Thai curries are often the best starting point for food exploration in Thailand. Fortunately they are also the easier to find of dishes found from North to South and from fancy restaurant menus to shop-house and local eateries. All popular Thai curries blend their own take on the salty, sour, sweet and hot signatures of Thai local cuisine and my Top 5 Thai Curries are the most common, easiest to find and must-eats when travelling in Thailand.
1. Khao Soi Curry (Khao Soi, ข้าวซอย)
Khao Soi is the most underrated of Thai curries and for me is the most delicious. Khao Soi is a mild, coconut-based curry served over soft egg noodles and topped with crispy egg noodles. It is then perfected by optional additions of lime, onion, chilli and pickled cabbage. Khao Soi is a Burmese-influenced dish and can be found both as street food in Thailand and at restaurants throughout Northern Thailand but is often tricky to track down in other parts of the country. A bowl of Khao Soi costs roughly 30 to 50 baht and is the only curry on this list which does not come with rice.
2. Massaman Curry (Kaeng Massaman, แกงมัสมั่น)
Massaman Curry rarely features on quick restaurant menus as, while most Thai curries cook fast on high heats, the Massaman Curry takes longer to cook on lower heats. The curry is no doubt worth the wait and if you see it, get it. Massaman curry is a milder member of the Thai coconut curry family with unique Muslim influences fusing a mix of south Asian spices such as cardamon, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. It is also hard to beat with slow cooked beef. Massaman curry is a favourite in Southern Thailand and generally comes stewed with chunks of potato and sprinkles of peanuts.
3. Green ‘Sweet’ Curry (Kaeng Khiao Wan, แกงเขียวหวาน)
Green curry is fairly well replicated in the West but of course in Thailand it is better. The full translation of ‘Kaeng Khiao Wan’ is in fact ‘Green Sweet Curry’ (‘Wan’ meaning sweet) which maybe why the curry suits well to western palates. Sweet, Salty, a little sour, very hot and very coconutty. In Thailand you will find Green Curry served in a coconut milk soup with unique local ingredients and flavourings of Thai sweet basil (horapa), kaffir lime leaves, eggplant and pea aubergine. The meat of choice for green curry is chicken (kai) but can come as any. Green Curry is one of the hotter of Thai curries and is the hottest on this list.
4. Panaeng Curry (Kaeng Panaeng, แกงเผ็ด)
Panaeng Curry is often mistaken for the more common ‘red curry’ and while ingredients in curry pastes are similar the Panaeng paste often has added Southern spice of cumin and nutmeg. In many ways Panaeng Curry is closer to the Massaman Curry, often cooked slower, with ground peanuts and occasionally served with beef. Many chefs will even add a taste of massaman paste to highlight the Southern influences. Panaeng is a milder curry, less soup-like and more curry-like. While there are obvious Southern influences Panaeng Curry does not originate from ‘Pulau Pinang’ in Malaysia as rumored.
5. Thai Red Curry (Kaeng Phed, แกงเผ็ด)
Many aspects of the red curry are no different to the green; the coconut base, a soup-like curry sauce, the cooking method, even many of the ingredients are the same, only in different proportions. The obvious difference however is the paste where red curry uses dried red chillies over the green curry which uses (hotter) fresh green chilli peppers. Red curry is generally the less fiery of the two but this really depends on who makes the chilli paste. There is no exact recipe and base ingredients can vary. Red curry tends to be less sweet, more savoury and comes best served with pork or duck meat.