The Mother Paste

Let me just say, be prepared to pound for about 40 minutes total. I know, starting with a negative is, well negative, but the end result is so worth it (plus, it was my husband who did all the pounding 🙂 ) Why? Just as béchamel is to French sauces, this fundamental Red Curry Paste (Prik Gaeng Kua) is the “mother” paste for almost all other Thai curries, so says the Fine Cooking article which highlighted this one from chef Perry Santanachote—a food stylist, recipe developer and writer.

According to Perry, in Thai, curry paste ingredients are called khreung gaeng, which translates to “the engine of the curry.” Comparing khreung gaeng prepared with a mortar and pestle to ones prepared with a food processor is like pitting a Bugatti against a Buick. They’ll both get you where you want to go, but one will provide a much more exhilarating experience.

The Hubs received his hand-carved, solid granite mortar and pestle as a Christmas gift from his sister Dee, but hadn’t used it until now. And just like any new utensil, it needed to be cleaned and seasoned before using. The steps for so doing are as follows:

  1. Wash in clean water without detergent and air dry.
  2. Grind roughly a small handful of uncooked white rice. Discard and repeat if necessary until the rice remains white and does not discolor.
  3. Add 4 cloves of raw garlic, 1 teaspoon cumin seeds, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon black pepper corns. Grind into a paste and discard.
  4. Again, wash in clean water without detergent and air dry.

Here, Russ begins the process of cleaning his set.

Notes for Making Curry Paste:

  • *Use chiles such as Mexican guajillo, puya, New Mexico, Anaheim, or California that are fragrant but not overly spicy.
  • Driest and/or hardest ingredients go in first, followed by ingredients with more moisture. Always leave the shrimp paste for last.
  • Use the curry paste immediately or store it in an airtight container covered with a thin layer of oil for up to one month in the refrigerator, or 3 months in the freezer.

A few comments about our ingredients. We could not locate kaffir limes, even at the Asian Mart. But we had some leaves in the freezer so we used those—although I would have preferred the lime zest. Then we forgot to look for fresh galangal, but had the powdered spice, so we found, and used, the conversion rate (4 1/2 teaspoons equalled 1/4 cup fresh galangal). As for the chiles, we had dried guajillos on hand, so that was perfect.

It was a real workout for Russ’s arms, but we were both excited to use the “mother” paste in an upcoming Thai Curry recipe. Stay tuned… In the meantime, I need to source where we can obtain fresh Kaffir limes. One such option is

kaffir limes

“Kaffir lime peel is loaded with a fragrant citrus oil, but the flavor of the fruit is overwhelming if eaten fresh. The kaffir lime tree is grown and harvested mainly for the leaves which are a staple in Thai cooking, but the tree doesn’t produce many of these limes. As kaffir limes aren’t eaten fresh, and there’s limited use for them, growers typically strip the trees of all fruit each year to promote growth of the leaves. The fruit not only looks excellent but the culinary appeal is perfect: fragrant, strong citrus flavor. Put a slice of the bitter peel in your mouth and your lips get a tingling sensation of citrus unlike anything you’ve tasted.”


Kale Salad with Cranberry Vinaigrette

  • Servings: Yields about 1 cup
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Print


  • 1 oz. dried red spur chiles or other dried chiles*
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh lemongrass
  • 3 Tbs. minced galangal
  • 2 tsp. coarse salt
  • 1/4 cup minced garlic (from about 8 cloves)
  • 1/4 cup minced shallot (from 1 medium shallot)
  • 3 Tbs. minced fresh cilantro stems
  • 1 Tbs. kaffir lime zest (from about 2 small limes) or very thinly sliced kaffir lime leaves
  • 1 Tbs. shrimp paste
  • Coconut oil (optional)


  1. Remove the stems from the chiles. Shake out and discard the seeds. Break the chiles into pieces, and soak them in hot water for 20 to 30 minutes to soften.
  2. Meanwhile, in a heavy-duty mortar and pestle, pound the lemongrass and galangal until ground to a coarse paste, 3 to 4 minutes.
  3. Drain the chiles, and finely dice them. Add to the mortar in batches, sprinkling the salt over them after adding each batch. Pound until the mixture is fine and the oils are fully released from the chiles, about 15 minutes.
  4. Add the garlic, shallot, cilantro stems, and zest, and pound until all of the ingredients are fully incorporated into a smooth paste, about 20 minutes. You’re looking for a buttery consistency with no chunks, almost like tomato paste.
  5. Add the shrimp paste. It will almost melt into the curry paste as you spread it around.

By Perry Santanachote found in Fine Cooking Magazine

2 thoughts on “The Mother Paste

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