Thai Curry Ingredients, Demystified

From palm sugar to shrimp paste, these essential ingredients bring authentic Thai flavors to the table. Chef Andy Ricker of Portland and NYC's Pok Pok helps us demystify the Thai pantry.

green thai chiles

Green Thai Chiles

Green Thai Chiles (phrik khii nuu)—the fresh, unripe version of a finger-sized variety that we call bird's-eye, or bird, chiles—give green curry its name. Floral and sharp-tasting, they are also super hot. For milder curry, remove their capsaicin-rich seeds and ribs. Green Thai chiles, $4 for a 2-oz. package; templeofthai.comPenny de Los Santos

Shrimp Paste

Shrimp paste (kapi), made from tiny salted, fermented, and sun-dried crustaceans, adds a distinctive pungency to curries. Look for Thai brands, like Trachang, which are more moist and aromatic than those from other countries. Trachang shrimp paste, $6.49 for 3-oz. container; amazon.comPenny de Los Santos
Palm sugar

Palm Sugar

Palm Sugar (naam taan pip), derived from palm tree sap, adds a nutty, slightly fermented-tasting sweetness to curries. It's sold in hard cakes, so chef Ricker advises throwing it into the microwave for 30 seconds to soften it before grating. Palm sugar, $8 for a 1-lb. bag; kalustyans.comPenny de Los Santos
Galangal

Galangal

Galangal (kha), a pale-skinned cousin of ginger, is a Thai staple. Chef Ricker slices it fresh for green curry and roasts it lightly to bring out its aroma for yellow curry. It lends lovely citrus and mustardlike notes. Galangal, price varies by season; melissas.comPenny de Los Santos

Fish Sauce

Fish sauce (nam pla), made from fermented anchovies, adds salty and umami notes to curries. Make sure to use a Thai brand such as Tiparos; brinier, with a stronger aroma than Vietnamese versions, it balances the sweet palm sugar. Tiparos fish sauce, $3 for 23-oz. bottle; grocerythai.comPenny de Los Santos
Tamarind

Tamarind

Tamarind (makham), a podlike fruit with more pucker than sweetness, gives some sour curries their tartness. It's sold in blocks of sticky pulp that you soften in hot water before using, or as a smooth, ready-to-use concentrate (shown) made from the strained juice. Caravelle tamarind concentrate, $4 for 12-oz. jar; easythaieasygo.comPenny de Los Santos
Krachai

Krachai

Krachai, a rod-shaped rhizome, can mainly be found frozen in the U.S., where you might also see it called Chinese ginger, Chinese keys, or finger root. It adds peppery and gingery notes to curries. Krachai, $7 for 1 bunch; greenharvest.com.auPenny de Los Santos
Shallots

Shallots

Shallots get added to curry pastes raw or grilled just until soft and fragrant. Seek out red shallots (hom daeng), the variety used in Thailand; they're smaller and sweeter, with a more concentrated flavor than the ones we normally cook with in the States.Penny de Los Santos