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Help! I have tried making Panang Curry several times at home with the canned pre-made paste (forgot the brand name) and it just doesn't taste like the restaurant versions I've had.

I fried the curry paste in the coconut cream off the top of the can, Chakoh brand, for a few minutes until the oil started to separate, added my beef, carrots, and additional coconut milk and simmered it until the beef cooked. Seasoned with kaffir lime leaves, salt and palm sugar.

I tasted the curry as it was cooking and the flavor was decent, but after serving it over the rice, the curry flavor was flat or muted. Also, what was a nice creamy sauce with the beads of orange oil floating on top became dry and stuck to the rice, it seems like the sauce of the curry just dried up (and the rice wasn't undercooked).

What am I doing wrong? I'm aware that making my own curry paste is an option, but until I can master the process of cooking a decent curry with premade paste, I don't want to invest time and effort in homemade pastes. Thanks!

  • if the rice is sucking up all of the sauve, maybe you need to cook the rice further, or serve less rice? Also, muted flavors are a typical complaint about jarred sauces, of any type. (or that they're overly salty). – Joe Jan 5 '15 at 16:21
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I think what people often don't realize about many Thai curry pastes is what is not in them and this applies particularly to the main brands of imported Thai sauces like Mae Ploy for example. Let's take the Panang paste, this should have quite a pronounced peanut taste but if you check the label you will will search in vain for peanuts; fish sauce so essential to a Thai curry also missing. Why? The answer lies in the way these pastes are prepared on the production line. The ingredients are mixed and ground but then instead of being cooked in the conventional sense of the word they are instead pasteurized. This is a fast convenient process. The problem lies in the fact that there are certain ingredients that you can't use this process on, peanuts and fish sauce being among them. They use salt (a lot of it) to try to replace the saltiness of fish sauce but this lacks the aromatic factor that fish sauce provides. This can make it difficult for the cook to add fish sauce to the dish as it is already quite salty. Also although you may see shrimp paste on the label they are being a little disingenuous here; it is not Thai shrimp paste as we think of it but rather shrimp powder, I suppose if you mix it with some of the ingredients you can get away with calling it a shrimp paste. A poor imitation of the real thing though.

So onto the fact that your Panang curry doesn't taste like a Panang curry you eat in your local Thai restaurant. Well you might be surprised to learn they probably use the same paste as you do! What, you think they make their own pastes? Almost never. Yes there are exceptions, Pok Pok restaurants in the US being a good example with chef Andy Rikker describing the commercial pastes as "horrible" but for the most part many Thai restaurants will use them.

When you see a Thai person pushing their trolley around an Asian cash n' carry that is loaded up with industrial sized tubs of curry paste you can be reasonably sure they are not just stocking up their home pantry in case of a coming Armageddon. They then customize the sauce for use in the restaurant, in this case maybe ground peanuts or often peanut butter, a lot of sugar so they can then add Thai fish sauce without it tasting overwhelmingly salty. Maybe chop some coriander stems in to disguise the fact that only coriander seed is used in the commercial paste instead of coriander root.Depends on the restaurant, they all have their own methods. There are also some supermarket brand pastes that may well use peanuts as they use a method more akin to pressure canning, these are generally rather insipid concoctions though and best avoided.

So if you want to try making your curry taste more like one you had in a restaurant that is how you do it if you can't get the fresh ingredients to do it yourself. Also if you google "mythaicurry" you can buy pastes online that are cooked by more traditional methods and are far more authentic and will most likely surpass anything you have ever had in a Thai restaurant. They also have a good section on how to cook with coconut milk.

I'm a chef and worked in the development kitchens of some major food producers hence my knowledge of the techniques and limitations of commercial food production.

  • Thanks, very informative. (and now I'm wishing that I had saved the roots from the coriander that bolted in my hydroponics system). – Joe Mar 24 '15 at 14:18
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It's hard to say without knowing the brand of paste you used (and more detail in general), but I did notice that you said you seasoned with salt instead of fish sauce.

The anchovies in fish sauce and beef have one of those "magical" food pairings, and making a panaeng curry without fish sauce would seem to me a possible cause of the problem. Next time, try replacing the salt with fish sauce instead (I can't give you an amount, because I don't know how much curry you were making, or how salty your pre-bought paste was).

As for the dry-sauciness issue, if your rice wasn't undercooked, I'd just suggest making more sauce, or less rice.

I also agree with Joe, in that jarred sauces are either under-flavoured or over-salted, or both, so that may also have been an issue.

You might want to try making a panaeng curry paste, just to see - it's not that hard especially if you do it in a food processor :-)

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    I looked at several recipes, and I agree it doesn't look hard at all. Two things though, in the US, do NOT buy those those spices in the spice aisle, you'd spend a fortune on bottles. Buy what spices you can at places that do it by weight - just what you need. Also, unfortunately, some of those ingredients might be hard to find in more rural areas (coriander root, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, shrimp paste). It does look good though. Not terribly expensive in time and effort, but perhaps extremely expensive to buy the ingredients. – Jolenealaska Jan 19 '15 at 3:31
  • I agree that in more rural areas, coming by some of the ingredients might be tough. A good trip to an Asian grocery in a nearby city should net you everything (or nearly everything). You can often get fresh galangal and kaffir lime leaves in the freezer section; buy a decent amount and keep them in the freezer. – Chris Macksey Jan 19 '15 at 15:51
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While most if not all of the suggestions I've read here make a lot of sense, perhaps the solution is as simple as not serving the curry over the rice, but on the side? Afaik, for most Thai curry dishes, this is the 'proper' way to serve them - although that shouldn't stop you from doing things differently, of course.

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