Help me spice up my curries, please!
August 10, 2009 6:56 PM   Subscribe

Help me spice up my curries, please!

I enjoy cooking coconut milk based curries, but they're not nearly as spicy as I'd like.

I've tried just adding a lot more red curry paste, and up to almost a quarter cup of red pepper, but the coconut milk concoctions still come out relatively bland.

(Normally I do this the lazy-man way-- saute chicken, onions, garlic, peppers, and sometimes an assortment of other veggies, then add a coupla' tablespoons of curry paste, then coconut milk, let it boil for a few minutes, then pour over rice)

Help me, mefi! (Please :^D )
posted by Seeba to Food & Drink (19 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Try adding a teaspoon of grated fresh ginger along with the garlic, and/or a finely chopped small red chilli.

Squeezing in the juice of a lime at the end will give you more of a sweet/sour/spicy flavour.

Adding a couple of kaffir lime leaves along with the coconut milk will add a sharp citrussy note to the curry.
posted by girlgenius at 7:11 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Either your curry paste is not up to snuff, or you have a truly inhuman tolerance for spicy food.

If you take an eighth teaspoonful of your curry paste and eat it, on a cracker or something, what do you think of it? The stuff I use — Harris Teeter brand, nothing very special — is quite (mouth-searingly) spicy. It doesn't quantify any measure of spiciness, but it's on the order of (I'd guess) a raw habanero chili. I suspect it's probably on the mild side of "real" curry pastes as well.

If the chili paste you're using is less spicy than this, I think you need to find a new source. I think the stuff loses its potency over time, so if you have an older jar, it might be worth just tossing it and getting a fresh one.

Also, if you think yours has the same level of spice that I'm talking about, and you still think it's too mild — if the level of spice in an habanero strikes you as weak, in other words — you might try going to an Indian (or Thai, if you can find one) grocery and asking them for some stronger stuff. I don't think you'll be able to find much more potent paste in typical US grocery stores; the stuff I have is labeled as "hot," and Harris Teeter typically has fairly spicy stuff in its international house-label products.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:20 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In my experience, it's the green curries that pack the wallop. Hunt down some green curry paste and go to town.
posted by 8dot3 at 7:23 PM on August 10, 2009

I would find out where the local Indian/Thai/people who eat curries like crazy population shops. I get my curry pastes from a small Thai shop and they are made weekly by an old Thai lady. Doesn't get much better than that...

But if I am cooking at my family's in middle America, I use the standard store bought red curry paste and add garlic-Sriracha sauce to taste. It works pretty great.
posted by melissam at 7:30 PM on August 10, 2009

Best answer: Do you marinate your chicken in a mix of chili powder, cinnamon, cayenne, madras curry powder, cumin, coriander, bhut jolokia peppers, garlic, onion and/or oil? Seriously though... a simple rub which is allowed to permeate the protien for a few hours before you cook it will do wonders. Improve this by grinding and toasting your spice before mixing the marinade.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:31 PM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

You probably want a yellow or green curry, or a mix of various kinds. Also pretty confused as to what you mean by "red pepper". Red peppers are sweet; chile and cayenne powders, paprika, etc are the spicier spices.

But making the entire thing in one pot gives the spices more time to flavor the meat and milk, and really I fail to see how that's harder than sauteeing and then adding the sauce... one pot and all.
posted by shownomercy at 7:54 PM on August 10, 2009

Response by poster: Shownomercy and 8dot3, I'll try the green curries. (By red pepper, I'm referring to turkish red pepper (Mine's just marked Pul Biber, looks like this.)

I'll also try Nanukthedog's rub, see how it goes, thanks!
posted by Seeba at 8:03 PM on August 10, 2009

Best answer: The Mae Ploy curry pastes in cans are fairly spicy, but not super spicy. They are a good start to which you can add some little Thai peppers, more fish sauce, and basil leaves (along with your meat and vegetables).

Here's something a little different if you want to go from scratch
posted by rxrfrx at 8:03 PM on August 10, 2009

Response by poster: Oh, and as to the tolerance-- I tried my (recent) curry paste on a tortilla chip-- it's spicy, but not kick-your-ass spicy. My local Thai place can make a curry that'll have my sinuses clear for a week-- but asking what's in it gives me a broken English "Is secret!", so I don't push too hard.
posted by Seeba at 8:04 PM on August 10, 2009

I've found one thing that helps bring out the heat in a curry paste is to fry it in a touch of oil before adding the other ingredients. Releases the aromatic oils, which will tend to make the dish spicier. Don't let it go too long though or it'll burn & ruin the whole dish.
posted by scalefree at 8:24 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Go your your local Asian market, and pick up a bunch of Thai chilies, lemongrass, galanga and kaffir lime leaves (these will all last months in your freezer) and a jar of shrimp paste. Each time you make a curry, throw some of each this stuff (you'll figure out the right proportions through trial and error) in a food processor, along with your curry paste and some shallots (or half an onion) and a couple cloves of garlic. This is your fresh curry paste, which will pack much more flavor than just using the pre-packaged stuff.

Next step is to cook down about a quarter of the can of coconut milk in a frying pan or wok until most of the water is gone and it's got a nice thick consistency. Add your fresh curry paste and keep stirring it over a medium flame until you see oil floating on top and it becomes really aromatic. Turn the fire up to high and toss the meat around for a minute or two.

Add the rest of the coconut milk and turn the fire down. Add your veggies and simmer until they are cooked.

Before you start cooking, slice a couple more of the chilies into a small bowl and add a couple spoons of fish sauce. Spoon a bit of this over the finished curry for more spice. (I sometimes add garlic, lime and sugar to this dipping sauce.)
posted by Etaoin Shrdlu at 8:46 PM on August 10, 2009 [14 favorites]

Big note on handling fish sauce: Never never never drop the bottle. Pretend it is plutonium, TNT, or a small baby - whatever makes you want to be as careful as possible while holding it. The smell lingers, clings, and ages badly. Despite this, it adds a truly fantastic component to South-Asian cooking.
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:26 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Either make your own curry paste, or add some real chili to the store-bought pastes which, in my experience, are uniformly wimpy, chilli-wise.
posted by pompomtom at 9:44 PM on August 10, 2009

Nanukthedog, ain't that the truth! I've had a couple such experiences. First a bottle broken during transport on a flight from Vietnam (having blatantly ignored the fact fish sauce is not allowed on airplanes for obvious reasons). Luckily, it was time to throw that suitcase away anyway.

Apparently I still hadn't learned my lesson and dropped a bottle in an elevator a couple of months ago. All I could do was smile sheepishly and apologize profusely to the other passengers, then ran away as fast as possible as soon as the doors opened. I haven't had the nerve to return to that elevator since, but I am certain it still reeks of fish sauce despite whatever industrial cleaning products must have been desperately slathered on by the management.
posted by Etaoin Shrdlu at 9:56 PM on August 10, 2009

I cannot reccommend highly enough the S&B brand of curry stock. It is actually a Japanese company, but the flavor is purely Indian. The product is sold as a hard block, similar in appearance and texture to a large bar of chocolate. I got hooked on it when I lived in Asia, and was surprised to find it at my local Safeway when I moved back to the US. If you grocery doesn't have it, you have also get it online. I usually use the golden curry version, but you like it very spicy, they make hotter versions. It results in an extremely thick and rich concoction which is truly delicious.
posted by sophist at 12:09 AM on August 11, 2009

sophist: huh? Golden Curry is a Japanese dish, this is kasu kare, very different from Indian.

Seconding the suggestion for Mae Ploy. Many Thai restaurants I have loved use this paste. I often add some sambal and fresh chili to spice it up.
posted by wingless_angel at 12:40 AM on August 11, 2009

I've found one thing that helps bring out the heat in a curry paste is to fry it in a touch of oil before adding the other ingredients.

This really is a very key step. The spicy oil then permeates the dish.
posted by CunningLinguist at 1:50 PM on August 11, 2009

If you are not wedded to Thai curry, but would consider Indian curry, I would wholeheartedly recommend Patak's curry paste. Available in most large US or UK supermarkets (not sure where you are). I fry an onion with a couple of tablespoons Patak's curry paste, for a few minutes (gently) until the onion is light-golden. Then add your chicken, veggies, etc. and also add a couple of teaspoonfuls of ground, dried chillis (the best ground chilli has identifiable pieces of chilli & seeds - not chilli powder which is more anemic when old - available at large supermarkets such as Wegmans, in the US). Add water and cook for about 30 minutes until chicken is cooked through. Then add a good teaspoonful (heaped) of Garam Masala (again, available from Wegmans and also from Indian food stores - my favorite brand is Rajah, who make good-quality ground spices). Add some creme fraiche or yoghurt to taste. This makes a wonderfully creamy curry, which is heaven to eat - nicely spicy, but also creamy. (I'm actually vegetarian, but I used to eat meat. This technique also works well with Quorn and other meat substitutes).
Too many veggies in a meat/faux-meat curry tend to sap the taste - I have had a lot of anemic curries because I put too many veggies in there. I prefer to cook things like mushroom curry, okra curry, or cauliflower curry by frying up an onion with a few dried spices (coriander, chilli, cumin, turmeric, ground chillis) and some tomato paste, add veggies and water, and cook for 15 mins or so. It is less tasty than the meat curry, but at least the veggies don't leech all the flavor - and this can be served as a side dish. I limit my faux-meat curries to meat + a FEW veggies like mushrooms or tomatoes, that mix in well with the meat.
posted by Susurration at 8:52 PM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

PS - forgot to say that you cook the curry for about 5-10 mins more after adding the Garam Masala. Just enough to let the flavor merge, but not enough for spiciness to disappear!
posted by Susurration at 8:54 PM on August 11, 2009

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