“Yellow Curry” is one of the popular Thai foods in the USA. In Thai, it is called แกงกะหรี่ (Kaeng Kari, pronounced “gkehng gkah-dee”). It contains chicken, potatoes, and onions, and is served with cooked jasmine rice, along with cucumbers and shallots lightly pickled in sweetened vinegar.
The English translation of a lot of Thai dishes causes great confusion. The translation that causes the greatest confusion is Kaeng Kari to Yellow Curry. In Thai, there are two types of soups. Unlike Western soups, they are served with rice as a main course. Some Thai people therefore do not like to translate them as soups. However I believe they should count as soup since a soup is a dish with a liquid. And if they must not call Thai soups as “soups”, then they must also translate Chinese tang, Korean guk, Japanese shiru, etc. all not as “soup”, since they are all not served at the start of a meal either. Anyway, there are two types in Thai cuisine. “Tom” is made from simmering whole pieces of Thai herbs in water/stock, etc. to infuse flavor. This includes Tom Yum (no coconut milk) and Tom Kha (contains coconut milk). The other type of soup is “Kaeng”, made from cooking a paste of Thai herbs and spices in water or coconut milk. Coconut milk based Kaeng includes Kaeng Kua, Kaeng However, since Thai restaurants translated “Tom” as soup already, they translated “Kaeng” as “curry”. Now, this name is highly inappropriate for so many reasons. First, what was the original meaning of curry? The British invented the word curry to describe all Indian food, especially the dishes with a sauce. Well then, they invented a spice blend called curry powder! And from then on, any dish containing curry powder became called a curry. Which is fine this way. The Japanese karē (see my recipe), the Korean kare, the Vietnamese cari, the Malaysian kari, all contain curry powder, and are therefore curries. But… Thai Kaeng do not contain curry powder. Only some people add it to Kaeng Kari. That’s why it’s called Kaeng Kari!! So therefore calling all Kaeng as “curry” is not appropriate at all. Only Kaeng Kari can possibly be called a “curry”. The terrible translation of Kaeng into “curry” causes further problems when translating Kaeng Kari. Calling the dish “curry curry” would sound quite strange. So they called it “yellow curry instead”! Why? Well, they already translated Kaeng Phet into “Red Curry”, and Kaeng Khiao Wan into “Green Curry”, so why not, it’s yellow! However, in Thailand there is a Kaeng called “Kaeng Lueang”, which literally means… “Yellow Curry”. So now that they call Kaeng Kari as “Yellow Curry”, what about “Kaeng Lueang”? Well, they don’t really care. Because Kaeng Lueang is not served in Thai restaurants in the USA anyways. If you’re wondering, Kaeng Lueang, along with Kaeng Som and Kaeng Pla, are some of the Kaeng that do not use coconut milk. In Southern Thailand, it’s called Kaeng Som, but in Central Thailand they already have a dish called Kaeng Som. (Som means sour and the Kaeng is sour from tamarind or lime juice.) The Central version is red and the Southern version is yellow from Turmeric. So the Central Thai decided to call the Southern Kaeng Som as “Kaeng Lueang”. Anyways, when they arrive in USA, and want “Yellow Curry”, they will expect Kaeng Lueang, but they get… Kaeng Kari instead. If you’re wondering, the Kaeng Lueang is usually translated as “Sour Yellow Curry” or “Southern Yellow Curry” or “Southern Sour Curry”, etc.
So, that was a long paragraph describing the inappropriateness of the name Yellow Curry. From now on I will call it Kaeng Kari. (I called it the American name at the beginning to not confuse people.)
Okay, so what makes Kaeng Kari different from Kaeng Phet and Kaeng Khiao Wan? All three use coconut milk inside. The difference in the soup itself is that the only vegetables used are potato and onion. You CANNOT add other vegetables and still call it Kaeng Kari. Actually I sometimes add carrot for color, like the “curry” in other countries, but not sure if Thai people will be happy about that fact. Similarly, potatoes and onions and carrots DO NOT belong in Kaeng Phet and Kaeng Khiao Wan. The other difference is the curry paste. Like Kaeng Phet, Kaeng Kari uses dry red chilies. It also has just about all of the other ingredients in Kaeng Phet/Khiao Wan. However, Kaeng Kari paste has less dry red chilies and is therefore less spicy. It also contains extra spices, including turmeric and some people add curry powder. Some people also add a few extra herbs.
In this recipe, you need a few ingredients. First, you need Kaeng Kari paste. I strongly recommend the Maesri brand “Karee Curry Paste” in a small can. You will use the whole can so it’s perfect for one time use. You can also use the Mae Ploy “Yellow Curry Paste” in a large container. The problem with Mae Ploy is that the container is super large. And it is also EXTREMELY spicy. Their Kaeng Kari paste is standable. But their Kaeng Phet and Kaeng Khiao Wan pastes are SO SPICY, that I cannot even eat a bowl of the finished soup. They are also extremely salty! It tastes like you added a whole salt shaker into the soup. But some people like it because it isn’t canned. Personally I think canning does not make the flavor much worse than the Mae Ploy. Both brands are very, very authentic. They are also very tasty (but Mae Ploy is too salty and spicy). So I recommend using Maesri as it is not too salty and spicy, and is in a convenient-sized package. Second, you need coconut milk. In making Thai Kaeng, you must saute the thick part of the coconut milk that floats to the top with the Kaeng paste until the oil separates. Chaokoh used to be a great brand, but now I cannot get the oil to separate at all, even after boiling half an hour. Mae Ploy’s coconut oil DID separate after a while, when I tried about a year ago. But it costs much more, so I don’t use it regularly. Aroy D is the brand with no preservatives and I haven’t tried it with making Kaeng yet. Do not use any other brand because if it is Asian, it is not good quality, and if it is non-Asian, it costs too much and may contain something like guar gum, which prevents it from separating layers. And NEVER buy “lite” coconut milk, which is just coconut milk diluted with water. Don’t worry because coconut fat is healthy even if it is saturated, as shown by recent scientific studies. Anyways, you may use Chaokoh if it doesn’t matter that the oil separates. But most authentic Kaeng should have oil floating on top. For a shortcut, you may saute the paste in a tbsp of coconut oil for a couple minutes before adding the coconut milk. This is not traditional, but does taste wonderful, hehe. So do it if you like! Next, you need seasonings, Thai fish sauce and palm sugar. Preferably, don’t use Three Crabs, which is not Thai fish sauce. Use the much cheaper Tiparos brand (used in the majority of Thai homes and still very good) or the slightly better quality, Tra Chang brand (harder to find). Palm sugar may be hard to find so you may substitute white sugar in this recipe.
Today I made a pescetarian version with tofu, which is not traditional. You may use chicken thighs if you wish. Vegetarians/vegans cannot eat Thai Kaeng as it has kapi inside the paste, made from krill. However you can make the paste yourself. I can make a recipe later.
Note: You can use 1 inch cubes instead of 1.5 inch. I prefer smaller, but 1.5 is more traditional.
Adapted from Serious Eats, Ajat Recipe adapted from both Serious Eats and the High Heel Gourmet
1 can Maesri “karee curry paste”, if using Mae Ploy, use about 3 tbsp (depending on your preference, it may be too salty)
1 can coconut milk (14 oz), DO NOT shake!!
1 lb chicken thighs, cut into 1.5 inch cubes, or substitute with 1 package tofu (about 14-16 oz), cut into about 1.25 inch cubes since tofu doesn’t shrink
1 lb potatoes, cut into 1.5 inch cubes
NOT traditional: some carrots, cut into pieces slightly smaller than potatoes
1 onion, cut into wedges (traditional) or cubes (my preference)
palm sugar or white sugar (to taste and optional, about 1/2 tbsp or so if using)
fish sauce to taste (don’t add too much or it might be too salty, I use about 1/2 tbsp)
serve with: cooked white jasmine rice, ajat (cucumber and shallot lightly pickled sweet and sour) is optional but always served in Thailand, see recipe below the main recipe
1. Prepare ajat first, if using. Then wash and start cooking the rice. Once started, you can start making the Kaeng Kari.
2. Traditionally: Open the unshaken can of coconut milk. Add the thick part floating on top to the pot with the Kaeng Kari paste. Reserve the rest of the coconut milk. Heat the pot, using a spatula to break up the paste and combine well with the coconut milk. Stir and cook until the coconut oil seprates and floats on top. However, this takes a while and it never happens when I use Chaokoh brand. So see the non-traditional way that is faster and easier.
2. Non-traditionally: Heat a pot with 1 tbsp coconut oil. Add the Kaeng Kari Paste and use the spatula to distribute evenly through the oil and cook a couple minutes as it becomes fragrant. Then carefully (it may splatter if oil is too hot) add the thick part of the coconut milk floating on top and stir well to combine.
3. Add the potato, onion, non-traditional carrot if using, chicken or tofu, rest of coconut milk, and water to cover the ingredients. Add fish sauce and sugar. You can also add after boiling to taste it. Then bring to a boil. Stir after boiling and adjust with fish sauce and sugar to taste.
4. Cover and simmer 15 minutes or until the potato is soft. Check to see if it is soft (taste it, it will be hot though!). Also adjust to your taste with fish sauce and sugar.
5. Serve! I ladle the soup into individual bowls, and serve rice on plates. Also serve with ajat. Then use a spoon to scoop some of the soup and ingredients from the bowl onto the rice and eat with a spoon and fork like Thai people. Eat ajat to refresh between some bites. Thai people DO NOT EVER eat Thai cuisine with chopsticks! They eat stir-fried rice noodles in a very interesting way with the spoon! Usually the fork cuts and the spoon is used to feed. You do not put the fork into the mouth, only into the spoon. Thai people also do not use knives at the table. They used to use hands like Indians and most Southeast Asians. But with Western influence, they switched to spoon and fork.
4 Persian cucumbers, sliced thinly into full, half, or quarter moons
1 shallot, halved and then sliced very thinly (I always skip shallot as I cannot stand raw onion flavor. Again not traditional)
some chilies or a jalapeno, sliced thinly (I also always skip. In Thailand the super spicy tiny chilies are used. You can use jalapeno too for less spicy. And always deseed for less spicy. In Thailand it is never deseeded, hehe. You can skip like me if you don’t like raw fresh chilies)
1/4 cup distilled white vinegar (or Japanese white rice vinegar if you prefer but white vinegar is traditional)
1/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 tsp salt
1. Put sliced cucumber, shallot, and chilies in a bowl.
2. Add the other ingredients in a small pot and heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Turn off the heat and pour over the vegetables. You can also cool down first, then pour if you wish.
3. Stir well. Leave aside as you cook the Kaeng Kari or for about 30 minutes. Stir every 10 minutes so it is evenly seasoned. Then serve alongside the Kaeng Kari and rice. Ajat is always served traditionally. Today, I could not make it since I had no cucumbers 😦
Ajat is also served with Thai satay. It is very refreshing and tasty!
Enjoy! Kaeng Kari is very easy and quite quick to make when you have the canned paste ready. 🙂