When is a curry not a curry?

by Marisa Chicarelli

Part and parcel of a SpiceRoads trip is the food. Local food, tasty food, food that offers gastronomic insights into the country and culture that is being explored. And sometimes, we need to take another look at what we call a dish. Thailand is known worldwide for its cuisine. And one of its “classic” dishes is gaeng kiew wan, or green curry. Made from a based of green chilli paste and coconut milk, it is one of the milder Thai curries (wan means “sweet”). But is it really a “curry”?

Thai Green Curry
Thai Green Curry

The Thai word for curry or gaeng actually refers to a soup that is meant to be eaten with rice. This is different to tom which is a soup that is meant to be eaten, well, as a soup. You may notice that at a Thai dinner a tom, like tom yum kung (spicy sour shrimp soup), is served with small bowls so each diner can eat it separate from their rice.

tom yum kung
Tom yum kung (spicy sour shrimp soup)

And then there’s the coconut milk. Because most introductions to Thai food usually includes just green curry, red curry (gaeng phed or “spicy curry”), and yellow curry (gaeng kari or “curry curry” – a Thai version of Indian curry), many people believe that all Thai curries are based in coconut milk.

This is not true.

Regional cuisines develop from locally available ingredients. And coconut trees do not grow all over Thailand. So there are a number of gaengs that do not feature coconut milk such as gaeng pha, or “jungle curry”, which is clear, features bergamot leaves, lemongrass, and green peppercorns, and can be very spicy, and gaeng som, or “sour curry”, which is a tamarind-based fish or seafood soup made from shrimp paste, shallots, and chillies, and can also be very hot spicy.

So far it would seem that Thai gaengs may not be all coconut-based, but at least are all spicy.

This is not true either.

Massaman Curry
Massaman Curry

While most gaengs are intended to be at least slightly hot and spicy, there are a couple that are meant to be mild or not spicy at all. Gaeng massaman, or “Muslim curry”, is a very mild curry influenced by Malay and Indian cuisine, using cardamom, anise, cumin, and other ingredients not indigenous to Thailand. Gaeng jeaud, or “bland curry”, which sometimes is called a tom because it is often eaten as a soup, is a clear broth with vegetables and sometimes with minced pork or glass noodles.

In the end, Thai food offers a variety of dishes that should satisfy any palate. Next time, try a gaeng or a tom you’ve never encountered and expand your repertoire. Just keep some water or milk nearby to quench any fires from unexpected spiciness!

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