs. I use a Breville which is a 280-watt model and is quite powerful. I don't know if a weaker one would work as well, but it's worth a try if you already have one.
If you only have a coffee grinder, that's fine, it will still be of tremendous help as the dried chilies are the toughest to grind down. You can then grind the fresh herbs by hand using a large granite mortar and pestle. No cute little marble sets for this!
You can of course just pound everything by hand in a mortar and pestle, as that is the traditional way. I have provided instructions for this also, but know that it will take some muscles, but most importantly, patience!
What about a food processor or a blender?
A blender is not ideal because in order for it to work well you need to make a LOT of paste, AND you need to add extra liquid. Using this paste in recipes will then be problematic due to all the extra liquid, and in some recipes it simply will not work.
A food processor is also not ideal because not only do you have to make a lot again to make it work properly, but it will never get the paste as fine as it needs to be. Your herbs will still be in small pieces, and your curry will not have the right flavour or texture.
Any Thai curry paste will last in the fridge in an airtight container for several days, BUT unless I have immediate plans to use it in the next few days, I always freeze my curry paste to preserve the flavours.
Freeze in a freezer bag, in portions so it's easy to use, and removing as much air from it as possible. You can also freeze in mason jars.
Other curry pastes you can make
Now that you've made a red curry paste, the good news is that all our other curry pastes will follow the same process, just with different ingredients! Next time, try this homemade Thai green curry paste which will be way more vibrant green than any store-bought version thanks to the added Thai basil. Or if you love the aroma or warm spices try making yellow curry paste or massaman curry paste!
Also explore my library of Thai curry recipes here for some more inspirations.Print
- ¾ ounce (20 g) mild dried red chilies, such as guajillo or puya, cut in ½-inch chunks
- ½ ounce (10 g) spicy dried red chilies, such as Thai or arbol chilies, cut in ½-inch chunks (see note 1)
- ½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) white peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon (5 ml) coarse salt (see note 2)
- 1 stalk lemongrass, bottom half only, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons (15 g) finely chopped galangal
- 4 cilantro roots, or 10 to 12 cilantro stems, chopped
- 2 teaspoons (10 ml) chopped makrut lime zest (see note 3)
- 6 cloves (30 g) garlic, chopped
- ½ cup (70 g) chopped shallots
- 2 teaspoons (10 ml) fermented shrimp paste, if vegan sub miso
- 2 teaspoons (10 ml ) coriander seeds, toasted
- 1 teaspoon (5 ml ) cumin seeds, toasted
METHOD 1: The Easy Way
- Grind dry spices with a coffee grinder: Add the dried chilies, peppercorns and salt into the coffee grinder. If using coriander and cumin seeds, add them as well. Grind into a fine powder. *Allow chili dust to settle fully before opening the grinder, and don't put your face over it when you do to avoid inhaling chili dust!
- Use an immersion blender for the herbs: Place the lemongrass, galangal, cilantro roots, and makrut lime zest in a narrow container, such as a glass measuring cup. Top it off with the garlic, shallots, and shrimp paste. (It is easier to blend with the moist ingredients on top.)
- Use the immersion blender to blend everything until fine. You will need to lift and reposition the blender several times, stopping to scrape the bottom and bringing it to the top halfway through.
- Once the mixture is fine, add the ground chili mixture and blend to mix.
METHOD 2: Mortar & Pestle
- Soak the dried chilies in water for at least 30 minutes, longer if possible, so they are softened. Drain and pat them dry as best you can. (Excess water will make it harder to pound.)
- Grind white peppercorns and any other dry spices into a powder. Remove and set aside.
- Pound the chilies with the salt into a fine paste. Once it starts to look mashed, add the ground dry spices to help absorb the moisture, then continue to pound into a fine paste.
- Add the lemongrass, galangal, cilantro roots, and makrut lime zest and pound into a fine paste.
- Add the garlic and shallots and pound into a fine paste.
- Add the ground chili mixture and pound until well combined. Add the shrimp paste and pound to mix.
*It took me 16 minutes of pounding for this amount of curry paste in a 3-cup mortar. Time will vary depending on your speed, strength, size of mortar, and amount of paste.
Use right away, store in the fridge for up to 3 days, or divide into portions and freeze for up to a few months.
- You can add as many of the spicy chilies as you like depending on how spicy you want the paste to be. The seeds can be left in for more heat or removed for less.
- Coarse salt will help break down chilies if you are hand-pounding. If using a grinder, use any salt.
- If you don’t have makrut lime zest, you can add 2-3 makrut lime leaves, torn into chunks, when making the curry. If you don't have the leaves, substitute regular lime zest in the curry paste.