Our best curry recipes from Southeast Asia include a rich Cambodian Saraman curry and its Thai cousin beef Massaman curry to a more gently-spiced steamed Cambodian fish curry called amok trei and the decadent pork belly curry, Gaeng hang lay moo from Northern Thailand, and Gaeng gari gai, a chicken curry recipe from Southern Thailand.
Our best curry recipes from our Grantourismo archive include recipes for curries and curry soups from across the region. Curries are cooked all over Southeast Asia, especially in Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, and Indonesia, all of which not coincidentally experienced a period of Indianisation that influenced so many aspects of their cultures – architecture, sculpture, art, music, dance, costume, as well as the cuisines. Here in Cambodia, from the 1st to 6th centuries, the early civilisation of Funan, is thought to be the oldest Hindu culture in Southeast Asia.
Archaeologists working in the region have identified traces of some of the spices typically found in Cambodian and other Southeast Asian curries on clay pots dating to these early periods – clay pots no different to those still made and used in rural Cambodia today – and this was long before chillies arrived in the region from Mexico. In fact, some Cambodia’s curry pastes, which are really herb and spice pastes as they’re used in more than just curries, but in everything from soups to marinades for grills, do not contain chillies.
When people think of curries, the first thing that typically comes to mind is Indian food despite the fact that in India they didn’t use the word ‘curry’ as the catch-all term that the British would use to describe the countless spice-laden stew-like Indian dishes nor the combinations of spices that went into those dishes. The Indians use the word ‘masala’ instead to refer to a blend of spices or spice paste. The vast number of Indian dishes that have come to be known as curries, due to their form and texture, each have their own names, particular to the places they originated.
According to numerous researchers, the British and more specifically, British East India Company employees and members of the British Army, are credited – or blamed, depending on your views – with coining the word ‘curry’ during their time in India under British colonial rule (1858-1947) to describe that array of Indian dishes that local cooks would set upon their tables, and supposedly invented ‘curry powder’ to describe the spice mix that was pre-blended for convenience, taken back home, and exported around the world.
I find it hard to believe that they hadn’t thought to do this a couple of centuries earlier, since the British had already been shipping spices such as cloves, pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg from the Malay Peninsula, Moluccas and Java from the 1590s, along with the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch, who established the Dutch East India Company.
In fact, it was the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama who first sailed to India in 1498 and we know from ship records that he returned with cinnamon, pepper and ginger. They would also trade with the Khmers in Cambodia, from the early 1500s, from where they’d shipped pepper, cardamom and cloves, among other products.
Researchers agree that the British took the word ‘curry’ from the Portuguese ‘carree’, which they used to refer to spice seasoning and ‘caril’ used to describe a curry broth, sauce or relish. The Portuguese in turn had simply adopted the Malayalam word ‘karil’ and the Tamil word ‘kari’, which had the same meanings.
‘Cari’ is used by Cambodians among other Southeast Asians to describe, well, a curry, a spice-laden dish with the consistency of a stew or soup (Cambodians use the same word for both, ‘samlor’) made from a combination of dry or fresh spices, herbs, leaves, and roots typically pounded into a paste, and it’s used to describe anything from a samlor that is similar to a Malaysian laksa and Cambodia’s wonderful cari Saraman, which you can read about below. Our best curry recipes on Grantourismo are largely of Cambodian and Thai origin, however, we’ll add to this round-up as we add more to the site.
Best Curry Recipes from Southeast Asia for When You Need Spice in Your Life
Thai Red Curry Paste Recipe
One of our best curry recipes from the Grantourismo archive makes a Thai red curry paste which Thai chefs compare to a mother sauce in that it’s the basis for so many dishes. This was the first in a recipe series Terence wrote for his ‘Year of Asian Cookbooks’ project. A Thai curry paste made in a mortar and pestle is a pure expression of what he was trying to achieve with the project: no shortcuts, no food processors, no preservatives, just authentic recipes that created delicious dishes. Curries were a key theme that year, as we explored the connections between the different types of curries and curry pastes used throughout Southeast Asia. So why should you make a Thai red curry paste, or any curry paste really, from scratch when there are sections of supermarket shelves full of curry pastes? Well, why make ragu bolognese when it comes in a can? The only reason to buy a pre-made paste is if you just cannot get all the ingredients and just have to have a Thai curry or you really don’t have the time. Don’t feel bad, they can taste okay, and we certainly know the feeling. But if you have the ingredients, then why not just stick them in a food processor? Because food processors rip things apart, whereas a mortar and pestle pounds a paste until it comes together. The texture is different and the taste is different. The Thais are generally polite people. Most of them like to make people happy, which is why in most tourist restaurants they’ll make you an anodyne Thai curry light on the chili and heavy on coconut cream because they think that’s what you want. They’ll also tell you in cookbooks and cooking classes that you can use a food processor to make a curry. They’re just being polite.
Cambodian Kroeung Curry Paste Recipe
The Cambodian curry paste called kroeung, along with prahok (fermented fish paste), is one of the distinctive signature ingredients in the Khmer kitchen, and is another of our best curry recipes from the archive. Flavouring more than just curries, everything from soups to stir-fries and used as marinades for beef skewers, good kroeungs are a source of pride for a good Cambodian cook. With a base of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime zest, turmeric, garlic, and shallots, kroeung is a herb and spice paste rather than a curry paste as such, particularly as it’s used in more than just curries. Made fresh daily, both in the home and commercially, it has fresh flavour notes even when used in curries as heavy as the Saraman curry, below. But are the characteristics of the kroeung curry paste unique to Cambodia? Yes and no. The base ingredients for the Cambodian curry paste called kroeung are common in Thai cooking, not surprisingly considering the shared history of the two countries — but it’s the use of turmeric in the standard base curry paste of Khmer cooking that sets it apart. However, of the Thai curry repertoire, some “foreign” Thai curries, as Chef David Thompson calls them, do often contain fresh turmeric, such as our gaeng hang lay moo recipe. One thing that sets the Cambodian kroeungs apart from Thai curry pastes is that there is no chilli in the base paste mix of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime zest, and turmeric, which is often sold freshly pounded in markets. This goes some way in justifying the myth that Cambodian curries are lighter than their Thai counterparts. Although a Cambodian Saraman curry can be very spicy, it still doesn’t have a chilli kick. It’s spicy in the way that an Indian curry is — also no surprise given the early history of Cambodia.
Cambodian Saraman or Cari Saramann Curry Recipe
One of our best curry recipes on Grantourismo in my opinion is Terence’s Cambodian saraman curry or cari saramann. It is the richest and most complex of the Cambodian curries and we believe it to be a cousin of the Thai massaman curry and beef rendang of Malaysia. Its time-consuming nature makes it a special occasion dish for most Cambodians, particularly the Cham Muslim communities of Cambodia. The similarity with Thailand’s massaman curry lies in the base curry paste with just a few ingredients setting the saraman curry apart and that’s the use of star anise, sometimes turmeric, and dry roasted grated coconut. The latter is what the saraman curry has in common with Malaysia’s beef rendang, the dry roasted coconut helping to give the curry that beautiful rich, thick gravy that has you adding yet another spoonful of rice to your bowl just to mix it with the sauce. Indeed, one well-regarded American-based Cambodian chef and cookbook writer, Narin Seng Jameson, in her book Cooking the Cambodian Way, calls the saraman curry paste an Indian-style curry paste and the curry itself, a ‘salman curry’. She uses shrimp paste and the addition of a powder of dried caraway seeds (also known as Persian cumin) in her paste.
Cambodian Fish Amok Recipe
Cambodian cuisine must be Southeast Asia’s most under-appreciated and most misunderstood and one of its dishes, fish amok or amok trei or amok trey in Khmer, must be one of its most confounding to untrained eyes, appearing in an array of forms, shapes and colours. A steamed fish curry – ‘amok’ refers to the process of steaming in banana leaves – it has traditionally had a texture somewhere between a mousse, custard and soufflé. Our Cambodian fish amok recipe is easily one of our best curry recipes, reliably making a very traditional steamed fish curry of the kind made from an older generation of cooks who believe this refined dish is a Royal Khmer specialty dating back to the Khmer Empire. This classic Cambodian fish amok recipe comes courtesy of a respected family of elderly cooks whose mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers made the dish during a time when Cambodian women thought nothing of spending a full day preparing a family feast. This isn’t a recipe for the sloppy fish amok you might have eaten in a Siem Reap tourist restaurant, which can be made in minutes. To make this authentic steamed fish curry from scratch, including pounding your own kroeung, you need to allow at least a couple of hours. It’s pretty when presented in a coconut shell – as Chef Kethana at Sugar Palm restaurant, who undoubtably makes Cambodia’s finest fish amok, does – with a drizzle of coconut cream and finely sliced kaffir lime leaves and chilli on top. Fish amok is beloved by Cambodians, so much so that it’s often called Cambodia’s national dish – despite the fact that Cambodians probably don’t eat it as much these days as they did in the past as it’s so time-consuming to make properly.
Northern Thai Pork Belly Curry Recipe
Of all the curries in Thailand, this Northern Thai pork belly curry called gaeng hang lay moo must be the most decadent and moreish of all. It’s a red curry on spice steroids and the extra kick and spice, as well as the richness of the pork belly, make this one of our favourite Thai curries and one that Terence cooked obsessively for a while for his Year of Asian Cookbooks project. The geographic origin of gaeng hang lay moo is the northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai, beloved for its laidback atmosphere, arty vibe and spicy food. This, combined with its cooler weather and nearby mountains, has seen Chiang Mai become a popular retreat for well-off Thais and a home for Bangkok creative types seeking a tree-change. However, it’s the much earlier arrival of Indian traders bearing spices that is of interest here. Initially arriving in Chiang Mai to trade textiles, their need for the classic Indian spices to satisfy cravings from home saw spices such as turmeric, fennel and cardamom become more commonly used in local Thai cooking. While the spices convey the influence of India and Malaysia, the origins perhaps are closer to the northern Thai border in Myanmar, where a pork curry called wet tha hin lay includes a sour component, just as the Thai version includes tamarind. In fact many restaurant menus in Chiang Mai translate the dish as ‘Burmese curry’. The hang lay moo recipe Terence uses here, easily one of the best curry recipes from the archive, came courtesy of Bangkok-based Thai Chef Ian Kittichai of Issaya Siamese Club.
Massaman Beef Curry Recipe
A beef Massaman curry is our favourite kind of Thai curry. It’s the earthiness of Southern Thailand’s beef Massaman curry that makes this the most moreish of all curries. While the prep list is long and the cooking time requires the patience of a saint, it’s by far the most rewarding to make. You’ll also see lamb and chicken Massaman curries, though never pork, as this is a Thai Muslim curry, but Terence prefers making the slow-cooked beef version when he cooks at home. There are different stories as to how this ‘foreign’ curry ended up a staple curry in the Thai cooking cannon. One story goes that it was brought to southern Thailand by Arab or Indian traders. Another story suggests it travelled from Persia to the Court of Ayutthaya in the sixteenth century. And a further theory (mine) has it travelling with the cooks from Angkor (in present day Cambodia) after its sacking by the Thais to Ayutthaya. (More on that in the future also). The use of popular Middle Eastern spices like cardamom and cloves is an indication of that ‘foreign’ influence, although in the present day recipes the use of Thai cardamom instead of Indian is preferred by most chefs because of its more subtle flavour. Perhaps another indication of its roots in India, Persia (now Iran) or the Arab world is the version that uses lamb instead of chicken or beef. Easily another of our best curry recipes on the site, this recipe by chef Ian Kittichai from his Issaya Siamese Club cookbook is one of Terence’s favourite lamb versions as he uses lamb shanks, but click through on the link below for the beef Massaman recipe.
Thai Beef Panang Curry Recipe
Curry lovers will adore this Thai beef Panang curry recipe, which makes a traditional Thai Phanaeng nua recipe that often simply appears as a ‘Penang Curry’ recipe in Thai cookbooks and on restaurant menus, and is easily another of our best curry recipes on the site. Named after the island of Penang in northern Malaysia, just over Thailand’s southern border, this curry paste for a Thai beef Panang curry usually has different ingredients to a Thai red curry. Most notably, less, if any, shrimp paste and often the addition of nutmeg and peanuts. The peanuts are sometimes incorporated into the paste, but are more commonly sprinkled over the dish. Regarding the use of peanuts, chef Ian Kittichai, whose recipe Terence has drawn from, said he never puts peanuts in his Phanaeng curry as it’s then like a version of a satay sauce because it is so thick. Nor does he use the nutmeg that most Panang curry pastes call for. The characteristics of a traditional Phanaeng curry is a sweetness and lack of serious heat, which is probably what makes it one of the most appealing curries to European travellers who aren’t fans of chili. This curry is quite easy to make, so if you make a batch of curry paste over a weekend, it’s a great, fresh and lively mid-week curry to cook.
Thai Geng Gari Gai Chicken Curry Recipe
Easily another of our best curry recipes from the archive, this old Southern Thailand geng gari gai aromatic chicken curry recipe “has a rich and delicious depth that only something rooted in the past can have,” according to chef David Thompson who taught the dish to participants at a culinary workshop in Singapore Terence attended some years ago. This historic geng gari gai recipe is another “foreign” curry, according to Thompson, meaning that it was made using ingredients that fall outside ‘indigenous’ Thai curry paste traditions. In other words, it uses lots of dry spices from Burma, India, Persia, and the Middle East that travelled to Thailand with traders. “Foreign curries, coming from the Muslim south or over the border from Burma, still have the hallmarks of their origins,” Chef Thompson explained. “Most traditional Thai curries have very few dried spices. Of course, they have dried chillies, but they do not have various things like coriander seeds or cumin seeds or cloves or other dry spices like that.” The chef introduced this geng gari gai as a 120-year old recipe that he found intriguing because of the methods of preparation and marination. While he says that there are versions that are both simpler and more complex, this one had “quite an unusual combination of techniques that suggest the past; a greater complexity.” Which makes it another of our best curry recipes on the site.
Ajat Dtaeng Gwa Thai Cucumber Relish Recipe
This piquant ajat dtaeng gwa Thai cucumber relish recipe does not make a curry, obviously, but it will make you the perfect accompaniment to that geng gari gai recipe, above. The first time I sampled the aromatic chicken curry, it was a revelation. It wasn’t just the flavour of the salty, spicy, creamy curry, but how it was complimented by what it was served with — this Thai cucumber relish and roti. There is a myth that Thai food is a canonically pure, indigenous cuisine that mysteriously emerged, fully formed, in the 13th century when Thailand’s first capital was established at Sukhothai in 1279. The reality is that the influences on Thai cuisine run deep and wide across Asia, well before modern borders were marked and nation states formed, from China, India, Cambodia, Myanmar, Iran (Persia), and the Middle East. Indeed, much of what we now know as Thailand had been part of the Khmer Empire when Tai tribal chiefs turned Angkor governors overthrew their Khmer commanders. In Southern Thailand, as we learnt during a month of culinary research on Phuket for a story some years ago that the influences on the island’s cuisine, and the region as a whole, came from all directions but mainly from maritime traders, sailors and tin miners who arrived by sea from China, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, and Persia. With geng gari and its traditional accompaniments, the influence is from India and indeed ‘gari’ is the Thai word for ‘cari’ which is Tamil for curry. Another sign of its origins? The flaky pieces of roti which can be dipped into the curry sauce or used to scoop up the curry and relish.
Chiang Mai Curry Noodle Chicken Soup Recipe
This khao soi gai recipe makes the delicious Chiang Mai curry noodle chicken soup that is as beloved by foreign visitors as much as locals in the Northern Thailand city and is another of our best curry recipes from the archive. Slurped at countless market stalls, simple eateries and fancy restaurants, khao soi gai quickly becomes addictive. Khao soi gai is the most popular noodle soup in the old capital of the Lanna kingdom in Northern Thailand that’s as famous for its fantastic Northern Thai-style Lanna food as much as its gilded pagodas, gorgeous handicrafts and glorious mountains nearby. Khao soi gai is a one-bowl meal of egg noodles, a rich, oily coconut cream-infused stock, and a leg or thigh of bone-in chicken (‘gai’ is Thai for chicken) topped with more crunchy noodles. The spicy curry noodle chicken soup is a lunchtime favourite across Chiang Mai. It’s one of those dishes that culinary travellers are eager to try – and then can’t stop eating. Khao soi is thought to have arrived in Northern Thailand with Chinese Muslim traders who travelled from Southern China to what we now know as Myanmar, stopping in the Lanna kingdom on the way. However, Kao soi gai also shares some DNA with Myanmar’s ohn no khao swe, a Burmese chicken coconut noodle soup, so could have arrived in Lanna along the old established trading route between Moulmein and Chiang Mai. The route was well-travelled during the roughly 200-year Burmese rule of Northern Thailand from 1558 to 1775. During the period, coconuts, which weren’t grown in Chiang Mai, were shipped from the Southern port of Moulmein to the Lanna kingdom. Whichever way the curry noodle soup travelled, it explains why quite often in Chiang Mai it is Muslim families who have stalls selling the dish – and typically it’s the only dish they sell.
Singapore Curry Laksa Recipe
This Singapore curry laksa recipe is the rich coconut milk-laced version of this Southeast Asian classic noodle soup dish and it’s easily another of our best curry recipes on the site. Like a great curry, a great curry laksa is not made starting from a jar of paste, a great curry laksa starts with curry paste made from scratch in a mortar and pestle. Terence has been making curry laksa since we first started slurping the spicy coconut curry noodle soup back home in Australia in Sydney’s Chinatown in the 1980s. It served as an early after-work dinner before our evening uni classes and became a Saturday morning ritual before shopping Paddy’s markets. There are basically two dominant types of laksa, one with coconut milk and one without. The one with coconut milk combined with a stock and curry paste broth is common in southern Malaysia and Singapore and is called curry laksa or curry mee. ‘Mee’ means noodles. The other type is called asam laksa or Penang laksa, Penang being the dish’s spiritual home, and is fishy and sour due to the presence of tamarind. There are many variants of these two main types of laksa, mainly geographic, and all are delicious. Terence has been so obsessed with replicating that original curry laksa we fell in love with many years ago that he has ten recipes for curry laksa in his recipe manager including one by Christine Manfield with a curry paste with 17 ingredients.
We’d love to know what you think of our compilation of best curry recipes from Grantourismo. Do let us know if you make any and how they turn out.