Southeast Asian curry dishes are some of the most flavorful curries you will ever have.
They combine aromatic spices and herbs with meats and vegetables to produce an incredibly healthy and mouthwatering blend that will have you craving more.
Even though these dishes use the word curry, they are very different from their Indian counterparts, which use completely different spices and ingredients.
Just as there are a variety of cultures in this region, there are also just as many different curry dishes.
The most popular ones are the Thai variety of red, yellow, and green curries, which are the most readily available in restaurants across the country. However, there are many more, each with its unique recipe.
Most people confuse red curry with Panang curry mainly due to their similar colors. But the truth is these two curry dishes are very different.
Here you will learn what makes a curry, what red curry and Panang curry are, and finally, the difference between them.
What Makes a Curry?
Known in Thailand as a gaeng, a Thai curry gets all its flavor from a ground paste known as a prik gaeng which translates to curry paste in English.
This paste is a mix of spices, aromatics, herbs, and chilies (1).
Meats such as beef, chicken, pork, and shrimp are cooked in this paste and then thinned out with either water or coconut milk. The final curry dishes can be saucy or soupy and are normally eaten with plain rice.
Southeast Asian curry dishes use a lot of vegetables, such as bell peppers, onions, baby corn, eggplant, and spinach.
These vegetables are not overcooked, making these rich dishes nutritious and filling. These curries are generally gluten-free and dairy-free, making them a wonderful menu option for those with dietary restrictions.
What is Panang Curry
Panang Curry, also spelled Panang curry or panang curry, is a curry that actually finds its roots in Penang, an island off the coast of the Malay Peninsula (2).
Though it is not originally a Thai curry, it has become so popular within the country that they have adopted it as one of their own.
What makes this curry different from the rest is the use of ground peanuts, which add a nutty sweetness to the entire dish. The addition of peanuts also changes the final texture of the curry, making it thicker than other curries.
Panang curry is one of the mildest Southeast Asian curries and a great choice for someone looking for a non-spicy curry. Popular vegetables used in this curry include bell peppers, mushrooms, and tomatoes.
Making the Panang Curry Paste
Panang curry paste is made of tomato paste, fish sauce, soya sauce, shrimp paste, lemon grass, coconut cream, galangal, onions, garlic, turmeric, ground nutmeg, ground coriander, ground cinnamon, black pepper, lime juice, and freshly ground peanuts. Natural peanut butter can also be used in a pinch.
In this curry, the red color comes solely from the tomatoes.
The flavor comes from the use of aromatic spices like nutmeg and cinnamon. Also, coconut cream is used instead of coconut milk to make the sauce thicker. During the cooking process, water is added to loosen it up a bit, so it is easier to eat.
Using shrimp paste and fish sauce adds a distinct umami flavor that works well with proteins like shrimp and chicken, although you will find versions that also use beef or pork.
What is Red Curry?
Red curry, also known as Kaeng Phet, is a vibrant red coconut milk-based curry from Thailand (3). It is one of the world’s most popular and well-known Thai curry dishes.
It features red chili peppers (or chili powder) heavily, which is why it has such a bright red color. Of all the Thai curries, this one is one of the spiciest, with traditional chefs using up to twenty peppers at a time.
This curry also uses tomatoes or tomato paste to enhance the color further and it is most commonly paired with shrimp, but other proteins, such as pork, chicken, duck, and even salmon, can also be used.
This dish’s vegetables are usually red bell peppers, yellow bell peppers, bok choy, baby corn, Thai green eggplant, and tomatoes.
Making the Red Curry Paste
Red curry paste is made of onion, garlic, tomatoes (or tomato paste), galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, soya sauce, lime juice, salt, pepper, basil, and of course, a ton of red chili peppers.
If you don’t have fresh chili peppers, then dried chili flakes or red chili powder, but be careful when adding them because dried chilies are spicier than fresh ones.
These ingredients are traditionally ground in a pestle and mortar to release all the oils and flavors. Of course, you can also blend this up in a food processor.
Panang Curry vs. Red Curry
While both these curry dishes share similar red colors, they are completely different in spice, taste, and texture. These three major differences are given below.
The biggest difference between these two curry dishes is the spiciness. Red curry is hot. Its curry paste’s major ingredient is fresh red chili peppers or red chili powder. In authentic Thai restaurants, chefs will use many of these peppers, and the final curry is not for the faint-hearted.
However, Panang curry gets its spiciness from black pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg, which are much milder when compared to red chili peppers.
Panang curry has a very unique taste. It is not what you expect. Most people are taken aback the first time they try it. It is sweeter, saltier, and nuttier thanks to the peanuts, shrimp paste, and fish sauce. Compared to this, red curry has a more spicy, tangy taste.
Red curry is smoother and soupier as it uses full-fat coconut milk. Panang curry is thicker not just because of the use of coconut cream but also because of the ground peanuts.
Other differences in the ingredients are listed in the table below.
|Red Curry||Panang Curry|
|Comes from Thailand||Comes from Malaysia|
|Very spicy, uses up to 20 red chili peppers||Very mild spiciness. Does not use red chili peppers|
|Does not have peanuts||Uses peanuts|
|Does not use any aromatic spices||Uses aromatic spices like coriander, nutmeg, and cinnamon.|
|Uses kaffir leaves||Traditional recipes do not use kaffir leaves|
|Does not use shrimp paste or fish sauce||Uses shrimp paste and fish sauce|
|Does not have turmeric||Uses turmeric|
|The curry is looser and soupier||The curry is tighter and saucier|
Despite hailing from the same region, red curry and Panang curry are distinctly different. Red curry is a spicy, tangy dish packed with strong refreshing flavors. On the other hand, Panang curry is a heartier, nutty curry that is sweet and salty.
Even though these dishes are so different, one thing is for sure they are equally delicious, and both deserve a taste.
What is galangal?
Galangal is like ginger in that it is a root vegetable. However, it has a sharper taste. It is native to Thailand and a very common ingredient in Thai cuisine. If galangal is unavailable, you can also substitute this with normal ginger, but it affects the curry’s final taste.
What are Kaffir leaves?
Kaffir lime leaves are used extensively in Southeast Asian cooking. When it is crushed, it releases a pungent, citrusy flavor. If you can’t find these leaves, you can substitute them with lime or lemon zest.
What is lemongrass?
Lemon grass is a type of long grass that grows in Southeast Asia. Its stem is chopped or pounded to release a sweet citrus oil. Lemongrass can be substituted with lemon zest when it is not available.
What is the difference between coconut milk and coconut cream?
Coconut milk is a blended mix of the meat of coconut and water. It is thicker than cow’s milk and is a great non-dairy choice for those who are lactose intolerant or vegan.
Coconut cream is a thicker blend made with more coconut and less water. Coconut cream can be diluted with water to substitute for coconut milk. Coconut cream is not the same as cream of coconut, which is a different mixture made of coconut meat, sugar, and water.
In terms of the ratio of coconut meat to water, coconut milk is 1 : 2, while coconut cream is 4 : 1.
Is red curry spicy?
Yes, red curry is spicy. It uses a lot of red chili peppers not just for its distinct color but also for its flavor.
Where does red curry come from?
Red curry originates from Thailand and is one of the most popular dishes in the country and is offered by many restaurants and street vendors. In the US, it is definitely one of the most well known curry dishes, along with Thai yellow and green curry.
Is red curry gluten-free?
Yes, red curry is gluten-free, and it is also dairy free because it uses coconut milk for flavor and as a thickening agent. Most Thai curry dishes are gluten-free as they do not use any flour in their recipes.
How to pronounce Panang?
Panang is pronounced pa – NAAN – g.