When people hear the words “Thai Curry”, the first thing that comes to their mind is some spicy coconut milk with curry paste. This is not totally true. Thais say “Kaeng” which means “Curry”. However, Kaeng in Thailand does not only mean curry, but it means the cooking process of mixing various kinds of vegetables with liquid like water or coconut milk. It can be spicy or non-spicy or a vegetarian or non-vegetarian dish like soup, stew, curry or even dessert. I will use the word “Kaeng” throughout this article. In Thailand, there are 2 types of Kaeng: Kaeng Jued and Kaeng Ped. Ped literally means spicy and Jued means tasteless. Kaeng Jued usually refers to non-spicy soup
Kaeng Jued dishes are usually comprise of broth, vegetables and meat. Homemade broth is preferred over bouillon cubes. Broth is made from boiling pork ribs or chicken bones in water for a long period of time. You will often hear Thais say “nam soup” which means broth. To make broth, the bones should have a little bit of meat and fat left on them. On low heat, boil meat in water. Once the boil begins, reduce heat to its lowest point so that the broth just barely simmers. The longer the simmering, the more flavor you will get. One and a half to two hours usually is enough to extract flavors from meats. Before using broth, straining is a must. In Thai cooking, some recipes would add Chinese cellery or white radish during the simmering to add more sweetness to the broth.
The clear broth then will be used in a different kind of Kaeng Jued. A common way to make Kaeng Jued is to 1) bring broth to boil 2) add meat, 3) add vegetables and 4) add flavor. Example Kaeng Jued dishes are:
- Kaeng Jued Fak: chicken/pork broth with winter melon
- Kaeng Jued Mara: chicken/pork broth with bitter melon
- Kaeng Jued Mara Yat Sai: chicken/pork broth with stuffed bitter melon
- Kaeng Jued Pla Muek Yat Sai: chicken/pork broth with stuffed squid
- Kaeng Jued Taeng Gwa: chicken/pork broth with cucumber
- Kaeng Jued Taeng Gwa Yat Sai: chicken/pork broth with stuffed cucumber
- Kaeng Jued Tao Hu: chicken/pork broth with bean curd
- Kaeng Jued Wun Sen: chicken/pork broth with clear noodles
Most Kaeng Ped dishes differ in degree of spiciness. Some are very spicy and some are mild. Some have coconut milk and some do not. Kaeng Ped can be categorized into 6 different types: Kaeng Ped, Kaeng Khua, Kaeng Liang, Kaeng Som, Tom Yum and Pad Ped.
1) Kaeng Ped
It can be confusing that Kaeng Ped is a subcategory of Kaeng Ped. There are 2 distinct types of Kaeng Ped: Kaeng Ped with coconut milk and Keang Ped without coconut milk. The key to a delicious Kaeng Ped is curry paste. Either homemade or commercial curry paste must be finely ground. Fish sauce and sugar are the two main ingredients to flavor Kaeng Ped dishes.
Examples of water-based curry dishes are:
- Kaeng Hang Le: Northern style curry with meat, curry powder, lemongrass, ginger, shallots, shrimp paste, chilies and peanuts
- Kaeng Pa: jungle curry, Northen curry. This curry is hot and full of flavor from fingerroot, kaffir lime zest, lemon grass, garlic, shallots, shrimp paste and chilies
- Kaeng Leung: hot yellow curry, most common meat used is fish. Other ingredients are winter melon, chilies, garlic, turmeric, lemon grass, shallots and shrimp paste.
Examples of coconut-based curry dishes are:
- Kaeng Daeng: red curry with meat, bamboo shoots, Thai sweet basil, kaffir lime leaves and coconut milk
- Kaeng Kari: Indian style curry with meat, potatoes and coconut milk
- Kaeng Kiaw Waan: a slightly sweet green curry with meat, Thai eggplants, pea eggplants, winter melon, Thai sweet basil (Bai Horapa), kaffir lime leaves and coconut milk
- Kaeng Matsaman: curry with meat, potatoes, peanuts and coconut milk (a mild curry from the Muslim Southern part of Thailand)
- Kaeng Phed: spicy curry with meat and chilies
2) Kaeng Khua
Kaeng Khua curry paste makes this curry dish distinct and different from Kaeng Ped dishes. Kaeng Khua curry paste has either deep-fried fish, grilled fish or dried small shrimp as part of its ingredients. Most Kaeng Khua will not have added spices because of its strong aroma. The typical flavors of this curry are sweet, sour and salty. The most common meat is fish, shrimp or clam. Main added ingredients typically used in this curry can be pineapple, mushrooms or winter melon. Other ingredients are galangal, kaffir lime zest, dried chilies, lemon grass and shrimp paste.
Some people might confuse Kaeng Khua and Kaeng Pa because they look similar and both are coconut-based curry. However, both use different curry paste and Kaeng Pa mostly has only a salty taste.
3) Kaeng Liang
Many say Kaeng Liang is Thai vegetarian curry. The main ingredients of this curry are vegetables, usually there is no meat. Some recipes may add chicken or shrimp. However, if we look at Kaeng Liang curry paste, this dish is not vegetarian. Part of Kaeng Liang curry paste is dried shrimp paste (ka pi), dried shrimp and deep-fried fish or grilled fish. This curry is a water-based curry that is quite thick. The most common vegetables are sponge gourd (buab liam), gourd leaves (bai tam leung), “hairy” basil (bai Maeng Luk) and baby corn.
4) Kaeng Som
Kaeng Som is a water-based curry that in flavor combines sour, saltiness and a little sweetness. The common meat used in this curry is fish or shrimp. Some recipes use clams. Common vegetables are morning glory (phak bueng), bottle gourd (phak nam tao), water mimosa (phak kra ched), Vegetable Humming Bird (dok kae), cabbage (kra lum plee) and juice-based tamarind. Other ingredients are shrimp paste, dried shrimp and shallots. The famous Kaeng Som is Kaeng Som Pla Chon Phak Kra Ched which has striped snakehead (pla chon) and water mimosa (phak kra ched) as main ingredients.
5) Tom Yum
Tom Yum is a hot and sour soup. Tom Yum soup dishes have lots of herbs and meat as the main ingredients. Few vegetables are used in Tom Yum soup, although usually included are oyster mushrooms or straw mushrooms. Common herbs used in Tom Yum soup are kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, chilies and coriander roots. The common meats used in Tom Yum soup are chicken, shrimp and fish. The ingredients used in flavoring Tom Yum are lemon juice, tamarind juice, sugar and fish sauce.
Tom Yum soup can also be categorized into 2 different types: coconut-based Tom Yum soup and water/broth-based Tom Yum soup. Examples of Tom Yum soup dishes are:
- Tom Kha Gai: coconut-based hot and sour soup with chicken
- Tom Kha Pla Duk: coconut-based hot and sour soup with catfish
- Tom Kha Ta Le: coconut-based hot and sour soup with seafood
- Tom Yum Gai: water/broth-based hot and sour soup with chicken
- Tom Yum Goong: water/broth-based hot and sour soup with prawn
- Tom Yum Hua Pla: water/broth-based hot and sour soup with fish head
- Tom Yam Moo Pa: water/broth-based hot and sour soup with boar
6) Pad Ped
Pad Ped is similar to Kaeng Ped; however, Pad Ped dishes use less coconut milk or water than Kaeng Ped. Thus Pad Ped is more like a stir-fried dried curry paste dish with meat and vegetables. Example vegetables are Thai eggplants, yard long beans, bamboo shoots and pea eggplants. Two main ingredients used in flavoring Pad Ped dishes are fish sauce and sugar. Example dishes are:
- Pad Ped Moo Tao Fak Yao: stir-fried red curry paste with pork and yard long beans
- Pad Ped Pla Duk: stir-fried catfish with chili paste
- Phanaeng Gai: stir-fried phanaeng curry paste with chicken and kaffir lime leaves
- Phanaeng Moo: stir-fried phanaeng curry paste with pork and kaffir lime leaves
- Phanaeng Nuea: stir-fried phanaeng curry paste with beef and kaffir lime leaves
The example dishes listed above are famous dishes in Thailand. Of course, there are more dishes than I can name here. “Kaeng” has more than just the one meaning of spicy curry like many believe about Thai curry. Thais even use the word “Kaeng” in desserts like Kaeng Buat. Kaeng Buat is a dessert that has pumpkin, taro and/or potatoes in coconut milk. Most Thai restaurants in the U.S offer coconut-based Kaeng Ped, Pad Ped and Tom Yum soup. If you have a chance to visit Thailand, I hope you will have a chance to enjoy all different kinds of Kaeng.