Panang Curry Paste

Maybe I watched too many episodes of The Naked Chef when I was younger, but in my mind, there are few kitchen activities more satisfying than giving a handful of aromatic herbs and spices a good pounding in a large, heavy mortar. Handmade pesto is great and whole-toasted spices don’t last a second in the bowl of a nice granite model, but for me, it’s in the act of making Thai curry paste that Iget the most out of one of my simplest kitchen tools.

Making curry paste the authentic way is a tactile and fragrant experience. In fact, things oftentimes get so aromatic that Lauren practically has to lock herself in our bedroom to avoid the pungent odor of toasted shrimp paste – an essential component of true Thai curry. Here I’ve included a recipe for a paste to create one of my all-time favorite curries: panang. Citrus notes dominate due to the heavy use of lime zest, lime leaves, coriander seeds and lemongrass.

While some of the key ingredients might be hard to track down and the overall process requires a fair amount of prep, as Victor Sodsook points out in his cookbook, True Thai: The Modern Art of Thai Cooking, curry pastes are “like money in the bank.” An hour of hard work will pay off with intense, complex flavor in future dishes. Couple this with the fact that many pastes last weeks in the refrigerator and several months in the freezer, and you have a culinary resource that lends completed dishes a taste that will seem like it’s taken hours to build.

Check back tomorrow for recipe that puts this amazing paste to good use; Panang Beef Curry.


From True Thai: The Modern Art of Thai Cooking by Victor Sodsook

This recipe employs the use of both a mortar and pestle as well as a food processor in the assembly of the curry paste. The mortar breaks down the tough fibers of the lemongrass, galangal and lime leaves, releasing valuable oils and aromas that would be lost if the food processor was used exclusively. If you’ve never used shrimp paste before, be warned, it’s pretty pungent stuff. I like to finely slice or scrape the shrimp paste from it’s container or block and then pack it into a tablespoon measurement for accurate proportioning.


  • 1 package (3 ounces) dried red New Mexico chilies
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon whole coriander seed
  • 2 tablespoons shrimp paste wrapped neatly in a double layer of aluminum foil
  • Zest of 2 fresh Kaffir limes or 1 small domestic lime
  • 10 (5 pairs) fresh Kaffir lime leaves or 1/2 teaspoon grated lime zest
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons chopped cilantro, including stems
  • 1 large stalk lemon grass, tough outer leaves discarded, lower stalk trimmed to 3 inches and finely sliced
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped, peeled galangal or common ginger
  • 1/3 cup roughly chopped garlic
  • 1/3 cup roughly chopped shallots


  1. Stem the chilies, discarding most of the seeds and removing the dry, tough ribs. Cut or tear the chilies into 1-inch pieces and put them in a bowl. Cover the chilies with warm water to cover and let soak for 20-30 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, lightly toast the coriander seeds in a small skillet set over medium heat until aromatic, about 3-5 minutes. Shake the pan frequently to prevent burning. Transfer the toasted coriander to a small bowl to cool and set aside.
  3. Set the skillet back over medium heat and add the foil-wrapped shrimp paste. Cook, turning the packed over once or twice until aromatic, about 5 minutes. Remove the packet from the skillet and set aside to cool.
  4. Put the toasted coriander in a large, heavy mortar and pestle and grind to a fine powder. Transfer the ground coriander to the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade.
  5. If using fresh lime leaves, stack them and cut them into fine slivers with a sharp knife. Combine the lime zest, slivered lime leaves, cilantro, lemongrass, and ginger in the mortar and pound for a minute to break down the fibers. Transfer the crushed mixture to the food processor.
  6. Pound the garlic and shallots in the mortar until just crushed and transfer them to the food processor.
  7. Unwrap the shrimp paste and add it to the food processor.
  8. Drain the chilies from their soaking liquid, reserving about 1/2 cup of the water. Add the chilies to the food processor.
  9. Pulse the ingredients to combine, process the mixture until a rich, moist paste forms, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Add a few tablespoons of the reserved soaking liquid, if needed, to ease the grinding.
  10. Store the finished panang curry paste in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 1 month, or in the freezer for up to 3 months.

Makes about 1 2/3 cups.

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