What Is Thai Curry Anyway?
The last year or so has had me diving deep into, and trying to comprehend, the seemingly endless world of Thai curry, or gaeng, a part of Thai cuisine that needs some elaboration because it exists so arbitrarily in the mind of most people in the west.
And I was one of those people until I started asking questions.
“What do you mean you can’t substitute ginger for galangal?” I’d ask my chef friends, feeling limited in my options due to hard-to-find ingredients. I’d argue that they’re both rhizomes.
Well, turmeric is also a rhizome, and that’s a fucking terrible substitute for galangal.
“Which curries don’t use galangal?” I’d ask myself. “Are they any that are vegetarian by default?”, “Are dry curries still considered curries?”.
The questions seemingly never ended.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that all Thai curries are sweet, rich, and made with coconut milk. Just like me, you’ve probably sampled the soupy, pastel-coloured green, red, and yellow curries seemingly on offer at every Thai restaurant in the west. All ostensibly garnished in the same way, barely spicy and most seasoned on the sweet side. They’ve become the face of Thai curries worldwide.
And it’d seem that it was on purpose. In an episode of The Splendid Table podcast, Professor Mark Padoongpatt, author of Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America, talks about the Thai government training chefs and sending them overseas to open restaurants, with the hope of standardising the perception of Thai cuisine abroad.
The Thai governement has been invested in this to really promote Thai cuisine. It’s a part of their national economic development plan that was started around the early 2000s.
I tip my hat to whoever reduced Thai cuisine down to a couple of dozen dishes; they were remarkably crafty.
So what defines a curry for Thai people? Does the word gaeng simply translate to curry? In short, no. To answer these questions, and those of the like, it seems that you need to dig a little deeper.
Thai people refer to the dishes that the rest of the world call “Thai curries” as gaeng.
As Andy Ricker explains his book Pok Pok:
As I understand it, a souplike dish becomes gaeng if it involves a paste of chiles and aromatics that is either dissolved in broth or fried, then diluted with liquids such as broth or coconut milk.
Then, of course, there are exceptions to Andy’s definition.
Yam Jin Gai, northern chicken soup, is made by dissolving a paste in broth but is nonetheless considered a tom, or soup.
So it’d seem that all gaeng are curries but not all curries are gaeng— at least when transliterations are involved. Take khua kling for example, the fiery stir-fried dish of the south. It’s made with a paste and considered a “dry” curry but not gaeng. Thai people probably don’t even describe it as a “dry curry”; they don’t need to.
And that’s the beautiful thing about what we call Thai curry. It’s arbitrary definition and transliterations leave us westerners with a wealth of variations to explore, albeit under our umbrella term of curry.
It’s worth clarifying that the English word curry has no real relation to the Thai word gaeng. Curry comes from the Tamil word kárii, meaning “sauce for rice”.
Thais use the word karii to refer to dishes with prominent South Asian influence — like gaeng karii, a relatively mild, yellow-tinted curry with a paste with Indian spices — or dishes that contain curry powder, like puu phat phong karii, stir-fried crab with curry powder and eggs.
The name game alone was enough to make me scratch my head until I started diving into the regional cuisines — north (Lanna), northeastern (Isaan), central, and southern (Dtai).
Like most, my first few curries at home were of the central region's style, and pretty bad at that. I put on my proverbial training wheels, ripped open packets of premade curry paste (Mae Ploy brand, I believe) and dumped in cans of coconut milk.
Consequently, most of those curries sucked. They were too soupy and the seasoning was all over the place. Far too sweet and spicy.
Nothing like the delightful gaeng keow wan (green curry) that I sampled in Mexico City some time ago, made by my stupidly-talented friend Tyler. It was pleasantly spicy and not too sweet; thick and firmly herbaceous.
But I live in Latin America, and I can’t always get my hands on decent coconut milk, or if I can, it’s often expensive. So, I started looking to the north of Thailand where they barely touch the stuff — coconut trees don’t grow in the mountains. But again, more exceptions. One of the most popular dishes of the north, Khao Soi — chicken curry noodles — is made with lots of coconut milk.
The north is an interesting melting pot of cultures. It’s home to ethnic groups like the Shan, Hmong, and Akha. There’s a noticeable Yunnanese and Burmese influence on a lot of northern dishes and a crowd favourite is gaeng hung lay, Burmese-style pork belly curry with ginger.
Pork belly wasn’t always my thing. At one point, no meat was. I used to be vegetarian and never had an idea of what curries to cook. I’d convince myself of shit like “Thai curries have to have meat” and “all the vegetarian ones just have tofu”.
Well, the tofu part is true if you’re getting your curry recipes from master-of-none food bloggers sharing “authentic” recipes.
I shared my thoughts in a previous article on the misuse of the word authentic.
The Uncomfortable Truth About Authenticity
Why it’s time to give up on a term that has lost all meaning
But it turns out that many curries from the north are vegetarian, or at least very vegetable-forward. The meat was, and still is for some, historically scarce in the north.
That gave way to plant-forward curries like gaeng khanun, young jackfruit curry. I say plant-forward not plant-based as this curry typically has some pork, but you could easily take the general idea and sub mushrooms.
But my vegetarian days are over, and now I’m trying to study Thai cuisine and cook traditional recipes as precisely as possible, meat and all. However, my lack of a reliable source of galangal increases the barrier to entry.
So I went looking to the south; home to the Muslim-Thai and land of Khaek curries.
Khaek curries are those that have south Asian influence. They’re often made with ginger instead of galangal, or neither, and interestingly, many are served with Malaysian-style roti, called roti paratha or roti canai.
Try an almost impossibly-thick Muslim-style curry with roti and tell me it’s not a game-changer.
The most well-known example of Muslim-style curry is gaeng massaman. The term massaman is a corruption of the term mosalman, an archaic word derived from Persian, meaning “Muslim”.
Austin Bush, the author of The Food of Northern Thailand, has been spending a considerable amount of time in southern Thailand for his upcoming book, The Food of Southern Thailand.
A quick look at his Instagram shows dishes that I hadn’t even heard about, let alone seen: Gai yang kor lae, grilled chicken with curry paste, with roots in the Malaysian version Ayae Kawlae; Khaeng patchari, pineapple curry from Satun; and Mee khaeng, noodles in a mild curry broth with chicken and winter melon.
While southern dishes are sometimes intimidatingly spicy, they aren’t always, and spice level certainly isn’t a qualifier of a good dish. Leela Punyaratabandhu, author of Bangkok and the blog Shesimmers, said it with more fervour than I could.
It’s not accurate, either, to say that all or most southern Thai dishes are, or are supposed to be, spicy hot, because I can give you a long list of those that aren’t. Then again, they sometimes are. And, in this region, when they are, they never half-heartedly are, timidly are, or mildly are; they enthusiastically are, audaciously are, and exceedingly are. They so are you can’t help but notice that they are.
If spice level were a qualifier for southern curries, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the likes of pla daeng (fried fish) or khao mok gai (Thai Biryani). Moo hong (stewed pork belly) would be out too, among many others.
Southern gaeng are often approachable in terms of ingredients too. Some southern-style curry pastes are as simple as chiles, shallots, garlic, and gapi (shrimp paste).
In accepting that most curries are meant to be enjoyed without the spice sweats, mine have improved drastically. Many successful curries later and I feel like I’m only scratching the surface of gaeng. Not haphazardly throwing ginger into everything forced me to look harder and find some new regional dishes with a rich history of immigration and fusion.
I learned not to demonise the premade pastes. Power to those with busy schedules. Interestingly, most Thai families these days buy their pastes premade from market vendors. Not everybody wants to pound everything from scratch every time they want a curry. So embrace the premade paste but use it reasonably. Play with the flavour profile and always fry it or boil it adequately for the style of dish.
The road to fully understanding gaeng is a long one; seemingly infinite. Taking a deep dive into gaeng has reminded me, time and time again, that I know nothing. I still have a ridiculous amount to learn, and I like it that way.
I’ve been limited in some way by not speaking or reading Thai, but there are solutions. We may lack translated Thai food literature, but we have Google translate. We have ways to browse and understand languages we don’t speak, which seems to be working, for now.
I hope in some way this incites curiosity in somebody. That they learn a new recipe, or get their hands on a Thai cookbook and seemingly never put it down. But it’d be even better if they were to simply cook.