“Thai curry” is a general term that can be applied to any of a range of spicy sauces, pastes, and cooked dishes native to Thailand. There are many different kinds of Thai curry, but the categories are largely divided by color. It is common for a curry's name to attach to entire meal preparations, as well. Green curry chicken, red curry shrimp, and yellow curry vegetables are popular examples, though these names are misnomers in some sense. Technically speaking, the term “curry” only truly describes the spicy paste that forms the base of these dishes.
Cooks in Thailand have been making curry dishes for centuries, though the curry style of cooking is more commonly associated with India and Pakistan. It is believed that early immigrants from the Indian subcontinent brought their spices and cooking styles with them to Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia. Thai cooks then innovated with their own local ingredients, creating a whole new range of curry dishes and cooking styles.
Curry is a decidedly English word. Its precise origins are unknown, but it is widely believed that English colonists in India coined the term during the 18th century by Anglicizing a Tamil word for “sauce.” On this definition, the range of possible curries is virtually limitless.
Thai curry is usually a bit more precise. Nearly all Thai curries begin as pastes, which are regionally made, often in the home, from locally available ingredients. There are almost always both wet and dry components, but the paste inevitably ends up as moist compound, easily blended or dissolved in liquid.
Most of the time, Thai curry paste begins with fresh herbs and spices. Chilies of some variety are usually added next, in either fresh or dried form, followed by lemongrass, garlic, and cilantro roots. The mixture is ground together to form a uniform texture, then lime juice and Thai shrimp paste — usually a condensed substance made of fermented, dried shrimp — are typically blended in to bring the ingredients into a coherent semi-solid state.
Curries take on their color according to the ingredients that are added. Red curry, for instance, is usually made with hot red chilies, while green curry is made with green peppers. Yellow curry usually takes its color from the spices added, particularly cumin and turmeric. In all cases, though, cooks alter and vary their paste recipes depending on available ingredients and personal preferences.
Most of the time, Thai curries fall into two broad categories: those made with water or stock and those made with coconut milk. Cooks will usually heat their liquid of choice, then add a curry paste to taste. The more paste that is added, in general the spicier the dish will be.
Other elements, including meats, vegetables, and seafood, are usually added to the liquid as it simmers. This aromatic stew-like dish is traditionally served over rice, and the whole meal is often referred to as a curry. Between regions, and even between cooks, the precise definition of what a Thai curry is or is not varies tremendously.
Some more specific Thai curry preparations — particularly Panang curry, Massaman curry, and Prik Khing curry — are more or less consistent. A lot of a curry’s flavor depends on the integrity of the ingredients that went into the base paste, however. Two dishes prepared according to the same recipe can be very different depending on the cook’s own tastes and style, as well as the overall quality of the paste at the heart of the meal.