No trip to Thailand or one of their countless ethnic restaurants all over the world is complete without sampling their curries. The classic Thai curry, made with a wealth of spices and flavorful ingredients, comes in many different forms. By visual appeal alone, many people first tend to distinguish Thai curries based on their color – specifically their yellow, red and green variants.
How are yellow, red and green Thai curries different?
The main difference between yellow, red and green Thai curries comes from the main sources of their color – coming from certain types of chillies – as well as the resulting variations in spice and flavor.
A common misconception among Westerners is that green curries are the mildest, and red ones are the hottest; in authentic Thai cuisine, the reverse is true: real green Thai curries are the spiciest, yellow curries are the mildest, and red ones are spicier than yellow dishes.
What is a Yellow Thai Curry?
Yellow curry, or Kaeng Kari to natives, is the ubiquitous Thai curry dish. Like all curries, it is prepared with a curry paste made from fragrant herbs, spices, and – of course - chillies. However, this curry uses the least amount of chillies compared to green and red curries.
Kaeng kari gains its tantalizing, golden-yellow color from the inclusion of one particular spice – turmeric, which can stain the hands rather easily when the paste is prepared at home.
The overall taste of yellow curry is milder; eaters will experience a much gentler spiciness while tasting much more of the dish’s savory components. It is usually cooked with a protein like seafood, lamb or chicken, as well as coconut milk, imparting a touch of sweetness to it.
What is a Red Thai Curry?
A Red Thai curry, known as Kaeng Phet, is spicier than a yellow one, owing to the addition of dried red chillies – the ingredient which gives it a much more aggressive kick, as well as lends the dish its color. Some chefs, breaking from tradition, add chili powder or tomato to the paste to make the dish more vibrantly red and flavorful.
Red curries create a harmony between their spicy and savory tastes. The bite of the red chilies plays well with the umami flavor of shrimp paste, as well as its other proteins.
Common meats added to a red curry are bite-sized cuts of chicken, beef and pork, but shrimp and duck flesh can also be welcome additions. A cook may add bulk to a red curry with Thai eggplants or pumpkins.
What is a Green Thai Curry?
Foreigners – understandably – tend to consider green as a cooler color than red, and thus order green Thai curries expecting a milder dish, only to scald their tongues in hubris moments after first tasting one.
The Green Thai curry, Kaeng Khiao Wan, with its creamy, mellow-looking green color, is actually among the spiciest curry dishes in Thailand. Paradoxically, it is also one of the country’s most beloved dishes, blending spice, fragrance from its herbs, a good amount of sweetness from coconut milk, and acidity from limes.
It gets its color from green chilies. Authentic versions of this dish use Bird’s eye chilies, which pack considerably more heat. Plenty of coconut milk makes this curry quite creamy, and Thai basil, coriander, kaffir limes tie the dish together.
Differences Between Yellow, Red and Green Thai Curries
Source of Color
Chillies are an essential component of any Thai curry; and it’s red and green chillies, respectively, that impart their color into Kaeng Phet and Kaeng Khiao Wan curries.
Yellow Thai curries, on the other hand, get their rich, golden color chiefly from turmeric.
Anecdotally, chefs use around twenty red chillies for a curry, or augment the redness with tomatoes or chili powder. It should be stressed that this dish calls specifically for dried red chillies.
Similarly, ingredients like Thai basil, fresh cilantro, and lime leaf and peels, add a more vibrant dash of green to Kaeng Khiao Wan.
All Thai curries are prepared with a curry paste – the base ingredients of which include chilies, galangal, garlic, lemongrass, onions, and coriander.
Coconut milk is an essential ingredient in many variants of these curries. Although it is the spiciest curry type here, Kaeng Khiao Wan isn’t complete without a healthy helping of coconut milk and palm sugar.
On the other hand, shrimp paste and added spices – e.g. cumin, coriander, peppercorns – are prominent ingredients in red Thai curries.
Since they use fewer chillies, turmeric plays a big part in yellow curries. Kaeng Kari, in general, can include spices such as fenugreek, lemongrass and cayenne pepper, as well as ginger and cinnamon.
In terms of spiciness, Yellow Thai curries have the mildest bite to them. Since it uses fewer chillies on average – and usually not Bird’s eye chillies, at that - the dish simply relies more on its harmonious blend of different fragrant spices rather than engulfing an eater’s mouth with heat.
A Red Thai curry will be spicier than yellow curries. It also blends heat with its savory components and herbs, but the spiciness takes more precedence as the dish uses red chillies. Foreigners can confuse the curry as the spiciest if Bird’s eye chillies are used instead of long varieties.
Green Thai curries are spicier than both red and yellow curries, as they are infused with very hot long green chillies – the spicy sensation can be further aggravated by switching to local Bird’s eye varieties.
Since it commonly includes more shrimp-based ingredients, Kaeng Phet leans more into its savory (umami) side. In fact, people tend to enjoy red curries for the way its spiciness complements its meats.
Despite their superlative spiciness, Kaeng Khiao Wan can also gain a subtly sweet taste from the creamy coconut milk that (slightly) helps to counteract the heat from the chillies. The prominence of lime also adds a hint of zest.
In yellow curries, turmeric – rather than chillies – are the starring flavor. It, alongside lemongrass, and other spices, creates a fragrant and tangy taste that seasons meats well.
Native Thai Names
In Thailand, curry dishes are known as kaeng (แกง), although the traditional definition of the word refers to a thin, watery blend made of shrimp paste, spices and chillies. The word “curry” itself – influenced by the related Indian food – is kari (กะหรี่).
The red curry, Kaeng Phet (แกงเผ็ด), literally translates to “spicy curry.” Likewise, yellow curries are Kaeng Kari (แกงกะหรี่), or “curry curry” – alluding to this dish’s similarity with its Indian relative.
Kaeng Khiao Wan (แกงเขียวหวาน), or the Green Thai curry, is translated as “sweet-green curry,” although the inclusion of the term “sweet” refers to a particular color of mild and creamy “sweet-green” rather than the curry’s actual sweetness.
Comparison Chart: Yellow Vs Red Vs Green Thai Curries
|Areas||Yellow Thai curry||Red Thai curry||Green Thai curry|
|Source of Color||Turmeric||Dried red chillies||Green chillies|
|Notable Ingredients||Starches, i.e. potato; fenugreek, lemongrass||Shrimp paste, peppercorns, added spices||More coconut milk, kaffir lime, palm sugar|
|Spiciness||Mildest spice||Spicier than yellow curries||Spiciest curry|
|Flavor Profile||Tangy, mildly spicy, slightly sweet||Rich blend of spicy and umami||Very spicy, but has sweet and creamy coconut milk|
|Native Thai Names||Kaeng kari (lit. curry curry)||Kaeng phet (lit. spicy curry)||Kaeng khiao wan (lit. sweet-green curry)|
How are Yellow, Red and Green Thai Curries Similar?
All three curries are some of Thailand’s most beloved dishes, and constitute the three major curry types known throughout the world.
Yellow, red and green Thai curries are made using the same process – starting with the preparation of a curry paste out of spices, chillies, shrimp paste and herbs. Although chillies themselves can be a prominent component or not, they are essential to all three for the heat they provide.
Thai curries are also influenced by similar dishes originating from the Indian subcontinent, but adapted to the native Thai flavor palette and pantry.
Is red Thai curry hotter than green?
Traditionally, green Thai curries are spicier than red curries. Authentic Thai sources support this statement, explaining that Kaeng khiao wan is often far spicier thanks to the addition of bird’s eye chillies rather than long chillies.
The belief that red Thai curries are hotter than green ones might have stemmed from the common human perception that green is a cooler color than red, and that green foods are logically less spicy.
Some misleading articles online, written by writers unfamiliar with Thai cuisine, also help in perpetuating this misconception.
Where did curry originally come from?
Curries originally emerged in India, where Kari (கரி) originally meant a spicy sauce with fresh herbs and stewed meats with which to flavor one’s portion of rice.
The use of many ingredients in modern curry paste, such as cumin, fennel, ginger, garlic and turmeric, has been dated back to as early as 2600 BCE.
Much later, the Columbian Exchange of plants from the Americas would bring in other staple ingredients to curry-making, such as chillies and tomatoes. The British Empire and other colonial powers would eventually generalize all related watery dishes used to flavor rice as being a form of “curry.”
The key differences between yellow, red and green Thai curries lie mostly in their level of spiciness, source of color, and flavor profile.
The traditional red Thai curry is also quite spicy on its own, although its taste is a complementary blend between the heat of its dried red chillies and its meats. The use of peppercorns, cumin and other spices makes for a different, but less aggressive, type of spiciness.
Green Thai curries are the spiciest of the three. Fresh long green chillies – or bird’s eye chillies, for a far hotter bite – provide this seemingly innocuous dish with its color and source of heat, although it obtains a creamy sweetness from coconut milk and zest from lime and other spices.
Lastly, yellow Thai curries give the taster the mildest spice experience, instead of boasting a flavor influenced by the tang of turmeric, interplay among other fragrant spices, and the sweetness of coconut milk.