Q: Can you explain the difference between traditional yellow curry and the more rare green curry... and what makes them taste distinctly different? Inquiring minds wanna know!
—Brent Arms, Columbus, Ohio
A: Good to hear from you, my friend. I posed your question to Leela Punyaratabandhu, author of the newly published cookbook, "Simple Thai Food" (Ten Speed, $24.99). Punyaratabandhu, a blogger (shesimmers.com) who splits her time between Chicago and Bangkok, wrote in an email that the two curries are so "markedly different" in appearance and flavor profile that you would never confuse one for the other.
"Yellow curry is yellow due to the presence of turmeric in the paste whereas green curry is green due to the green chilies in the paste," she wrote. "The ingredients traditionally used in both curries are also different."
Punyaratabandhu noted yellow curry is "heavily influenced" by South Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines, so the flavor is "milder and redolent of warm dried spices which those cuisines are known for." In her book, she calls it a "training" curry used by some Thai parents, including her own, to build up a tolerance for spicy foods in their children. Those South Asian and Middle Eastern connections are also why, she added in her email, yellow curries are often made with potatoes and onions.
"The meats used in it are often limited to those regularly consumed in the Muslim culture, namely chicken, beef, fish, or lamb but not pork," she wrote.
Green curry is spicier, with a flavor Punyaratabandhu described as fresher and herbaceous.
"It's perfumed fresh Thai basil leaves, which you stir in at the last minute of the preparation to reinforce the herbal elements already included in the paste (you don't do this with yellow curry)," she wrote. "Also, all kinds of meat are used when it comes to green curry. The vegetable ingredients traditionally used in it are usually indigenous -- those grown in a typical home garden, e.g. tiny Thai 'pea' eggplant or Thai round eggplant. You don't see green curry in Thailand made with potatoes or onions (unless it's made for tourists). On the other hand, you don't see yellow curry made with eggplant or bamboo shoot."
Recipes for yellow and green curry pastes (among others) are featured in Punyaratabandhu's cookbook. She tells you what you need, how to make the pastes and how to store them, if necessary. But Punyaratabandhu is practical, too. Some of the ingredients required for an authentic taste may not be readily available and substitutions can be difficult to make, she notes, so you may have to use a commercially available paste.
"If the goal is to create a Thai-inspired curry made from wholesome, fresh ingredients, it is OK to swap an ingredient or two,'' she writes in her book. "But if the goal is to replicate the taste of a traditional Thai curry, and if a key ingredient, such as lemongrass or galangal, is unavailable, a commercial curry paste is the better option."
Punyaratabandhu recommends purchasing a Thai brand of curry paste because the flavor will be more like what you may have tasted in a Thai restaurant. If you can't find a curry paste imported from Thailand, try a curry paste "made specifically for Thai food."
"Do not feel badly about using a store-bought paste,'' she adds. "Even in Thailand, good cooks often buy ready-made pastes from the market."
Knowing you a bit and aware of your enthusiasm for all things culinary, Brent, I can so see you scouring stores and Web sites to gather ingredients and then making your own curry paste. But for reader who may want more of an easier introduction, I'm offering a recipe from Punyaratabandhu's book that can be made with a commercial paste. I haven't tried it but the dish looks fairly straightforward.
Chicken kari "yellow" curry
Makes: Four servings
There are two types of yellow curry paste sold in Asian markets, writes Leela Punyaratabandhu in her book, "Simple Thai Food." You don't want a Southern-style yellow curry paste. Buy the paste that has the word "karee" or "kari" on the label, she notes, or look to see if there's a photo of a finished dish. "If potatoes are visible, that is a good sign, as sour yellow curry does not usually include potatoes," she writes.
1/4 cup kari or "yellow" curry paste, homemade or store-bought
1 tablespoon coconut or vegetable oil
1/2 cup coconut cream (the thick layer at the top of a can of coconut milk)
1 cup coconut milk
3/4 cup sodium-free chicken stock, homemade or store-bought
1 pound Yukon gold or waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch cubes
1 pound yellow or white onions, quartered through the stem end
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts, cut into 2-inch cubes.
1.In a 2-quart saucepan, combine the curry paste, oil, and coconut cream over medium-high heat and fry until fragrant and the coconut fat separates, about 2 minutes. Add the coconut milk, stock, potatoes, onions and fish sauce, stir well, and simmer, covered, for about 15 minutes, until the potatoes have softened.
2.Add the chicken to the pan, then add water if necessary to keep everything submerged. Turn up the heat to bring the mixture to a gentle boil, then lower the heat to a simmer, and cook until the chicken is cooked through and the potatoes and onions are tender, about 5 to 8 minutes. Taste for seasoning and add more fish sauce if needed. Remove from heat, serve.
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