In our episode The Food of Thailand, we explored many regional cuisines of Thailand. One common theme throughout many dishes is the essential curry; there are hundreds of Thai curries. The most common ones you see in the U.S. are probably based on coconut milk, and probably named after a color. The color comes from a curry paste, a flavor bomb of spices and aromatics. Francis Lam got a lesson on making homemade curry paste from Hong Thaimee, author of True Thai: Real Flavors for Every Table. Enjoy her recipe for Green Curry which includes instructions for the green curry paste made during their cooking lesson.

Francis Lam: Chef, thanks so much for coming to my house.

Hong Thaimee: Thanks so much for having me.

FL: Curry paste is such a key part of Thai cuisine. Certainly, you can buy lots of them, and many people I know who cook Thai food say many of those are great. But, if you want to truly great curry base, you have to make it yourself.

HT: True.

FL: I remember the very first Thai cookbook I ever bought; it was called True Thai. I remember the opening story in the book was about how when this chef came to the United States, he had a very small bag. He didn't have a lot of possessions, but he brought his mortar and pestle and he sat with it in his seat on the airplane. Is it that every Thai cook brings his or her mortar and pestle with them everywhere?

HT: I brought mine to your kitchen today! [laughs]

Hong Thaimee Mortar and Pestle Hong wasn't kidding. She brought her own mortar and pestle to Francis's kitchen! Photo: Erika Romero | The Splendid Table

FL: Let’s make this paste. You have a lot of ingredients with you. What kind of curry paste are we making?

HT: We're going to make green curry and make it super easy because it can be overwhelming for those who don't know Thai food at all. Right? We talk about white peppercorn. Some people asked, “What is white peppercorn?” If you cannot find white peppercorn, you can do it with black peppercorn. That's totally okay. And then cumin seeds and coriander seeds. Those are the dry ones. Then we move on to what I call the trinity in Thai cooking: lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves. But, in Thailand we will also use the rind of the kaffir lime.

FL: Oh, really? In addition to the leaves?

HT: Correct. But here it’s harder because of the rules and regulations.

FL: You can get the leaves imported, but it’s hard to get the fruit.

HT: Correct. And then the garlic, some shallots and to make it green, of course, you start with the green colored pepper. When you work with the red curry paste, then you work with the red chili peppers. But instead of using the fresh ones, I use to dry ones. We will rehydrate them by soaking them in water. And then never ever touch it with your bare hands because you never know what's going to happen. In Thailand we use the root of the cilantro. The aroma is so much stronger, it's going to make you fall in love with cilantro. That’s pretty much it.

In Thailand, to make it paste together, you put in a shrimp paste. But I choose not to put in shrimp paste to bind it together because the food allergy. We make this at a restaurant and we want to serve everybody. So we add it on at the end. Should we get started?

FL: Yeah.

Hong Thaimee and Francis Lam Roll up your sleeves! Working the mortar and pestle is quite a workout. Photo: Erika Romero | The Splendid Table

HT: To start, we're going to toast all the dry ingredients.

FL: The dry spices go into a warm pam. You can toast them together or do you have to do them separately?

HT: Together is fine. Dry Toast is super easy. Medium heat. Toasted.

FL: That smells so great. You can totally smell the cumin.

HT: I find that cumin makes green curry so much better. I'm taking all the toasted cumin, the pepper, and the cilantro seed and putting it into a mortar. You use your strong hand to hold that pestle and the other hand you use as a guard.

FL: I have to admit. I tell people all the time that if you’re using spices, buy them whole, toast them, and grind them in a spice grinder. But you never get this aroma that you get with a mortar and pestle. This smells incredible.

HT: Now, chili. Did you like it spicy?

FL: Sure.

HT: You know, Thai cooking is about being made to your taste. If you like it spicy, put more. If you don't like it spicy, you put less. No big deal. Now I'm going to start putting it more ingredients.

FL: And even though you’re covering it, some pieces are coming out. This is definitely a situation where you're going to use a vacuum afterwards. Do you pound and then grind?

HT: You do them at the same time because you want to mix it. Okay, I'm going to start shopping more ingredients. Galangal’s other name is blue ginger. Some garlic cloves to give the body. Then I’ll chop up some shallots.

Green Curry Paste Green curry paste hand-pounded in mortar and pestle Photo: Erika Romero | The Splendid Table

FL: I'm not going to lie. Working this mortar and pestle is pretty tiring.

HT: It is. That's why you have to breathe in; oxygen will help you. It's a stress releaser.

It’s so interesting because green curry in Thai is called gang kiew wan. Gang means curry. Kiew mean green. Wan means sweet. So, it’s a curry that is green and sweet. Sweet from coconut milk and palm sugar. So, it has that round sweetness to it.

And then you can make a spicy part to be added on. That is the myth about Thai food. People always think, “Oh, it's always spicy!” It doesn't have to be spicy.

FL: That varies region by region, too, right?

HT: True. Southern Thailand likes it more spicy.

FL: So, we’ve been pounding this paste for a while, but it still doesn’t have that deep Army green color of the curry paste you get out of a can. It looks much fresher, deeper green, and wetter.

HT: After 15 minutes or so, now all you have to do is pick your own protein and that should make the dish. So, after you pound all of this, you can have a meal in half an hour. And it’s healthy.

FL: We're going to make this again, but in a blender this time. Then we're going to have a little side by side tasting. When you make this in a blender, do you put everything in order or are you just throw it all in?

HT: I throw it all in and hit go. I always tell my friends to put in some liquid to help the machine. The best liquid to put in is a coconut milk because we’re going to cook that in coconut milk anyway.

FL: Just a few splashes of coconut milk go into the blender to help it move along.

Hong processes the ingredients in blender

FL: I'm not going to lie. It's still smells really good, but it does not smell the same.

HT: Right? It’s all shallots and garlic.

FL: And so much less of the basil, cilantro, the spices, the herbs. Should we just cook these really quick and try them?

HT: Okay.

Green Curry Paste Side by Side Two versions of green curry paste, one made with a blender (left) and one hand-pounded in mortar and pestle Photo: Erika Romero | The Splendid Table

FL: We have two pans on the stove, both with a bit of coconut milk; one has the pounded curry paste and the other has the blended curry paste. Let them bubble a little bit and wait for the color to change. Just a couple of tablespoons of coconut milk and a couple of tablespoons of the curry paste. Not quite a one-to-one ratio. A little more paste.

HT: Can you tell that the color has intensified? It smells really good. This is the process that I love because I mean, seriously, it's like all the aromatic and all the colors started to change. This is a time where you put in the protein.

FL: You're not looking for it to fry or reduce; you just want to get the moisture out of there and get the color to change a little bit – it deepens. And then you're ready to add the rest of your coconut milk into the curry.

HT: Then we're going to season with the palm sugar.

FL: And if you don't have palm sugar?

HT: Brown sugar or maple syrup – believe it or not.

FL: Right on. I love the pounded paste because it's a little chunky, but cooking down in the coconut milk it looks glossy, it looks smooth. Adding a little bit of fish sauce for salt and aroma.

HT: And we’re done. Let's taste it!

FL: Basically, it's a consistency right now of a light cream soup or light cream sauce.

HT: Let’s taste the mortar and pestle one first. Oh, wow.

FL: The flavors have all come together. It's definitely sweet from the palm sugar, but it also has a natural sweetness.

HT: Taste the blended one.

FL: It’s definitely tasty, for sure. I’d be really happy to eat that. The smell of the garlic and shallots is already gone.

HT: The homemade one – the one from the mortar and pestle – is more well-rounded, more harmonious.

FL: In a funny way. Because you’d expect the blender to make it more harmonious. The pounding really brings all the oils together.

HT: The flavors deepen. 

FL: This has been wonderfully education. I’m convince that I now need to pound my curry paste until my arm falls off. [laughs] I got a workout today.

HT: It was a pleasure being here.

Try Hong Thaimee's recipe for Green Curry, which includes her instructions for making green curry paste. Photo: Nina Scholl
Francis Lam
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.