Prig Gang Kua (พริกแกงคั่ว) (Basic Thai Red Curry Paste)
There are two different kinds of “red curry paste”that you will encounter in Thai cooking:
Prig Gang Kua (พริกแกงคั่ว): Think of this as the basic Thai “mother” curry paste, from which all other curry pastes probably developed. Paste is bright orange with prominent aromas of lemongrass and kaffir lime, with a consistency like tomato paste. It’s typically used in curries that feature grilled fish, dried smoked fish, or dried shrimp. However, it can be used in a wide variety of dishes like panang, haw mok and tod mun (fish patties). This is not generally available as a prepared curry paste here in the US.
Prig Gang Ped (พริกแกงเผ็ด): darker in color compared to prig gang kua because of the added dry spices. The aroma is a blend of lemongrass, kaffir lime zest, and toasted dried spices; the consistency of the paste also tends to be much dryer. Typically used in red curries that are creamy and salty. This is the type of red curry paste that you are most likely to find on grocery store shelves in the US- however, many brands of prepared prig gang ped tend to have more muted flavors of lemongrass and kaffir lime, and some brands contain much more salt.
The following are two different recipes for basic prig gang kua. The first version is a wetter paste that is easy to make in a food processor (although I still do some of the grinding by hand with a mortar and pestle to achieve a smoother, more even consistency). This recipe uses fresh kaffir lime leaves, which are usually easier to find than fresh, whole kaffir limes. The finished paste is a bright orange color, and packs a fair amount of heat from the smaller, hotter chilies used. As no additional salt is used (other than the shrimp paste), this is a good paste recipe for those who may be watching their sodium intake.
The second version below is a more traditional recipe that is best made in a mortar and pestle, although you could process some of the wetter ingredients before adding them to the mortar to cut down on some of the grinding. This recipe uses less wet ingredients like shallots, so this version of the curry paste is a bit thicker and slightly drier. As larger dried chilies are used, the color of the finished paste is a deep orange-red, although the heat level is lower (larger chilies tend to be less spicy than smaller chilies). I recommend adding a few fresh hot chilies to whatever dish you are cooking if you like your food on the spicy side.
You can freeze any curry paste that you don’t plan on using right away (simply pop into ice cube trays or a freezer bag, and store in the freezer until needed).
Prig Gang Kua, Version #1 (Food processor-friendly):
- 8 small dried red chilies (such as arbol)*
- 2 fresh red chilies (such as Thai bird chilies), seeded and roughly chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- 4 small shallots, roughly chopped
- 1/2 fresh lemongrass stalk, outer leaves and stalk end discarded, roughly chopped
- 1 1/4-inch piece galangal, peeled and roughly chopped*
- 1 teaspoon roasted shrimp paste*
- 2 cilantro roots with stalks, roughly chopped*
- 2 fresh kaffir lime leaves, tough center stems removed and roughly chopped*
Soak chilies in hot water for 10 minutes then drain and squeeze out any excess remaining water. If desired, you can seed the chilies before grinding (the seeds contain most of the actual heat, but the seeds of some dried chilies can also taste bitter). Roughly chop chilies, then add to food processor along with all the other ingredients. Pulse until a smooth paste forms.
Prig Gang Kua, Version #2 (Old-School Mortar and Pestle):
- 3 large, dried whole chilies (such as Anaheim or ancho)*
- 1 tablespoon salt*
- 1 1/2 tablespoons galangal, roughly chopped*
- 1 stalk fresh lemongrass, outer leaves and tough top part of stalk discarded, roughly chopped
- 1/4 cup garlic, roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon cilantro roots, roughly chopped*
- 1 tablespoon fresh kaffir lime zest*
- 3/4 cup shallots, roughly chopped
- 1 teaspoon roasted shrimp paste*
The sequence of ingredients added to the mortar is hard and dry to soft and wet. The hard ingredients, with the least amount of water content go in first.
1. Soak chilies in hot water for 10 minutes then drain and squeeze out any excess remaining water. If desired, you can seed the chilies before grinding (the seeds contain most of the actual heat, but the seeds of some dried chilies can also taste bitter). Roughly chop dried chilies, then add to mortar along with salt. Pound chilies and salt (the salt is gritty and helps break up chili pepper into small pieces), until the chili peppers become a thick paste.
2. Add lemongrass and galangal into the mortar. Grind them into rough fibers (use a pounding and dragging motion with the pestle to separate the fibers).
3. Add garlic, kaffir lime zest and cilantro roots next. Pound the mixture into a paste.
4. Add shallots last (once the shallots are added, the juice from the shallots makes it too slippery to grind other ingredients effectively). Pound until the mixture turns into a fine paste so that you can’t recognize individual ingredients.
5.Add shrimp paste. Pound to mix it in the paste.
Tips & Tricks:
- The technique to using a mortar and pestle is to pound down at an angle then drag it, grind and twist it up toward yourself. Pound the ingredients into the side, almost at the deepest spot, at a 65 degree angle. Do not pound straight down into the center of the mortar, or bits of paste will bounce back out and onto you. Use your other hand to cup the opening, both to prevent the contents from bouncing out and to steady the mortar. Then pound and pound and pound- it will take a lot of grinding to make smooth curry paste (look at it this way- you can skip arm day at the gym after a session with the mortar and pestle).
- Salt performs two functions in curry pastes, in that it makes grinding easier and acts as a preservative. Most curries use fish sauce or other salty ingredients in addition to a curry paste, so if you add extra salt to the paste when you’re making it, remember to taste your curry prior to seasoning so you don’t accidentally over-salt your dish.
*Ingredient Notes & Substitutions:
- Galangal is sold in some markets as “Thai ginger”. However, its flavor is different- please do not substitute regular ginger root for galangal.
- Cilantro stems can be substituted if you can’t find cilantro with the roots attached.
- Although I’ve offered two different recipes for this curry paste (one which uses kaffir zest and one which uses leaves), kaffir lime zest, juice, and leaves are not really interchangeable. I don’t recommend substituting one for the other, or substituting Western limes (aka Persian limes) or key limes in their place (the flavor is just not the same). Try to locate an Asian market in your area that carries fresh kaffir limes, or order them online (importfood.com and some other vendors offer Thai fruits and vegetables for sale with priority shipping).
- Sea salt or kosher salt work best for making curry paste. Do not use iodized table salt- the grains are too fine to be any help in grinding, and the iodine will mess up the flavor of the curry paste.
- If you use smaller dried chilies like arbol, your curry paste will be hotter, but not as bright of an orange color; if you use larger but milder peppers like Anaheim, the color will be a very bright orange to orange-red, but your paste will not be as spicy. Experiment to find what works for you- I actually prefer a blend of chilies to get that lovely deep orange-red color and a nice level of heat.
- If you don’t have shrimp paste, you can substitute an equal amount of anchovy paste or mashed anchovy fillets; however, the flavor will not be as pronounced, so you may need to add a bit of extra fish sauce or salt to your curry to compensate. Roast the anchovy paste/mashed anchovy fillets as you would shrimp paste (directions below).
To roast shrimp paste: spoon desired amount of shrimp paste onto a piece of foil, fold foil into a a neat little package or envelope shape, and roast in a 400-degree oven for 10 minutes. Roasting helps to remove excess water from the shrimp paste and improves the flavor of your curry paste. The roasted shrimp paste will look powdery or foamy- simply scrape roasted paste off of foil and use.
last updated August 17, 2023