Off the Beaten Aisle: Red Curry Paste

By: J.M. Hirsch
red curry chicken noodles

It’s red, but it isn’t red hot. And that’s why it’s the sort of curry the average American is going to love.

I’m talking about red curry paste, one of a literal rainbow of intensely flavorful Southeast Asian seasonings.

To be clear, curry pastes are not the same as the curry powders most people know, though they do share some ingredients.

Curry pastes -- which are used in Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian and Indian cooking -- combine dry spices with ground fresh herbs and roots, garlic, chilies and other ingredients to form thick pastes.

These pastes often are classified by color. Green curry paste, for example, is a fiery Thai blend that combines green chilies, lemon grass, garlic, shrimp paste and kaffir lime leaves. It's usually blended with coconut milk to season beef, pork and chicken.

Yellow curry paste is a bit milder and usually sports garlic, lemon grass, galangal (a relative of ginger), cumin, cinnamon and turmeric. It’s popular for adding to soups.

But the most versatile and widely used is red curry paste, a mash of red chilies, coriander roots and leaves, shrimp paste, lemon grass, garlic, shallots and galangal.

It’s got some kick, but it won’t sear your mouth. It’s used with everything from chicken, duck and beef to pork and shrimp. And it lands in everything from stews, curries and soups to dressings, marinades and condiments.

The smell is both comfortingly tomato-ey and exotically heady with spicy aromas. The flavor is warm, but not biting, with tastes of ginger and garlic.

Conveniently, red curry paste is also the easiest variety to find at the typical American grocer. It usually is packed in small glass jars or cans and can be found in the Asian section. Once opened, the remainder can be refrigerated for months.

But let’s pretend you’re not an expert in Thai cooking. What should you do with it? Just about everything.

•    Mix it with mayonnaise (start with about 2 to 3 teaspoons per cup of mayonnaise, then adjust to taste) and use as a condiment for turkey sandwiches, hamburgers and fish tacos.

•    Blend it with ketchup (start with a similar ratio) for hot dogs.

•    Add red curry paste to your favorite meatloaf and meatball recipes. And while you’re at it, try it in hamburgers, too.

•    Blend a bit into homemade or purchased hummus, then sprinkle with lemon juice and sesame seeds. Use in a wrap or for dipping.

•    In a blender, combine a can of crushed tomatoes and a healthy dollop of red curry paste. Puree, then use as a pizza sauce (especially topped with feta cheese and grilled eggplant).

•    Blend with olive oil or a bit of chicken broth (for a low-fat version) and use as a marinade for chicken or haddock.

•    Add some to a basic vinaigrette salad dressing and use on a robust salad (something with lots of meat, cheese and croutons).

•    Or be crazy and use it for what it was intended -- a great curry. Sauté veggies and meat or seafood (shrimp is great), then stir in coconut milk and red curry paste. Serve over rice.

Red Curry Chicken Noodles

Not in the mood for noodles? The curried chicken mixture also makes a killer sandwich, both warm and cold.

Start to finish: 20 minutes
Servings: 4
1 12-ounce package fresh fettuccine pasta
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, cored and diced
1 14-ounce can coconut milk
1½ to 2½ tablespoons red curry paste (more or less to taste)
Meat from a 1½-pound rotisserie chicken
⅓ cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 lime, quartered

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions. Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil. Add the onion and bell pepper, then sauté until tender, about 10 minutes. Add the coconut milk and red curry paste. Stir until the curry paste and coconut milk are smooth, then bring to a simmer.

Chop or pull the chicken meat into bite-size chunks, then add to the coconut milk mixture. Toss well to coat evenly. If the meat is cold, return to a simmer. Stir in the cilantro.

Serve the pasta topped with the chicken. Alternatively, add the drained pasta to the pan with the chicken and toss to mix. Just before serving, squeeze a bit of lime juice over each plate.

Read more Off the Beaten articles including pancetta, mint and sesame oil.

J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is author of the recent cookbook High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking . He also blogs at jmhirsch.

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