Looking at my website statistics a few days ago, I noticed that a lot of people who come to this site do so to look at the curry recipes! So with that in mind, I thought I’d give you my version of a plant-based (vegan-friendly) Thai curry!
Most Thai dishes contain shrimp paste and/or fish sauce, neither of which is vegetarian-friendly. This makes it difficult to buy pre-made Thai sauces available in packets or jars. So here’s how to make your own Thai paste – and the great thing is, you can adapt it totally to your taste! Make it punchy and spicy or mild, even low-fat (this one is pretty high in fat!) you choose!
The tools you’ll need for this is: a grinder and/or pestal and mortar; a large saucepan; a chef’s knife and a lot of elbow grease!
Almost all Asian people use a pestal and mortar. The posh ones with a bit of cash might have a wet grinder in their kitchen (an electrical appliance that looks a bit like a food processor, only has grinding stones rather than blades). You can pick one up from Amazon if you think you’ll be making a lot of curry pastes.
The reason stones are used to grind the spices is because they appear to release the aromatic oils better (where the spice flavour sits). However, kaffir lime peel and leaves do not grind easily in a mortar; you need to spend most of your time getting that to paste down!
So if you can’t spend ages grinding, start off using the mortar and finish in a hand blender. At least you’ll have released some of the oils by that point. This is why you need rough/course salt and white whole peppercorns, they both season the spices and act as an abrasive to grind down the spices.
Some words about the ingredients
This recipe uses butternut squash and chickpeas, but you can use anything you want! If you’re not on your plant-based day, you could even put chicken in this! For protein, the combination of chickpeas and rice should be plenty enough! But if you want to increase the protein, then you can add tofu chunks. I would imagine that would work really well!
When choosing your squash, go for one that surprises you how heavy it is considering its size – this is an indicator that the squash has a high water content and thus has a higher flesh to seed ratio.
I will write a separate page about ingredients for curries sometime soon, especially as quite a few of you come here not for my nutrition chat, but my curry recipes!
Coconut milk: Really, don’t bother with most of the stuff you can buy in supermarkets. They tend to be full of ingredients, which is wrong – you only need one ingredient: coconut milk! However, buying 100% coconut milk in the UK is not easy! Most are sold in cans – so, the best we can hope for is coconut milk with water. So my go-to brands are Aroy-D and if I can’t get that, Chaokoh. But really, just look at the ingredients and if it says more than coconut milk and water, then put it back. I don’t use powdered coconut milk – I’m uncertain of the point of that. The least processing, the better.
Kaffir limes: not that easy to get hold of, you might be able to pick them up in an Asian supermarket, but if not, just use 2 of the leaves and finely slice. If you can’t get anything, then use ordinary limes, but use both the juice of it and the zest.
Galangal: I buy the fresh roots from the Asian supermarkets, take what I need and then put the rest in a plastic box and freeze (they’ll keep well frozen for about 3 months). If you can’t get galangal at all, you might be surprised to see galangal paste in your supermarket – if not, just use ginger root. Remember, you don’t need to peel galangal (not an easy task, so just as well!) but you do with ginger.
Lemongrass: My local supermarket stocks this, so you might find it easy enough to get. Certainly lemongrass paste is easy enough to find. I’m not aware of any substitute for it – its flavour is citrusy, but not really like lemons. It’s quite unique.
Coriander (cilantro) roots: Thai people actually use the roots and not really the leaves – they think that’s salad! You can easily get the roots by buying a coriander plant in a pot, yanking it out, and washing the muck off the roots. I really don’t think it’s worth the fuss. I tried it and didn’t notice the difference. Just use the stems of the coriander and some leaves.
- 10 Dried thai chilli birds eye chilli are the most typical used in Asia for curries. For a milder taste, knock out the seeds
- 2 stalks lemongrass finely sliced (or 2tbsp of lemongrass paste)
- handful galangal finely sliced (or 1 tbsp of galangal paste)
- bunch coriander leaves Use mostly the stems, or if you can get roots, use about two roots
- 1 kaffir lime Use just the zest, finely sliced (avoid the white pith).
- 0.5 tsp white peppercorns
- 1 tsp course salt
- 4 shallots peeled and sliced
- 6 cloves garlic peeled and sliced
- 1 bunch Thai basil leaves or subsitute with ordinary basil or spinach (different flavour, but adds colour)
- 1 medium squash I used butternut, but if in season - you can use any squash, peel and cut into cubes
- 1 medium red pepper Capsicum or bell pepper or anything red!! It's for colour really - cut into chunks
- 1 can tinned chickpeas (US: garbanzo beans) drained and rinsed
- 1 tbsp palm sugar or muscavado if you can't get palm sugar
- 1 tbsp soya sauce
- 400 ml coconut milk This is about one can
- 250 ml vegetable stock
First of all, grind the chillis into a powder and set aside
In the mortar, place the lemongrass, salt and pepper, galangal, lime zest, coriander and pound into a paste.
Now add the garlic and shallots and continue pounding. Add the chilli and continue pounding until you have a smooth red curry paste.
Take one half of one can of coconut milk and pour into a large pan, add the paste and cook on a high heat until the coconut milk has reduced right down and the fat has separated. When the coconut has reduced right down, you should be left with a paste at the bottom with an oily appearance.
Add the cubed squash and the rest of the coconut milk with the stock and give a good stir. Bring to the boil and reduce to a simmer. Add more stock if it's too thick, or you want a lighter curry.
Now add soy sauce and taste, add a little more and taste. Add about a tablespoon of palm sugar, stir and taste. At this point, you're adjusting the seasoning to how you like it - balancing the saltiness with the sweetness. Don't go bonkers with the sugar! It doesn't need much at all. If it's not hot enough, add hot chilli powder. Here's a little tip for you - to get a vegetarian "fishy flavour" to it, add some nori flakes (dried seaweed)
Cook for about 10 minutes, but add the chickpeas (garbanzo beans) about 5 minutes from the end.
About two minutes from the end, add the chopped pepper and torn pieces of basil leaves. Serve over jasmine rice.
- Try roasting the squash first, it'll bring out much more sweetness to it
- Most squashes don't need peeling, the skin is edible and will soften during cooking
- Keep a lime spare, so that you can add its juice as part of the seasoning stage, or to squeeze over the curry at the table
- There are a few ways to get the umami flavour into Thai food without using shrimp paste, one cook I follow suggests using miso paste. You could also soak some dried mushrooms in the stock water to let them impart their umami, earthy flavours - porcini mushroom is good for this
Seb is a writer and blogger of food and nutrition. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree in nutrition science, and has studied sports and exercise nutrition at postgraduate level. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and believes passionately that we can all live with a little less meat.