Red Curry Paste
Now I know jarred red curry paste is sold just about everywhere, and I use it all the time, too; it’s simply easier, cheaper, and faster to keep a jar of it in your fridge. But sometimes, a person gets inspired. There’s a certain joy and sense of satisfaction in the manual labour of producing your own basics, like stock, mayonnaise, or cheese, that buying pre-made does not afford. Call me crazy, but spending an extra 30 minutes preparing this recipe is very enjoyable. Plus, there’s a few layers of flavour that the fresh ingredients provide that preserved pastes do not. Is it worth it? That’s up to you.
Traditionally, this paste would be prepared in a large mortar and pestle. The only mortars I own are far too small to contain all these ingredients, and since most people probably don’t even have one to begin with – a blender does the job just fine. We are making a puree, more or less, and since we’re using a blender, we don’t have to chop anything too finely to start – as long as the measurements are fairly accurate, the blender should be able to handle larger chunks. If you don’t have a blender, a small food processor may work but it probably won’t achieve the same level of processing.
A note on some of the ingredients; these are not the easiest things to find. Galangal is pretty rare, even in Chinese markets. T&T Supermarket usually carries some, but it is fairly pricey (3-4 dollars for a few roots). People substitute ginger for galangal often because they are technically part of the same family, and look similar, but their tastes and smells are radically different. Ginger is not a great substitute if you need the flavour of galangal. That said, if one did swap in ginger in this recipe it probably wouldn’t ruin the recipe – it just wouldn’t be the same as a standard curry paste. Cilantro bunches usually have the roots trimmed off, which is annoying. It’s a gamble at Sobeys; I pull up bunches of cilantro and have about a 30% chance of the roots still being attached. The roots are important because they will hold up to cooking far better than the leaves or even the stems will (basically the further you go down the plant, the longer the parts hold up to heat). If you can’t get roots, try using the thickest stems (but no leaves – there’s no point) instead. I’ve already talked about how to prepare lemongrass in step 1 here. White peppercorns? Not black? No, because white pepper has a different taste and smell (it’s not nearly so intense and bright – more of a cleaner burn) than black pepper. If you can’t find white pepper, just omit it altogether. Lastly, the shrimp paste. This is a crucial ingredient. It’s made by drying large amounts of tiny shrimp, salting them, and letting the salt eventually break down their flesh until it’s smooth. If this sounds disgusting, it’s because it is; fermented shrimp stink. Shrimp paste stinks. But it’s a key flavouring agent, so deal with it. In Thai, it’s called kapi or gapi, but it also goes under other names, in other countries: belacan, terasi/trassi, and others (see link). If you’re looking for this, be wary, there’s also many other kinds of “shrimp pastes”, notably a paste that’s based in oil (Chinese in origin, I think, or sometimes Filipino), sometimes with bean or chili added. This is a totally different thing. What you’re looking for is not a liquid or a goo – it’s more the consistency of halwa or a dry fudge. In other words, it’s a solid. Shrimp fudge. Think about that for a second. Then keep reading.
This also looks like it makes a lot of curry paste, but in reality, this recipe will make paste for 1 curry – it will season about 2 cups of coconut milk. A regular, condensed curry paste will only need about 2 tbsp to season the same amount of coconut milk, so keep that conversion in mind if you use this in place of curry paste in a recipe: this recipe = 2 tbsp of normal curry paste.
- 7-10 dried red chilies
- 2 tbsp chopped red shallot
- 2 tbsp chopped lemongrass
- 4 tbsp chopped garlic
- 1 tbsp chopped galangal
- 1 tbsp chopped coriander roots
- 1 tbsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 tsp white peppercorns
- 1 tsp chopped lime zest (optional)
- 1 tsp shrimp paste
- pinch of salt
What you will need: chef’s knife and cutting board, bowl to soak chilies, measuring spoons, small pot or frying pan, small plate, spice grinder (optional), a blender, a clean jar to store the final paste
- Fill the bowl halfway with warm-hot water, and add the dried chilies. This will reconstitute them, and make them soft.
- While that’s happening, peel and chop the amounts of garlic, shallot, lemongrass, galangal, coriander root, and lime zest, if using. These can all be mixed together if you’d like.
- Heat the small pot on medium (4-5 on my dial) and once hot, dry-roast (no oil) the coriander and cumin seeds (but not the white pepper) until the cumin is darkened, and the coriander has reddish spots on them. This will only take a few minutes. Shake the seeds often to get them cooked on all sides. Once roasted, transfer them to a plate to cool.
- Once the red chilies are soft, break them apart gently with your hands, and let the seeds drift out in the water. Don’t worry if you don’t get all of them. Transfer the red chili skins to the mixture of chopped ingredients. Pour out the seeds with the water.
- Plug in your blender. (This step is absolutely vital)
- Add the chopped items and chilies to the blender with a pinch or two of salt. Set the blender to puree and turn it on. Probably what will happen is that large chunks will get stuck on the side of the blender, and won’t process. With the blender off, of course, use a wooden spoon to push the ingredients back towards the blade. Add a tbsp or two of water if you have to. This will make the paste wetter and easier to process, but don’t add any more than absolutely necessary (unless you’d like to eventually smear the final product over paper towels to leech out the water, like I had to the first time). Also, it’s not a good idea to stick your face over the open blender and inhale too deeply – unless you like crying onion/chili/galangal tears.
- Once that is looking half done, grind the cooled coriander, cumin, and white pepper in a spice grinder. Alternatively, add them right into the blender – that should grind them well enough, but if you can avoid it, don’t risk having giant pieces of spice in your curry. Add the ground spices to the paste and stir them in lightly.
- Process the spices and paste together.
- Add the shrimp paste and process the paste further.
- Keep processing, and pushing any bits from the sides back down into the mix (reminder 2: don’t do this while the blender is on, gawd)
- Continue blending.
- Follow this up by more blending.
- Eventually, you will have a smooth, thick paste. About the consistency of pumpkin puree, or a little wetter, depending on your water adding. Scrape this out into a jar. It will store in the fridge for about 2 weeks, or freeze for 2 months. But why not use it right away?
I’ll be writing a red curry recipe soon, but for now, this recipe should work anywhere red curry paste is called for! Enjoy!