Green curry is one of the most famous dishes of Thai cuisine, and my #1 most popular recipe on YouTube. But over the years I’ve had many people ask how to make it vegan without compromising on flavour.
Sure, you can just sub some tofu for the meat and add salt instead of fish sauce, but to make a really great vegan Thai green curry recipe, one that will satisfy even meat eaters, we gotta go a little further!
How to Make a Vegan Thai Curry without Compromising on Flavour
Many people on plant-based diets are drawn to Thai food because we don't eat as much meat as in a Western diet, and the meat usually comes in small pieces rather than a big hunk that's the center of the meal. But many are also surprised by how much animal products are hidden in Thai food! Fish sauce, shrimp paste, oyster sauce, dried shrimp, and even ground up fish added to thicken our sour curry.
So when we remove meat and animal products from a Thai curry, we’re also removing a couple of important things. First, the umami - that rich, savoury flavour we all love. Second, the chewy texture - a key ingredient in a dish that feels substantial and satisfying.
So when I make a vegan dish, these are my two goals:
- Pack it with plant-based umami flavor, as without this the dish will taste “weak.”
- Choosing ingredients with a substantial chew. If you don't, it’ll taste like a side dish rather than a complete, hearty meal.
For “better” vegan green curry paste:
If you're feeling ambitious, you can make the curry paste from scratch using my homemade green curry paste recipe. But rest assured that store bought curry pastes are perfectly fine; however adding a few key ingredients will make it even better.
- Green curry paste. Many grocery stores, even non-Asian ones, carry green curry paste, but you need to read the ingredient list to make sure it does not contain shrimp paste or fish sauce.
- Miso paste. Traditional Thai curry pastes have fermented shrimp paste (gapi) added for umami, but many store bought pastes leave this out to make it vegetarian-friendly. Adding miso puts the umami flavour back in without the shrimp.
- Dried shiitake mushroom. A rockstar in Asian vegan cooking, dried shiitake mushrooms are loaded with umami, and a key ingredient in my vegan Thai red curry recipe. We can easily grate this right into the curry paste using a microplane.
- Leafy greens such as baby spinach or Thai basil. Green curry gets its colour from green chillies, but most commercial pastes don't add a lot of green chillies to keep it from being too spicy, so the curry paste ends up a bit pale. Adding greens is how we can boost the colour without adding more heat! Spinach breaks down easily in a mortar and pestle so it's become my go-to, but any other greens will work.
PS. This is not "my hack," it is something Thai people routinely do using whatever leafy greens are available.
For the vegan green curry
- Coconut milk. Use full-fat coconut milk; coconut milk's flavour is in the fat, so light coconut milk is also light in flavour! Watch this video for a guide to choosing coconut milk.
- Water or unsalted vegetable stock; but avoid vegetable stocks with a strong flavour or very dark colour which can clash with the curry.
- Palm sugar, coconut sugar, or light brown sugar.
- Soy sauce or vegan fish sauce.
- Fried tofu (pic below). I choose fried tofu because the skin is chewy, adding to the substantial feel of the curry. Your local Asian market probably sells it pre-fried, but you can also buy firm or extra firm tofu and fry it yourself just until a golden brown skin is formed. Any other vegan protein that is chewy can be used instead.
- Bamboo shoots strips, canned. Another firm vegetable you have to chew that's easy to use! You can substitute another firm, crunchy vegetable such as baby corn, al-dente-cooked green beans, or sugar snap peas.
- Winter melon or thai eggplant. Some softer veggies to complete the curry. Winter melon and Thai eggplant are classic pairings with green curry, but you can sub other vegetables of your choice here.
- Red bell pepper for some colour.
- Thai basil leaves, or regular fresh basil.
- Makrut lime leaves (kaffir lime leaves). This is optional; don't sweat it if you can't find it. Most store bought curry paste already has makrut lime zest in it.
- In a mortar and pestle, grind the leafy greens into a fine paste.
- Add the miso paste, then use a microplane zester to grate the shiitake mushroom (don’t worry about grating the stem; you can add it to the curry to extract more umami if you want, but don’t eat it as it’ll be chewy.)
- Add the curry paste and pound just to mix. You can make this paste in bulk and freeze for later use.
- In a large pot, add about ¾ cup of coconut milk and reduce it over medium-high heat until thick; about 5 minutes.
- Once thick, turn it down to medium heat and add the curry paste.
- Stir until very thick and the coconut oil separates from the curry paste; 3-5 minutes.
- Add the rest of the coconut milk and water; bring to a boil.
- Add the fried tofu, bamboo shoots, winter melon, palm sugar, and half of the soy sauce. Grab the makrut lime leaves and twist them to bruise and tear before adding them into the pot. Simmer the curry until the winter melon is fork tender; about 10 minutes.
- When you’re about 1 minute out, add the red bell pepper so it will finish cooking with the winter melon. (If using different vegetables, see the full recipe for how to adjust cooking time.) Taste and adjust the seasoning, then turn off the heat and stir in fresh basil, letting it wilt in the residual heat.
- Serve with jasmine rice - and as with most Thai curries, it will taste even better the next day!
Pro-Tip: Ordering Vegetarian Curries in Thai Restaurants
Thai curries are always seasoned with fish sauce, and some curry pastes contain shrimp paste. While many Thai restaurants will be happy to make you a "vegetarian curry" when asked, I suggest also asking them whether there is fish sauce or shrimp paste in it. Many Thai cooks are not familiar with plant-based diets, so they may not think to mention these hidden ingredients.
Most Thai restaurants also make their curry sauce in advance, so unless they add the fish sauce to order (unlikely, but possible), they cannot modify their sauce to make it vegan for specific orders.
Herbs and spices in Thai curries are natural preservatives, so in an airtight container in the fridge, this will last you at least a week, and probably longer, making this a great recipe for meal prep!
If you want to freeze it, I recommend freezing just the green curry sauce and the bamboo shoots, because freezing veggies and tofu will affect their texture when thawed.
Frequently Asked Questions
Coconut cream will make this curry very rich. If that's what you want, go for it, but if you want to keep the same richness profile, use about 40% less of it and add more water to make up for the volume.
From experience I know that Aroy-D, Maesri and Thai Kitchen brands do not contain shrimp paste. Maeploy, though is my favourite in terms of flavour, does contain shrimp paste. Exported versions to different countries may differ, so always read the ingredient list!
Yes, of course! But I chose to show adding these ingredients to the curry paste because it's useful to make this paste in bulk and freeze so you don't have to do this every time. If making a lot, you can grind the shiitake mushroom up in a food processor or a blender instead of using a microplane.
Absolutely. I always freeze opened curry paste that I have no immediate plans for. While it will last a long time in the fridge, freezing ensures that flavours of the herbs and spices remain intact for longer. I freeze it in the plastic tub that it comes in, but you can transfer it into a mason jar or a freezer bag.
Before you start, watch the video tutorial to ensure success! Especially if you're new to Thai cooking, it is always helpful to see it in action. The video is in the recipe card below, but you can also watch it on YouTube!
Vegan Thai Green Curry
- mortar and pestle or a blender (both optional)
For an "improved" vegan curry paste
- ¼ cup green curry paste, store bought or homemade (see note 1)
- 10-15 leaves of greens such as baby spinach or Thai basil, finely julienned (see note 2)
- 1 dried shiitake mushroom, medium size, about 5-6 g
- 2 teaspoons miso paste
For the vegan green curry
- 2 cups coconut milk
- 1 cup water
- 7 oz fried tofu, bite-sized pieces (see note 3)
- 5.3 oz canned bamboo shoots strips, drained and rinsed well (half a can)
- 9 oz winter melon, 1-inch chunks (see note 4)
- 1 Tbsp palm sugar, finely chopped, or substitute brown sugar
- 2 Tbsp soy sauce, or vegan fish sauce
- 6 makrut lime leaves, optional
- ½ red bell pepper, julienned (optional for colour)
- 1 cup Thai basil leaves
- Jasmine rice, for serving
- The amount of curry paste provided is just a guide. You can add more if you can tolerate more heat, or add less next time if you find this too spicy. Adding more will also add more flavour, but keep in mind that curry paste contains salt, so be prepared to adjust the amount of soy sauce accordingly.
- Baby spinach I find is breaks down most easily in a mortar and pestle, but any leafy greens will work.
- You can buy fried tofu at Asian grocery stores. If not available, you can get firm or extra firm tofu and fry it yourself until a golden brown skin forms. Another chewy vegan protein can be substituted.
- Thai eggplant is another great vegetable to use instead of winter melon. You can also sub another softer vegetable such as zucchini.
FULL VIDEO TUTORIAL
All my recipes come with step-by-step video tutorials with extra tips not mentioned in the blog post, so make sure you watch the video to ensure success. If you enjoy them, consider subscribing to the YouTube Channel to not miss an episode. Thank you!Subscribe to my YouTube Channel
For the curry paste
- In a mortar and pestle, grind the leafy greens into a fine paste. Add the miso paste, then use a microplane zester to grate the shiitake mushroom (don’t worry about the stem. You can throw the stem into the curry to extract more umami if you want, but don’t eat it as it’ll be chewy.) Add the curry paste and pound just to mix. You can make this paste in bulk and freeze for later use.Without a mortar and pestle, you can blend the leafy greens with some of the coconut milk that you'll add to the curry. Then simply mix the curry paste, miso and grated mushroom together.10-15 leaves of greens such as baby spinach or Thai basil, 1 dried shiitake mushroom, 2 teaspoons miso paste, ¼ cup green curry paste
For the green curry
- In a heavy-bottomed, large pot, add about ¾ cup of coconut milk and reduce it over medium-high heat until thick; about 5 minutes.2 cups coconut milk
- Reduce the heat to medium and add the curry paste; stir until very thick and coconut oil separates from the curry paste; 3-5 minutes. (If you’ve been at it for a while, and the paste is very thick, but no oil has separated, you can move on; some coconut milk has been processed to prevent separation.)
- Add the rest of the coconut milk and water; bring to a boil. Add the fried tofu, bamboo shoots, winter melon, palm sugar, and about half of the soy sauce. Grab the makrut lime leaves and twist them to bruise and tear before adding them into the pot. Simmer the curry until the winter melon is fork tender; about 10 minutes. When you’re about 1 minute out, add the red bell pepper so it will finish cooking with the winter melon. (If using different vegetables, adjust the cooking time accordingly, but if your vegetables take only a few minutes to cook, let the curry simmer without it for at least 10 minutes before adding, as you want the total simmering time to be a minimum of 10 minutes to allow flavours to mingle.)1 cup water, 7 oz fried tofu, 5.3 oz canned bamboo shoots strips, 9 oz winter melon, 1 Tbsp palm sugar, 2 Tbsp soy sauce, 6 makrut lime leaves, ½ red bell pepper
- Taste and adjust the seasoning with more soy sauce as needed; you can also add more salt. If it needs more sugar, add granulated or brown sugar at this point to ensure it dissolves quickly. (It should not taste sweet, but the sweetness is added to balance the salt.)
- Turn off the heat and stir in fresh basil, letting it wilt in the residual heat.1 cup Thai basil leaves
- Serve with jasmine rice - and as with most Thai curries, it will taste even better the next day!Jasmine rice