A Guide to Thai-Style Salads

Thai salads fall into four main categories, and once you have a handle on the basics you’ll be able to make Thai-style salads with what you have on hand.

Side view of som tum thai (green papaya salad) in a serving bowl
Vicky Wasik

Salads are an integral part of a Thai meal. Growing up in Thailand, there were few dinners that didn’t involve some sort of a salad. And it’s not because we wanted to make sure we ate our vegetables! In fact, most of our salads are protein-centric with few veggies. Salads are typically served because they serve as the “fresh” component of a well-balanced Thai meal. So if you want to experience a Thai meal like a Thai, learning about our salads is absolutely crucial.

There are hundreds of variations of Thai salads, but generally speaking, they can all be grouped into four distinct categories: yam, tam, laab, and pla. While these differents styles of salads share many ingredients, they each have defining characteristics, especially in terms of culinary technique. The good news is that once you learn the basic principles of these four types of salad, you'll easily be able to make all of their variations, and even experiment on your own without a recipe.

I’ve been teaching Thai cooking for over 12 years and my philosophy has always been to go beyond recipes and look at the bigger picture to understand the overarching themes, since that's how you really “get” a cuisine.

The Four Key Ingredients of Thai Salad Dressings

Before diving into the four main styles of Thai salads, let’s first look at the dressing, as it's a component that's shared across the categories. Thai salad dressings typically use the same staple ingredients. This is not an exhaustive list. Rather, these are the four main ingredients added to most dressings.

Fish sauce: I can't think of a Thai salad that doesn’t incorporate fish sauce. It’s the main seasoning element that lends saltiness and umami to the dish. Because fish sauce plays such a prominent role in Thai salads, it’s important to use a high quality product, like fish sauce produced by the brands Red Boat, Squid, or Three Crabs.

Lime juice: Unlike Western vinaigrettes and dressings that use all kinds of vinegars and citrus to provide acidity, Thai salads all feature fresh lime juice as the main source of sourness. Some salads supplement lime juice with tamarind paste for extra pucker, but that’s pretty much it.

Sugar: With a few exceptions, most Thai salads are sweetened with sugar to help balance the salinity and acidity of the dressing. Both granulated white sugar and palm sugar are commonly used, although sometimes nam prik pao, a sweet and savory Thai chile jam, is used to give a salad sweetness with extra depth of flavor.

Chiles: Thai salads can range from mildly spicy to burning hot, but every Thai salad has at least some chile heat. Both fresh and dried chiles are used, delivering a sharp capsaicin bite or a more subdued, slow-building background heat, depending on the type of salad.

The Four Categories of Thai Salads

There are no words in Thai that can be translated as “salad,” but we have several words for categories of dishes that are made by tossing ingredients together with a dressing (like a salad!). There are four main categories of Thai salads as described below, and these cover the vast majority the salads you’ll come across, in Thailand or otherwise, and anything not covered here would be lesser-known, region-specific dishes.

Yam

Overhead of yam khai dao on a serving plate.

In terms of the ingredients that can be tossed with this dressing, you can yam pretty much anything (and, yes, yam is a verb), from meats and eggs to noodles and vegetables, and even leftovers in your fridge. Most traditional yams are made with a protein as the main ingredient, paired with some crunchy vegetables like onions or Chinese celery as well as others, like tomatoes, to provide balance. Fresh herbs like cilantro and scallions are usually added to a yam to lend it a bright finish.

Examples of Yam

Yam Khai Dao: A yam in which the primary protein is fried eggs.

Yam Woon Sen: A yam featuring glass noodles, poached ground pork, and poached shrimp.

How to Make Yam

  1. Make the dressing. Start by pounding fresh chiles in a mortar and pestle into a paste. If using palm sugar, add it to the mortar, and pound until it has mostly dissolved into the paste. Finish the dressing by stirring in the liquid ingredients—fish sauce and lime juice—until the palm sugar is fully dissolved.
  2. Cook any components that require cooking. Whether you’re frying eggs for yam khai dao or simmering shrimp, pork, and glass noodles for yam woon sen, get any cooking done once you’ve finished making the dressing.
  3. Dress, garnish, and serve. All that’s left to do is toss everything together with the dressing and add any garnishes before serving. Along with fresh herbs, you might consider topping a yam with some roasted peanuts or cashews if the salad is lacking in the crunch department.

Note: If you don’t have a mortar and pestle you can finely mince the chiles and stir everything together, though if using palm sugar you’ll want to chop it finely and make sure it has enough time to fully dissolve in the dressing.

Tam

Dressed som tam salad in wooden mortar.
Vicky Wasik

Tam-style salads are pounded salads found in both Thai and Lao cuisines. Som tam, which combines the word for sour (som) and the term for pounding in a mortar (tam), has become synonymous with green papaya salad, which is easily the most well-known tam-style salad. But there are countless variations on the theme that use ingredients beyond green papaya, such as cucumber or corn.

Like a prik gaeng (curry paste), tam salads come together by pounding ingredients together in a mortar and pestle. However, unlike with a curry paste, the goal isn't to pound the ingredients into a fine paste, but rather to lightly crush and bruise them just until they release their aromas, after which they're all mixed together in the mortar. This gentler pounding process requires the use of a large clay or wooden mortar with a wooden pestle, rather than the granite kind used to make curry pastes. Along with giving you the ability to pound with a lighter touch, this larger mortar also works as a mixing bowl, allowing you to toss the ingredients together with a large spoon after pounding. This style of mortar comes in a variety of sizes, but even if you don’t go with an extra-large model, you can use the mortar to make the salad up until you no longer have room, then transfer the ingredients to a mixing bowl for the final mix since you don’t really need to pound in the final stages anyway.

A wooden mortar and pestle
Vicky Wasik

The basic dressing for tam includes fish sauce, palm sugar, lime juice, garlic and fresh chiles. Tamarind paste is often used in combination with lime juice for a more well-rounded acidity, and sometimes pla ra—an unfiltered fermented fish sauce—is added for a funky savory note. The flavor profile of a tam salad can vary widely depending on peoples’ preferences, and can be easily adjusted with an extra dash of fish sauce, squeeze of lime, or spoonful of sugar to fit individual tastes. Although seeing as sour (som) is one of the main features of tam salads, it should be prominently featured.

A yam is the most generic type of Thai salad with the least number of “rules.” Yam (pronounced “yahm”) salads are characterized by a bright, balanced dressing that contains the “primary” flavors commonly associated with Thai cooking—spicy, sour, salty, and sweet—in the form of fresh chiles, lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar. Sometimes garlic, nam prik pao, and/or coconut milk are added for a more distinct flavor.

Unlike the other types of salads, tam is the one category that does not generally use a protein as the main ingredient. As I noted above, shredded green papaya is the most popular som tam ingredient, with long beans and tomatoes also playing supporting roles in most tam-style salads. Cucumber, corn, Thai eggplant, or rice noodles are some other commonly used ingredients, but anything is game, including fruits like apples! Some other “flourishes” you’ll see frequently are roasted peanuts, dried shrimp, salted duck eggs, and little pickled crabs.

Examples of Tam

Som Tam Thai: Green papaya salad, the most famous tam in the world.

Tam Khao Pod Kai Kem: A tam that features cured duck eggs and fresh sweet corn.

Basic Method for Making Tam

  1. Pound the aromatics and hard-to-break-down ingredients. Start by pounding aromatics like garlic and chiles into a very coarse paste. Next up, palm sugar and dried shrimp. Pound these until the shrimp are slightly broken down and the palm sugar is mostly dissolved. If you are incorporating roasted nuts into the salad you can pound them at this point, just until they break apart, making sure not to turn them into nut butter.
  2. Add in and pound vegetables that benefit from bruising. Pound vegetables like long beans and tomatoes just until they bruise and release their juices. Again, the goal is to bruise the ingredients, not turn them into a paste.
  3. Stir in liquids and finish the dressing. Add fish sauce, lime juice, tamarind, and other liquid ingredients like pla ra. Use the pestle to stir, working it against the sides of the mortar to completely dissolve the palm sugar and make sure it's well-incorporated in the dressing.
  4. Incorporate additional vegetables and serve. Finally, you add the vegetables you want to mostly just toss with the dressing, which will be the main ingredients of a tam salad. Depending on what kind of tam it is, you may not want to pound any more at this point, and all that’s left to do is simply stir with a large spoon to mix. For example, if you're using corn and want to keep it in chunks rather than individual kernels, or if you're incorporating apples, you don't really want to pound at all. For firmer ingredients, like shredded green papaya or cabbage, you can lightly pound them in the mortar while also mixing everything with a large spoon, until they are slightly wilted and mixed in with the rest of the salad. Take care not to over-pound at this stage since you want to retain the fresh crunch of these ingredients. Serve the salad right away to make sure the ingredients don’t become soggy as they sit in the dressing. 

Laab and Nam Tok

Serving bowl of pork laab with a bowl of sticky rice in the background
Vicky Wasik

First things first, it's laab not laRRRRb. If you're wondering whether laab and larb are the same thing, yes, they are. While there are many common transliterations for laab, laab and laap provide much better approximations of the correct pronunciation for the word in Thai, as the "ar" sound in English resembles the Thai pronunciation the least.

Laab is a style of salad found primarily in northeastern Thailand and Laos, typically made with finely chopped or ground meats that are cooked and then tossed with a simple dressing of lime juice, fish sauce, and coarsely ground dried chiles, along with fresh herbs, particularly mint, and, most important of all, khao khua, or toasted-rice powder.

Khao khua is made by dry-toasting uncooked rice until it turns dark brown and takes on a beautiful toasty aroma, and then grinding the rice into a coarse powder in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. Traditionally it is made with sticky rice, the main type of rice consumed in the Northeast region of Isan (steamed sticky rice is also always served with laab). However, in recent years I’ve started making khao khua with jasmine rice because I find it more aromatic. Toasted-rice powder is a non-negotiable ingredient for laab. It's the defining flavor of this dish that cannot be omitted or substituted.

The typical main ingredient for laab is meat; pork, chicken, beef, and duck are all fair game. Laab has its roots as a “whole animal” preparation made with whatever was available, which explains the abundance of herbs and chiles used in the salad, as they help mask any gaminess of the meat. Because of this, in Thailand you’ll often find the corresponding offal added to laab as well—such as pork laab with pork liver, intestine, and skin added to the minced pork shoulder. Modern day laab has become more simplified since now we get to pick and choose whatever part of the animal we want from the store!

The freshness in laab comes from loads of fresh herbs and aromatics. Shallots, mint, cilantro, and scallions are standard ingredients, but people also sometimes add culantro (a.k.a. sawtooth coriander), lemongrass, galangal, and makrut lime leaves. As mentioned earlier, fresh mint leaves are an absolute must. Like toasted rice powder, mint is one of the key components of laab.

The leading flavors of laab should be sour and spicy, with a savory-salty finish from fish sauce. Unlike other salads, sugar does not feature prominently in laab, as the natural sweetness and richness from the meat works to balance the heat of the chiles and acidity of the lime juice. The steamed sticky rice served alongside laab also works to temper the sharp, assertive seasoning of the salad. That said, it wouldn’t be “wrong” to add a pinch of sugar to a laab if you felt like it needed it.

I also want to quickly mention nam tok here because it’s basically the same as a laab, but instead of chopped meat it uses grilled and thinly sliced meats. Grilled pork jowl and beef steaks are two most popular choices of meats for nam tok.

Example of Laab

Laab Moo Isan: A laab that features minced, poached pork as its main ingredient.

Basic Method for Making Laab

  1. Cook the meat. Making laab is a simple one-pot affair. Start by cooking the meat in a saucepan with just a tiny splash of water (no oil!), stirring constantly, until it is just cooked through. You don’t want any browning—the goal is to keep the meat moist, and its flavor should be a complementary feature in the salad, not the focal point.
  2. Add seasonings and aromatics off-heat. Once the meat is fully cooked, take the saucepan off-heat, and add fish sauce, lime juice, and ground dried chiles. These ingredients combine with liquid released by the meat during the cooking process to form a dressing that is readily absorbed by the still-warm meat. At this point you can also add thinly sliced aromatics like shallot, lemongrass, and makrut lime leaves; the residual heat in the saucepan helps take the sharp raw edge off of them without sacrificing their aroma and texture.
  3. Cool slightly then stir in delicate herbs and khao khua. Allow the mixture to cool for a few minutes before stirring in fresh herbs that wilt and bruise when subjected to high heat. Sturdier herbs like culantro, scallions, and stemmy cilantro can be added while the mixture is still warm, just not piping hot. Mint is the most vital fresh herb for laab, and it’s best to hold off on adding it until right before serving, as it will bruise, blacken, and turn bitter if left to marinate in the acidic dressing with the warm meat. You can serve laab warm or at room temperature, so you can hold off on adding the final touches while you get the rest of the meal ready. Wait until the last moment to add the khao khua as well. The toasted-rice powder helps to thicken the dressing and lends a subtle, pleasant crunch to the salad, but if you stir it in too early it will really soak up the dressing and become gloopy. Make sure to have all of the other components of your meal, like the sticky rice that always accompanies laab, ready to go before stirring in the khao khua and mint, and then serve right away.

If you are making nam tok, the process is exactly the same except for cooking the meat. For nam tok, grill and then thinly slice cuts of meat like pork jowl, flank steak, skirt steak, or hanger steak before tossing the slices with the dressing.

Pla

The way in which pla salads are prepared has changed over time. Traditionally, pla-style salads were made with thinly sliced raw beef or seafood that was “cooked” with the acid of lime juice, much like ceviche, and then tossed with fresh herbs, chiles, and a dressing. Nowadays, this practice has become quite rare (no pun intended), and the meat or seafood is either fully or partially cooked before being tossed with the acidic dressing, presumably because people have become less inclined to eat raw proteins due to food-safety concerns

So most of the time when you eat pla today, it will be a salad made from lightly cooked shrimp, beef, or fish. The dressing—a combination of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and chile—is similar to a standard yam dressing, but Thai chile paste or dried roasted chile flakes are often added to impart an extra layer of heat. The protein is given time to marinate with the dressing, along with ingredients like sliced lemongrass, mint, and any other available fresh Thai herbs.

Basic Method for Making Pla

  1. For traditional pla. Marinate thinly sliced raw proteins with lime juice. For new-school pla, lightly cook the protein. If you want to make “old school” pla, start out with thinly sliced raw beef, shrimp, or fish. Toss it with lime juice and let it sit for at least five minutes while you make the rest of the dressing with fish sauce, chiles, and sugar, or any other seasonings.
  2. For a more modern, cooked pla. Use whichever cooking technique matches best with your protein of choice. For shrimp, poaching and grilling are great options. For steak, grilling or pan-searing are ideal. You can decide whether to cook the proteins to rare, medium, or all the way through.
  3. Dress and serve. Once the protein turns opaque and takes on the texture that you like (you can read more about the science of marinades here)—for new-school pla, once the meat or seafood has rested after cooking and has been sliced it into pieces—toss it with the dressing, along with fresh herbs such as lemongrass, cilantro, scallions, and makrut lime leaves. Serve pla with jasmine rice.

Go Make Some Salads!

Now that you know about the major types of Thai salad, it’s time to start cooking! If you’ve never had a Thai salad before, I suggest starting out with one of the traditional recipes linked here so you have a reference point. Then, you can experiment! Salads in Thailand are just as flexible as they are in the West, so don’t be afraid to try out different combinations of ingredients. Remember that Thai salads are not meant to be served on their own, so for the full experience, make a meal out of it with rice and maybe a curry. If you need some ideas, my guide for how to compose a well-balanced Thai meal can help you figure out what else to serve with all the delicious Thai salads you're going to make.

Nam Prik Pao (Thai Chile Jam)

This versatile, savory-sweet roasted chile paste adds umami richness to Thai soups, salads, and stir-fries, or can be used on its own as a spread or dip.

A spoonful of nam prik pao being lifted out of a jar.
VIcky Wasik

Nam prik pao is versatile pantry staple in Thai cuisine, a thick, savory, sweet, and slightly spicy paste—or jam or relish, if you prefer—primarily made from dried spur chiles, garlic, shallots, and dried shrimp. It's used as a flavor-boosting condiment for soups, stir-fries, salads, and fried rice. You can also used it as a spread for toast and sandwiches.

The "pao" in nam prik pao means to burn or grill, and it refers to the important step of charring the chiles, shallots, and garlic to develop their flavor before they're processed into a paste along with the shrimp, tamarind paste, fish sauce, palm sugar, and oil, and then cooked down in more oil.

Nam prik pao has a distinct flavor. It's quite strong, which means that it isn't used "all the time." But because nothing else tastes quite like it, when a dish needs it, it's irreplaceable.

Like a prik gaeng, nam prik pao is traditionally pounded into a paste by hand in a mortar and pestle. This time-consuming process is one of the main reasons why most Thai people prefer to purchase jarred nam prik pao. Some homemade versions even call for frying shallots and garlic separately, rather than charring them, before processing them into the paste. I prefer a more streamlined approach in which I quickly char the ingredients under the broiler (traditionally the ingredients are dry-roasted in a wok or cooked over an open flame). I then use an electric spice grinder to pulverize the dried chiles and a food processor to bring the paste together in a matter of a couple of minutes.

I transfer the paste to a saucepan or wok, and cook it down with a generous amount of oil until the sugars begin to caramelize and the mixture takes on a jammy consistency. It’s important to take your time with this part of the process; as the relish cooks in the ample quantity of oil, fat-soluble aromas in the pastes's ingredients are coaxed out, and the flavors deepen and meld together. The flavorful oil that rises to the top is itself a prized ingredient known as nam man prik pao, and it's bottled and sold like a chile oil.

The resulting paste strikes the perfect balance between savory and sweet, with background heat from the chiles. This stuff also lasts “forever” when stored properly in the fridge. And by that I mean I’ve never seen nam prik pao go bad, even after an open jar was discovered in the back of my fridge after who knows how long.

The process provided in the recipe uses a combination of a coffee grinder for dry ingredients, and a food processor for the final paste, though an immersion blender works in place of a food processor, too, and if you’re feeling old-school, you can certainly use a granite mortar and pestle. However you prepare it, the consistency of the paste doesn't need to be ultra fine, as the shallots and garlic will effectively dissolve during the cooking process, though the chiles do need to be ground finely in a spice grinder, as they don't break down with cooking.

Like other umami-rich condiments, once you make a batch of nam prik pao, you’ll find yourself adding a spoonful of it to everything, from Thai salads to avocado toast (one of my personal favorites).

Adjust oven rack to 6 inches below broiler element and preheat broiler on high. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spread dried chiles in an even layer on baking sheet and broil, keeping an eye on them at all times to make sure they don’t burn, until chiles are charred in some spots, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Broilers vary in strength so cooking times will as well; be sure to check frequently. Flip chiles over and continue to broil on second side until charred in spots, 15 to 30 seconds. Transfer chiles to a plate and set aside to cool.

Dried spur chiles on a foil-lined baking sheet, broiled until lightly charred in spots.
Vicky Wasik

Arrange shallots and garlic in an even layer on now-empty baking sheet and broil until shallots are charred in some spots, 3 to 5 minutes. Using a spatula, flip garlic and shallots and continue to broil until charred in spots on second side, about 3 minutes longer. Transfer baking sheet to a heatproof surface and allow garlic and shallots to cool slightly. Once garlic is cool enough to handle, peel cloves; discard skins. Set aside.

Shallots and unpeeled garlic cloves on a foil-lined baking sheet, broiled until charred in spots.
Vicky Wasik

Working in batches, transfer charred chiles to a spice grinder and grind into a fine powder; transfer ground chiles to the bowl of a food processor and set aside. Add dried shrimp to spice grinder and grind until broken down and fluffy, 15 to 30 seconds. Transfer to food processor bowl with ground chiles.

Grinding dried chiles and dried shrimp in a spice grinder.
Vicky Wasik

Add shallots, garlic, tamarind, palm sugar, fish sauce, and shrimp paste (if using) to food processor bowl. With processor running, add oil 1 tablespoon (15ml) at a time until a fine paste forms (you won’t need to add all of the oil to achieve a smooth consistency), 1 to 2 minutes. Stop processor to scrape down sides of bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Alternatively, place all ingredients except oil in an immersion blender jar or another tall-sided container that just fits the head of your immersion blender. Add 3 tablespoons (45ml) oil, and blend, adding more oil, 1 tablespoon (15ml) at a time, until a fine paste forms.

Processing nam prik pao ingredients with oil in a food processor until a fine paste forms.
Vicky Wasik

Transfer paste and remaining oil to a 3-quart saucier or wok. Set over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula, until paste turns deep dark red and reduces to a thick, jammy consistency, 12 to 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning and add more tamarind, palm sugar, or fish sauce as needed. If adding more palm sugar, continue to cook until sugar is fully dissolved, about 1 minute. When tasting, spread the nam prik pao on a cracker or piece of bread, rather than just on its own, to get a better gauge for seasoning. Transfer to an airtight container (do not cover) and set aside to cool. Once cooled to room temperature, nam prik pao can be used or covered and refrigerated for future use.

Cooking paste with oil in a saucepan until paste thickens to a jammy consistency and turns dark red.
Vicky Wasik

Special Equipment

Spice grinder, food processor or immersion blender, 3-quart saucier or wok.

Notes

Dried spur chiles are a type of Thai chile known as prik cheefa haeng; they have a fruity, mild flavor, and are prized for the color they impart to curry pastes. They can be hard to come by in the US, but are sometimes available online. Alternatively, you can substitute puya or guajillo chiles, which are available at Central American markets or online.

Palm sugar can be found in Southeast Asian markets, as well as some nationwide supermarkets like H Mart, and also online. If you can’t find palm sugar, for this recipe you can substitute with an equal amount of light brown sugar.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Nam prik pao can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 6 months.

A Guide to Thai Curry Varieties

What Thai curries are, how they’re made, and how to start experimenting on your own at home.

a close up of Gaeng Om Gai (Isan-Style Herbal Curry with Chicken and Dill) in a bowl
Vicky Wasik

If you ask most fans of Thai food in the West what their favorite curries are, they’ll probably rattle off a list pretty quickly—red, yellow, green, massaman, panang—because they’re so ubiquitous that they’ve become as familiar as pho or sushi. However, for many people, they also happen to be the only curries they know, because they’re the only ones offered by most Thai restaurants.

That’s a shame because there are countless kinds of curry in Thailand, more than even someone born and raised in Thailand, like me, can ever fully know. There are curries that are popular throughout the country, like the ones listed above, but then there are others that are unique to each region, to each province, and there are even curries whose recipes are unique to specific families.

This guide isn’t just intended to introduce people to different kinds of curries; it’s goal is to offer a thorough explanation of what Thai curries are and what they can look like so that you can start making them at home with confidence. And, hopefully, with that added confidence, you can begin experimenting with them at home.

What is Thai Curry?

I don’t like to offer strict definitions for food, but what Thais call gaeng, which translates roughly to curry, is a dish whose primary source of flavor is a prik gaeng, or a curry paste. The other defining feature of a gaeng is that it has a significant amount of liquid, even if the category contains dishes that range from completely soupy toi just saucy.

A prik gaeng is simply a paste of ground up herbs and spices, the most important of which are the prik, or chiles. (To read more about curry pastes, what they are, and the many ways to make them, check out my guide to curry pastes.)

Gaeng can be one of our most humble, everyday dishes, but it can also be a part of a very fancy meal. They’re so much a part of the Thai diet that it wouldn’t surprise me if someone said they eat at least one curry for dinner every single day. For a multi-dish meal with family or company, a curry is often present; for a solo lunch, one of the most popular dishes is a plate of rice with curry on top, which you can get from street vendors and food courts anywhere in the country.

Even though the variations are endless, you can divide curries into two general categories based on what kind of liquid they use: coconut milk or water.

Coconut-Based Curries

Gaeng Khiao Waan Gai (Thai Green Curry with Chicken) in a large serving bowl
Gaeng khiao wan gai (green curry with chicken)Vicky Wasik

The majority of Thai curries are made with coconut milk as the main liquid, which produces creamier curries, but they’re not necessarily “rich.” The amount of coconut milk can vary by quite a lot, depending on the texture one is looking for: massaman curry, for example, is quite rich because it uses coconut milk and is typically simmered for longer periods of time, whereas green curry uses a combination of water/stock and coconut milk and is typically cooked for shorter periods of time, yielding a curry with a lighter consistency.

Examples of Coconut-Based Curries

Gaeng Khiao Waan. This is the world-famous green curry. It’s a classic example of a coconut-based curry as the texture, consistency, and cooking method is similar to how most others are made. It uses a combination of coconut milk and water/stock, so the end result is creamy but still has a brothy consistency.

Gaeng Massaman. Richer and thicker than green curry, massaman is loaded with dry spices and is usually paired with slow-cooked meats like dark meat chicken and red meat, and it always contains some type of potatoes and onion; it’s like an extremely aromatic stew.

Nam ya. A curry few people know, nam ya is an herbaceous sauce that’s poured over rice vermicelli known as kanom jeen; it’s kind of like a pasta dish. Unlike other curries, nam ya doesn’t have pieces of meat and fish in the curry, but cooked and mashed fish is added to the curry to thicken it, which helps it to cling to the noodles. The vegetables that accompany the curry and noodles are served on the side. 

Basic Method for Making Coconut-Based Curry

collage of stages of making green curry: adding green curry paste to coconut milk; stirring with rubber spatula; mixture beginning to break; coconut milk being added in increments; mixture breaking more, fat separating; close up of fat separating out of mixture
Vicky Wasik
  1. Sauté the curry paste. Curry pastes are sautéed to develop and bloom the flavors of the aromatics and spices, and also to take away any “raw” flavors. While some people like to fry the paste in vegetable oil to save time, traditionally, the paste is sautéed in reduced coconut milk. Coconut milk is simmered down until there’s no more water and the emulsion breaks, leaving behind coconut oil, which then serves as the frying medium for the paste.
  2. Add long-cooking protein. If you’re braising meat for the curry, add it at this point and “stir fry” it with the paste briefly. If you’re using seafood or proteins that only take a few minutes to cook, skip this step.
  3. Add the remaining liquid and whole spices and sturdy herbs. Add the remaining coconut milk and any water or stock. Also add any herbs or spices that require longer periods of time to infuse, like makrut lime leaves or cinnamon sticks. It’s important to allow the curry to simmer for at least 5-10 minutes to allow the flavors from the paste to infuse the liquid. As the paste simmers, you’ll see the color of the coconut milk change and intensify. If you’re braising something in the curry, like short ribs, for example, at this point the curry can be simmered for however long it takes until the meat is done.
  4. Add seasoning, quick-cooking proteins, and vegetables. Once the curry sauce has simmered, I like to stir in some of the seasoning before I add the meats and vegetables so that they are seasoned properly as well. So add your fish sauce, sugar, tamarind, or whatever else you’re using first, then add the meat and vegetables, staggering these latter additions as needed so that they all finish cooking at the same time.
  5. Taste and adjust final seasoning. It’s important to make sure the curry is strongly seasoned, since it will be served with rice. Once everything is properly cooked, check for seasoning and add whatever you think it needs.
  6. Add finishing herbs. Once you’re done, turn off the heat and stir in any delicate herbs you’re using, like Thai basil or holy basil. The residual heat is enough to wilt and infuse the flavours of these herbs, and over-cooking them will turn them an unappealing black.

Water-Based Curries

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Vicky Wasik

While it may be surprising to some, curries can sometimes look like soups; since they have no added creamy ingredient and sometimes don’t even have any added fat, they can also eat like soups. So it’s fair to wonder what the difference is between these curries and our soups.

Let’s go back to our definition of a gaeng. One of its defining qualities is the presence of a curry paste. Soups don’t use pastes; instead, soups are made by simmering large pieces of aromatics and herbs, like lemongrass, galangal, makrut lime leaves, chiles, etc., to infuse broth with their flavor; once cooked, the aromatics and herbs aren’t eaten. A curry may use exactly the same ingredients as a soup, but since those ingredients are finely ground into a paste, they become a part of the sauce. Even the lightest, most soup-like, water-based curry is going be slightly thicker than a soup because of the paste.

One important note: When I say “water-based,” I don’t necessarily mean these curries must be made with water; you could also use stock. In fact, if you’re using quick-cooking, boneless proteins, you absolutely should use stock, for the extra body and flavor it provides.

Example of Water-Based Curries

Gaeng Som. “Som” means orange, and refers to the color of the broth, but it also refers to the sour taste the curry is known for. This is one of the most popular water-based curries in Thailand because it’s so simple to make. The Southern version is called gaeng leuang (literally “yellow curry”), and it gets its characteristic color from turmeric. Because of its sour flavor profile, it’s most commonly paired with fish and seafood, but that’s not a rule.

Gaeng Om. A specialty of the North and Northeast, gaeng om is a light curry that’s loaded with fresh vegetables, like Thai eggplant, squash, and cabbage, but the unique thing about gaeng om is that it uses dill, an herb rarely seen in other Thai dishes. Pla ra, a fermented fish paste, is also added for saltiness and funk.

Gaeng Kua Dtai. Hailing from the South, gaeng kua dtai is anything but light because it’s cooked down until it has a “saucy” amount of liquid. Typically made with halved pork spareribs, the fat from the pork also adds to the richness. The paste is similar to a red curry paste except it has a ton of chiles, turmeric, and black pepper.

Gaeng Pa. Literally “jungle curry,” this is perhaps the most well-known water-based curry in the West, though versions found in North American Thai restaurants are rarely “fully loaded." “Jungle” refers to the abundance of herbs that the curry is typically garnished with, which makes it look like you’ve thrown the entire jungle in the bowl. It’s relentlessly spicy and uses a paste similar to red curry but with the addition of fresh chiles.

Basic Method for Making Water-Based Curry

collage: pork ribs added and tossed to coat in curry paste
Pork ribs tossed in fried curry paste before the addition of water.Vicky Wasik
  1. Simmer the curry paste. Unlike coconut-based curries where the paste is almost always sautéed, with water-based curries the paste is often added to the boiling water or stock and simmered to cook the herbs and allow the flavors to infuse. However, when the curry uses a more complex paste, like gaeng kua dtai, the paste can be sautéed in vegetable oil, in which case the steps are the same as the coconut-based curry above.
  2. Add seasoning, proteins, and vegetables. Once the curry paste has simmered, add your fish sauce, sugar, tamarind, or whatever else you’re using for seasoing, then add the meat and vegetables, staggering them as needed so that they will finish cooking at the same time.
  3. Taste and adjust final seasoning. Again, it's very important to taste the curry to ensure it's properly seasoned before serving it with rice. Once everything is properly cooked, check for seasoning and add whatever you think it needs.
  4. Add finishing herbs. Turn off the heat and stir in any delicate herbs.

How to Experiment with Thai Curries at Home

If you’re new to Thai curry-making, I suggest first making various types of traditional curries so that you have a good idea of the range of methods, ingredients, and flavors. You’ll also get to know combinations of ingredients that “work." 

But with this article, along with the complementary article about Thai curry paste, you should have a good idea of the basic building blocks of Thai curries. When making your own curry, you have to decide on a few things:

  • The type of curry paste (buying some in a store is totally fine).
  • The kind of liquid (coconut milk, water, and/or stock).
  • The proteins and vegetables you want to include.
  • The seasonings you'd like to use (fish sauce, sugar, tamarind, etc.).
  • Any extra herbs and spices.

With this structure you can create a custom-built curry that’s unique to you. The only thing I’d encourage is that you stick with Thai ingredients, to keep the flavors authentic, and to be mindful of richness when picking meats and vegetables. For example, if it’s a heavily spiced, rich curry, don’t pair it with delicate fish and tender greens. Choose something that can hold up to the richness.

What you create may not be a “traditional” curry, but don't worry. Thai people ad lib their curries all the time, using whatever's in their kitchen. Sure, you may not end up picking a combination that works well every single time, but that’s what experimentation is all about!

Guide to Thai Curry Pastes

How to make, use, and store Thai curry pastes, one of the most versatile base ingredients.

a side angle view of Prik Gaeng Garee (Thai Yellow Curry Paste)
Vicky Wasik

When I was growing up in Thailand, making curry paste was a commonplace kitchen task. The sound of aromatics being steadily pounded into a prik gaeng, or curry paste, in a granite mortar and pestle was one I heard daily, either emanating from our own kitchen or our neighbors’, even though it was just as common for all of us to make curries from pre-made curry paste purchased at the store. While buying curry paste may seem a little less romantic, it has the advantage of being far more practical, particularly when you use curry pastes in cooking as much as Thais do.

Thai curry pastes seem to be a bit of a mystery to foreigners. Their flavors are complex, and it can be difficult to determine what the ingredients in a paste are just by tasting it; there are also quite a lot of them, with varieties that are specific to different regions in the country, and even to different households. But they really aren’t all that complicated, and understanding how they’re made, what common types are made from, and how they’re used will help you both make traditional curries and encourage you to start improvising on your own.

Thai Curry Paste: A Definition

ground dried chiles, fresh chiles, and salt in a mortar and pestle
Vicky Wasik

At its most basic level, prik gaeng is just a mixture of pulverized aromatics, herbs, and spices. That’s it. And while prik gaeng are used to make gaeng, or curries, they do not have to be used for curries; Thais treat them simply as a “flavor paste,” which can be used in anything you want. (More on that below.)

Just as you don’t have to use prik gaeng for curries, there really aren’t any rules governing which ingredients are or aren’t included in a paste, although I suppose there is one requirement: a prik gaeng has to contain prik, or chiles. Garlic, shallots, and shrimp paste are almost always added to prik gaeng, but aside from that, all non-leafy herbs and spices are fair game. A prik gaeng can be as simple as seven-ingredient paste, like a sour curry paste, or as extravagant as a 15-ingredient one, like massaman curry paste.

Thai Curry Paste Ingredients

ingredients for thai green curry paste
Ingredients for prik gaeng keow wan (green curry paste).Vicky Wasik

Ingredients in curry pastes fall into the following categories:

Chiles: These can be dried or fresh, green or red (or any number of colors), spicy or mild, and the types of chiles used will determine the flavor and color of the final paste. Prik cheefa haeng, or dried red spur chiles, are the most commonly used type of chiles in curry pastes and they produce pastes with an intense red color. Most of the popular curries in North America—red curry, yellow curry, panang curry, and massaman—are made with pastes made with dried red chiles. The one obvious exception is green curry paste, which is made with fresh green chiles.

Fresh aromatics: In a rough order of the frequency with which these make it into curry pastes, these include shallots, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, cilantro root, makrut lime zest, grachai, turmeric, and ginger. Note that delicate, leafy herbs like cilantro or mint aren’t pounded into curry pastes because their flavors can’t withstand the amount of cooking that curry pastes are subjected to.

Dried spices: Dried spices are used relatively less frequently than other curry pastes ingredients, and their use is limited mostly to those pastes that have some Indian or Muslim influence. Coriander seeds and cumin make an appearance more often than other dried spices, but you sometimes see cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, mace, and cloves included in pastes, among others.

Umami boosters: Gapi, or fermented shrimp paste, is almost always added to curry pastes because it provides oomph, umami, and a little saltiness. It’s often added in small amounts so you can’t taste it, but in some curries, gapi’s funk is one of the main flavors. In addition to shrimp paste, you can also use dried shrimp to add savory depth and, in Northern Thailand, they sometimes use a fermented soybean product called tua nao, which can be difficult to find although it can sometimes be purchased online. For vegetarians, you can omit the shrimp paste if it’s just a small amount, or you can use miso paste as a substitute; miso will provide umami, but has an entirely different flavor. If you can find tua nao, that can also be used as a substitute.

Others: Occasionally you’ll see an ingredient that doesn’t fall into any of the above categories, like the roasted peanuts added to panang curry paste to add richness and thickness to the sauce. Peanuts are often omitted in pre-made pastes because of allergies, and so you’ll also sometimes see mung beans have been added instead. 

Kinds of Curry Pastes

It’s important to note that while there are some common types of curry pastes, there isn't an exhaustive list. There are hundreds of types of curries in Thailand, some are classics, and others are obscure or unique to specific regions. Also, people just make up their own curry pastes, according to what they feel like eating and what they have on hand: You can make a “prik gaeng” using whatever you want, use it to make a “curry” and put in it whatever you want, and the curry doesn’t need to have a name.

That being said, there are a few curry pastes that are so widely used that it’s worthwhile knowing what they are and what goes into them, and they can be divided into two main categories: curry pastes used to make coconut-based curries and curry pastes used to make water-based curries.

Coconut-Based Curry Pastes

green curry paste in a small bowl with prominent ingredients surrounding it
Vicky Wasik

Red - I consider red curry paste to be the “basic” curry paste. It’s incorporated into far more dishes than any other paste and it doesn’t use any unique or special ingredients beyond what I like to call “the basic 10”: dried chiles, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, galangal, cilantro roots, makrut lime zest, white peppercorns, shrimp paste, and salt. Most of these ingredients are used in all of the coconut-based pastes discussed here.

Green - Green curry paste uses similar ingredients to red, with the major difference being its use of fresh green chiles instead of dried red chiles. This gives it a different, fresher flavor that’s unique to green curry. 

Panang - A similar paste to red, panang curry paste is more aromatic because of the addition of cumin, coriander seeds, and roasted peanuts. The peanuts also give panang its uniquely rich sauce.

Massaman - Gaeng massaman is a paste with Muslim roots, evident in the abundant use of dry spices commonly seen in South Asia, like cinnamon, star anise, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, among others, which makes it an especially fragrant curry. The fresh aromatics that are added to massaman curry paste, however, are similar to red curry paste.

Yellow - Prik gaeng garee, or yellow curry paste, gets its color from turmeric and also curry powder. It tends to be milder in heat and is consequently a good curry to serve to kids.

Water-Based Curry Pastes

side angle of Prik Gaeng Pak Dtai (Southern Thai Curry Paste)
Southern Thai curry pasteVicky Wasik

Sour curry - Sour curry paste is the epitome of simple curry pastes, since it uses just five ingredients: dried chiles, shallots, garlic, grachai (fingerroot), and shrimp paste, and, as a result, most people will make it at home instead of purchasing a pre-made version.

Jungle curry -  Many people just use red curry paste for jungle curry, but I prefer to make it with a combination of dried and fresh green chiles, which add a bit of a grassy note. (This also means you can make a cheaty version by using a combination of green and red store-bought pastes!)

The Best Methods for Making Curry Paste

Making curry paste is very simple: grind everything together until you have a fine paste. Done! But how do you get all these tough ingredients to break down into a fine, almost homogenous paste?

Traditionally, curry pastes are slowly pounded into a paste in a granite mortar and pestle. But we don’t always have time for that, and over the years I’ve experimented with a variety of different methods, each of which has benefits and drawbacks.

Making Curry Paste With a Mortar and Pestle (Traditional Method)

collage: progression of making
Vicky Wasik

When using a mortar and pestle, the order in which you add the ingredients makes a difference. Add tough ingredients that are hard to pound first, and pound them finely before moving on to the next ingredient.

If you’re using dried chiles, you have two options for prepping them: You can soak the chiles in hot water first for about 30 minutes, which hydrates them and makes them easier to pound, or you can blitz the dried chiles in an electric spice grinder. The latter method is the only way I do it now, as it’s almost impossible to finely grind dried chiles in a mortar and pestle without soaking them, and I don’t like that you lose some of the chiles’ flavor to the soaking water. One thing to keep in mind with either of these methods is that you can dial down the amount of capsaicin heat in the chile paste by removing the dried chile seeds before pulverizing them.

Here is the order in which ingredients should be added to a mortar and pestle when making a curry paste:

  1. Soaked chiles and salt, if using. Using a coarse-grain salt like Diamond Crystal kosher salt will help create friction between the ingredients and the mortar and pestle, making it easier to break down the chiles when pounding. 
  2. Fibrous and tough aromatics. Once the chiles are pounded quite fine, add lemongrass, galangal, makrut lime zest, ginger, grachai, etc. Fibrous ingredients should be sliced quite thinly before being added to the mortar; the finer they are to start, the less pounding you’ll have to do. 
  3. Softer aromatics with higher moisture content. Once the tough ingredients have been broken down, add softer aromatics like garlic and shallots, which should also be sliced. If you added these first, pounding them would release a fair amount of liquid, which will decrease the amount of friction between the ingredients and the mortar and pestle, which in turn makes it more difficult to break down the hardier ingredients.
  4. Finally, anything else that’s already finely ground. If you use a spice grinder to grind dried chiles, this is when you’d add the chile powder; this is also when you’d add ground spices or shrimp paste. You’re just mixing at this point.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • If you want to use the mortar and pestle to pulverize whole, dry spices instead of using a spice grinder, grind them first, remove them from the mortar, and set them aside until you’re ready to add them in at the final stage.
  • If after adding garlic and shallots you find the mixture too watery and hard to pound, you can add some of the ground spices to help absorb some of the moisture.
  • The most efficient motion to use is an up-and-down pounding motion, not a circular grinding motion. And while pounding in the center of the mortar is necessary at times, don’t forget to use the sides of the mortar, as the friction created between the pestle and the mortar’s walls is very effective at breaking up your ingredients.


The benefits of using a mortar and pestle:

  • The amount you make can be as small as you want.
  • You can get a very fine consistency with all the flavours released from the herbs.
  • Easy to clean.

The drawbacks of using a mortar and pestle:

  • You need a heavy-duty mortar and pestle, not those cute marble ones. 
  • Takes a long time and it’s a bit of a workout.
  • How much you can make is limited by the size of your mortar, and the more you make, the longer it takes.

Making Curry Pastes With an Immersion Blender and Coffee Grinder

This is my favorite way of making curry paste. I’ve found it to be by far the most effective way of taking advantage of the electrical appliances I have in my kitchen.

  1. Grind the dried chiles and any other whole dry spices in a coffee grinder until they are powderized.
  2. Place all other ingredients into a narrow container, like the jug that comes with the immersion blender or a glass measuring cup. Use the immersion blender to blend on the highest speed until everything is ground up fine. You’ll need to lift and reposition the blender as you blend since it’s a very thick mixture.
  3. Add the ground chiles and spices and blend just to mix.

The benefits of using an immersion blender and spice grinder:

  • You can make a small amount of paste.
  • The method yields a fine paste with all the flavours released.
  • You don’t need to add any liquid.
  • It’s super fast!

The drawbacks of using an immersion blender and spice grinder:

You need a powerful immersion blender, like the ones produced by Breville or Vitamix, for the best results.

Making Curry Paste in a Countertop Blender

If you throw everything into a countertop blender and press go, you’ll find that it won’t blend well because the blades won’t catch on the ingredients without the addition of some liquid. Well, why not just add liquid then? You can, but most curry recipes instruct you to sauté the paste to bloom the herbs and spices in fat as the first step, and if you use a watery paste, you’ll be boiling it for a while before it actually starts to fry. (However, some curries, such as sour curry or nam ya curry, don’t require the sautéing step, in which case using the blender to make the paste works just fine.)

If you’re making a coconut-based curry, I recommend adding some of the coconut milk called for in the recipe and only adding as little as necessary to get the blender going. Then, as you cook the paste down, eventually the coconut oil will separate and the paste will begin to fry in it.

The benefits of using a countertop blender to make curry paste:

  • It works well for pastes that don’t need to be sautéd.
  • It can handle a large amount of paste.
  • It’s very fast.

The drawbacks of using a countertop blender to make curry paste:

  • You need to add extra liquid.
  • It won’t work for small amounts.
  • It can be relatively harder to clean up.

Making Curry Paste in a Food Processor

I don't recommend using a food processor to make curry pastes. The main issue I have with this method is the ingredients are never ground down fine enough for most curries. The herbs get chopped, but not crushed or ground finely so there are remaining cells that have not been broken down and flavors remain trapped inside. 

The benefits of using a food processor to make curry paste:

  • It’s fast.
  • It works well for certain dishes in which only a rough paste is required. 

The drawbacks of using a food processor to make curry paste:

  • The paste is never ground fine enough and flavors are muted.
  • You can’t make small amounts of curry paste.

How to Doctor Up Store-Bought Curry Paste

Since I had a baby, I mostly buy curry paste, but sometimes the only ones I can find are the basic red, yellow, and green pastes. So what do I do if I want to make a massaman or a panang curry?

Luckily, as I mentioned above, red curry paste is the “basic” paste upon which many other curry pastes are built. So you can use store-bought red curry paste as a starting point, and then add herbs and spices to turn it into something else; you simply grind the ingredients up using the same principles and methods outlined above, and then stir in the store-bought paste at the end.

For example, to make panang curry paste, you can add ground cumin, coriander seed, and roasted peanuts to red curry paste. To make a massaman paste, you add ground cinnamon, coriander seed, cumin, cloves, cardamom, and nutmeg. To make khao soi paste, I mix red and yellow curry paste together, and if I have ginger and black cardamom on hand, I throw some of that in, too.

You can also boost the flavor of a store-bought paste that you consider a bit “weak” by adding more of the spices and herbs it already contains. For example, I find store-bought massaman curry paste to be a bit light on the spices, so I add some extra. If your curry paste doesn’t contain shrimp paste, and many don’t to accommodate people with shellfish allergies, you can add a teaspoon or two. If it’s not spicy enough? Just grind up some extra chiles, fresh or dried and stir them in.

How to Choose a Good Store-Bought Curry Paste

Not all curry pastes are created equal, so here are some tips to making sure you’re buying authentic products:

  • Buy them from Asian grocery stores. You can find curry paste at any Western grocery store these days, but it’s unlikely you’ll have a lot of choices.
  • Look at the ingredient list. It should list only herbs, spices, shrimp paste, and salt. Avoid anything that lists other seasonings or oils.
  • Make sure it’s made in Thailand, which means it uses Thai-grown ingredients.
  • If the packaging looks like it’s aimed at the mainstream Western market, the curry paste tends to have milder flavors. Look for a packaging that’s “very Thai,” unless you prefer mild flavors.

I can recommend Maeploy, Maesri, and Aroy-D as good brands with flavors I think of as authentic, and I personally use Maeploy. Thai Kitchen is a brand that’s made for the Western market that’s made in Thailand and has quite good flavor, but you do have to use a lot more of the paste because it’s quite mild.

How to Use Curry Paste

20160321-phat-phrik-khing-recipe-vegan-22.jpg
J. Kenji López-Alt

As I mentioned above, while curry pastes are used to make curries, they’re also used in many other ways, including flavoring stir fries, dipping sauces, fried rice, egg custards, sausages, fish cakes. Basically, if a dish can benefit by the addition of a spicy, flavorful, aromatic paste, then you can probably add some curry paste. You can even try incorporating it into non-traditional dishes, like this savory French toast.

There aren’t any rules for what kinds of proteins and vegetables go with specific kinds of pastes, but there are some common pairings. Generally, if the paste has a lot of spices, you want to pair it with heavier meats and sturdy vegetables that can hold up to the richer flavors. For example, massaman and yellow curry are better paired with red meat, dark meat chicken, and root vegetables. Pastes made with just fresh aromatics like red and green curry pastes are more versatile and can work with almost anything. Ultra light pastes made with just a few ingredients, like a sour curry paste, are best paired with delicate items like fish and seafood.

How to Store Curry Pastes

Because curry pastes are made from fresh herbs, you want to keep it in the fridge once they’ve been made or their package has been opened. I recommend freezing your paste—store-bought or homemade—unless you have plans to use it within the next day or two; it’ll preserve the quality and flavours of your ingredients perfectly. Use a heavy-duty container made for the freezer to prevent the paste from absorbing freezer smells too quickly. I pack curry pastes into zip-top freezer bags and then push on the bag with a ruler to create “sections” that help me break off portions easily. Squeeze out as much air as possible from the bag before sealing it up.

If you buy Maeploy or Aroy-D brands which come in a plastic bag inside a tub, keep the open bag inside the tub and freeze the whole tub. These pastes are quite dry and so never freeze solid, so you can just scoop it right out of the jar straight from the freezer

An Expert’s Guide to Cooking or Ordering a Balanced Thai Meal

Forget hot, salty, sweet, and sour—wet, dry, fresh, and spicy is where it’s at. Learn how to order a balanced spread of Thai dishes at a restaurant or compose a homemade menu that ticks all the boxes.


Forget hot, salty, sweet, and sour—wet, dry, fresh, and spicy is where it's at. Learn how to order a balanced spread of Thai dishes at a restaurant or compose a homemade menu that ticks all the boxes. Read More