The difference among types of curry is as vast as the differences among types of sandwiches. Consider it an Asian sauce category. Common in India, Thailand, Malaysia, China, South Africa, Japan, and everywhere else that borrows their recipes, curry is made so many ways in so many places, even the same kind of curry can depend on the cook's tastes and ingredient availability. There are some general rules, though, most of which can be broken.
Two major categories of curry are Indian and Thai. Considered a British fusion of Indian recipes, Indian curry typically incorporates a mix of toasted spices ground into a powder, called a masala. You can find cinnamon, cardamom, and fenugreek in there, which Thai curries usually don't have. The curries are water- or broth-based, sometimes thickened with yogurt or sour cream. Thai curries often call for a wet curry paste and use coconut milk or coconut cream. You'll see herbs and spices like lemongrass, galang, and kaffir lime leaves.
Curries flavor meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables, tofu, and legumes. Indian curry dishes often use legumes such as chickpeas and lentils, called dhal. A few main kind of curries are: green, red, yellow, masaman, and panang. Of course, there are so many more. Green curry can pack the hottest spice to it and yellow the least, but again, that's not always true.
Green curry paste (kreung gaeng keo wahn) is a blend of fresh green chilies, shallots, lemongrass, white pepper, coriander root, garlic, kaffir lime rind, shrimp paste, and salt. Sweet basil leaves, round green eggplant, and kaffir lime leaves add to the overall lovely green hue in the final curry dish.
Red curry paste can be made with dried long red chilies, cilantro root, coriander, cumin, garlic, shallots, kaffir lime rind, white peppercorn, lemongrass, shrimp paste, sea salt and galangal. The basic ingredients in our simple red curry paste are dried red chili peppers, whole cloves of garlic, sea salt, fresh lemon grass, fresh turmeric for color, and shrimp paste.
Yellow curry paste is a mellow sweet-spicy paste blend based on turmeric and curry powder pounded together with coriander, cumin, lemongrass, galangal, shrimp paste, dried red chilies, sea salt, ginger, garlic and shallots.
Sour curry paste is the simplest of the curry pastes and usually forms a water-based curry with fish or pork. It is made up of just five ingredients: dried red chilies, cloves, white pepper, shallots, turmeric, and shrimp paste. Sour curry is especially popular combined with fish. The sour element comes from the addition of sour tamarind, sour pineapple, or other sour tropical fruits.
Panang is the basis for a richer, sweeter and drier curry. Using less coconut milk than red or green curry, Panang curry is topped with thick coconut cream and usually served on a plate. Panang curry paste can include dried red long chilies, shallots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime rind, coriander root, white pepper, salt and shrimp paste. Peanuts are also sometimes added, which isn't traditional in Thailand and is more of a Western influence. It's most often prepared with beef in Thailand, where they like it fiery hot.
Masaman curry is Persian-influenced and originates in southern Thailand on the border with Malaysia, where many Muslims live, so it's often prepared with lamb or beef as the Islamic religion forbids pork. Masaman curry paste combines dried red chilies, cloves, white pepper, shallots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, shrimp paste, coriander, cumin, and salt. The dish itself includes peanuts and cinnamon, white cardamom, and nutmeg, uncommon for Thai curry. It's thick and stew-like with a mild, slightly sweet taste.
Try some of our favorite curry recipes:
1. Thai Red Chicken Curry
If you can't find bamboo shoots at your grocery store and don't feel like making a special trip to an Asian shop, no worries. The moist, juicy chicken thighs simmered in Thai red curry with coconut milk, basil, onion, bell pepper, and garlic plus other flavor enhancers will do the trick just fine. Get our Thai Red Chicken Curry recipe.
2. Cauliflower Green Curry
Vegans, vegetarians, and lactose intolerant eaters will especially love this dish, which employs green curry paste to work with soy sauce, cauliflower, chickpeas, green beans, Thai basil leaves, and lime juice, creating a filling, flavorful meal. Get our Cauliflower Green Curry recipe.
3. Vietnamese Yellow Chicken Curry
Fragrant lemongrass is the star of this curry version, which has the usual aromatics along with the heavy hitters: chicken, carrots, and potatoes. Get our Vietnamese Yellow Chicken Curry recipe.
4. Curried Cauliflower, Chickpeas, and Tofu
This vegetarian main dish was inspired by Niloufer King, a talented Indian cook and scholar. To make it a heartier, protein-rich meal, fold in some lightly seared tofu. You’ll need to make the garam masala and steamed white or brown rice before you begin. Get our Curried Cauliflower, Chickpeas, and Tofu recipe.
5. Garam Masala
Toast your spices in the oven or in a skillet before you grind them to make sure you get an extra fragrant blend. 'Recipes vary, but garam masala is India’s ubiquitous spice blend, the pinch that adds flavor to all kinds of dishes. Use this for your chicken tika masala if you wish, or with whatever. Get our Garam Masala recipe.
6. Japanese Chicken Katsu Curry
Think of this as chicken schnitzel with Japanese gravy and 'taters. So the chicken is pounded thin, breaded in panko and fried in a pan, and the gravy is a curry made with mild yellow curry powder, ginger, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, tomato paste, onion, honey, chicken broth, coconut milk, and thickened with flour. And the potatoes? That's the rice. Get our Japanese Chicken Katsu Curry recipe.
7. Thai Red Curry Paste
For most of these recipes you can buy your designated curry paste in a jar or can … or you can be awesome and make your own. For this Thai red curry paste, you'll need whole dried red New Mexico chiles and whole dried small hot red chiles. That heat is rounded out with coriander seed, Thai shrimp paste, pink Asian shallots, garlic, lime peel, lemongrass, ginger, cilantro root, and turmeric. Get our Thai Red Curry Paste recipe.
8. Curry Powder
Here, you get three curry powder recipes in one: sambar podi, Poudre de Colombo, and basic curry powder. For all curry powders, starting with whole spices and lightly toasting them before grinding yields a more fragrant, fresher mixture. Get our Curry Powder recipes.
9. Indian Chickpea Curry with Spinach
This is quick and easy enough for a weeknight meal when you're tired and tempted to order delivery or takeout. The laid-back vegetarian stew has chickpeas, spinach, tomato, fresh ginger, coriander, paprika, and cumin give it some delicious Indian personality. Serve with rice and, if you’re feeling a little ambitious, homemade naan. Get our Indian Chickpea Curry with Spinach recipe.
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Amy Sowder is the assistant editor at Chowhound in New York City. She loves cheesy things, especially toasties and puns. She's trying to like mushrooms. Her running habit is the excuse for her gelato passion. Or is it the other way around? Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and her blog, What Do I Eat Now. Learn more at AmySowder.com.