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What is Curry Paste?

By Celeste Heiter
Updated May 16, 2024
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Curry paste is a finely ground or pureed blend of aromatic spices, herbs, and vegetables. It is widely used as an ingredient in the cuisines of many cultures to make curries, stews, and other dishes. There are many different types of curry pastes, and each country’s blend has a distinct flavor.

The term “curry” comes from the Tamil word for “gravy” or “sauce” and is, therefore, open to broad interpretation. There are two basic categories: dry and wet. Dry curry dishes may be made with whole or powdered spices; wet curry dishes are typically made with curry paste.

The base for a curry paste usually contains ingredients such as ginger, garlic, and onion. Some blends include chili peppers, lemongrass, and leafy herbs. Liquids such as coconut milk, citrus juice, and vinegar may also be used. Nuts and legumes are sometimes added for texture and flavor along with condiments such as Asian fish sauce, shrimp paste, and tamarind paste.

The most common spices are cumin, coriander, and turmeric. Other spices may include dried chilies, cinnamon, and black pepper. Seeds such as fennel, mustard, or fenugreek may also be used. For some blends, whole spices may be roasted before grinding.

Curry pastes are traditionally blended with a mortar and pestle. This method is still used in many cultures, especially in developing nations where electricity and modern appliances are unavailable. In modern kitchens, the ingredients may be pureed in a blender or food processor.

Indian cuisine is best known for the use of curry paste in its many regional dishes. Neighboring countries Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka use similar blends in their cuisines. To the north, Nepalese, Bhutanese, and Tibetan cuisines include their own versions of curry paste.

The cuisine of Thailand features three basic types of curry paste: yellow, green, and red. Yellow Thai curry paste is spiced with turmeric, which turns it a deep shade of ochre. The green type gets its color from cilantro and green chilies. The red blend is made with fiery red chili peppers.

Curry paste is also widely used in the cuisines of other Asian countries. Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar each have their own distinct curry dishes. Curry paste is also extensively used in Malaysian and Indonesian cuisine. Even Vietnam, China and Japan use their own unique blends in certain dishes. Beyond Asia, curry paste is often used in the cuisines of Africa, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific.

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Discussion Comments
By backdraft — On Feb 14, 2012

I saw tandoori curry paste for sale the other day but I hesitated to buy it because I don't have a tandoori oven. I would love to make tandoori dishes in my own home but is it enough to simply use the correct kind of curry paste? I have seen a tandoori oven in use and it seems pretty integral to the flavor of the dish.

By jonrss — On Feb 14, 2012

Curry paste is a staple in my cupboard. I probably end up using it once or twice a week in my kitchen, way more often than I use vanilla extract or garlic salt or shallots.

I love the flavors of India and Southeast Asia and many of these dishes incorporate curry as one of their key ingredients. I always have a Thai green curry paste for making my favorite Thai dishes and a masala curry paste for my favorite Indian dishes.

Curry paste can be bought very inexpensively but make sure that you go to an international grocery store. It is often for sale in major supermarkets, but the price is inflated ridiculously. Save yourself some money and buy from people who know what they are selling. You will end up with a better curry that way.

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