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Thai Curry Paste Story

Although chilli peppers are often associated with Thai food, they are not originally from Thailand. It is widely believed that chilli peppers originated in Central or South America, and they were first cultivated in Mexico. No one really knows when chilli arrived in Thailand, but it was possibly in the 15th or 16th century when Portuguese traders and Spanish missionaries arrived in Asia. Thailand’s tropical climate proved to be favourable for the growth of chilli plants, and chilli eventually became an integral component of Thai agriculture and cuisine. As a result, various types and varieties of chilies are now grown throughout the country, each differing in size, colour, and heat level.
Thai curry paste

Table of Contents

The Evolution of Thai Curry

Many elements of Thai curry—like the use of spices and the concept of grinding spices and herbs into a paste—can be traced back to Indian culinary traditions. The word “curry” itself is thought to have evolved from the Tamil word ‘kari’, which was used to refer to a sauce for rice.

Indian curry, along with other elements of Indian culture and cuisine, made its way to Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia primarily through historical trade routes, which can be traced back to at least the first century CE.

The fusion of Indian curry with Thai culinary practices didn’t happen overnight but was the result of ongoing exchange and synthesis over centuries. By the time the Portuguese and Spanish arrived in the 16th century, Thai cuisine had already been influenced by Indian spices and cooking methods, setting the stage for the development of what we recognise today as Thai curry.

red curry nittaya

Chilli Paste (Nam Prik): The Fiery Heart of Thai Curry

Chilli paste, or ‘nam prik’ in Thai, is the fundamental flavour base that distinguishes Thai curries from other types of curry found across Asia. The blend of fresh, aromatic ingredients like lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime, coupled with the distinct flavour of shrimp paste, gives Thai curry its signature taste.

Several types of chilies can be used, each lending its unique heat and flavour profile. Bird’s eye chillies are used to make green curry paste, while red curry paste is made with dried red chillies.

Ingredients in Thai Curry Paste

The story of Thai curry paste would not complete without mentioning Ms. Nittaya, who revolutionised the world of Thai curry pastes with her brand ‘Nittaya Thai Curry Paste’ over 60 years ago. Beyond introducing the world to an authentic taste, Ms. Nittaya’s mission today is to educate people on the health benefits of Thai curry. Each herb and ingredient in the curry is known for its medicinal properties, from aiding digestion to acting as anti-inflammatory agents. It’s a testament to the age-old saying that good food can be medicine for the body and soul. Key ingredients include:
  • Chilli – helps reduce blood pressure. It also contains vitamin C, E, B1, B2 and B3.
  • Basil – helps relieve symptoms of indigestion.
  • Shallot – helps prevent and treat colds, fevers and coughs.
  • Garlic – helps reduce cholesterol and prevent heart disease.
  • Shrimp paste – contains calcium and vitamin A.
Each component plays a crucial role in creating the rich, complex taste that Thai curry is celebrated for. These are just small examples of the advantage we can get in just one dish. It is a knowledge Thailand discovered and inherited through generations. International taste doesn’t mean the traditional taste should be compromised. It should be appreciated and preserved by all cultures.
red curry nittaya

Did you know…?

  • Panang curry is named after the island of Penang off the west coast of Malaysia. Although a Thai dish, it has its origins in the historical trade relationships and cultural exchanges between the regions.

  • Massaman curry, another beloved Thai curry variant, can be traced back to Persian origins. The word “Massaman” is thought to derive from the word “Mussulman” which is an old term for Muslims. It is a fusion of Thai, Indian and Malaysian influences.

  • Thai curry paste is not just for curries. It can also be used as a marinade for grilling meats, as a base for stir-fries, or even mixed into noodle dishes for an added flavour kick.