Green Curry Vs. Red Curry: PepperScale Showdown

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Green curry and red curry are two Thai food staples that have become popular as people outside of Thailand have grown more familiar with Thai cuisine. To make each kind of paste, the ingredients are pounded together with a mortar and pestle until they reach a smooth consistency. The pounding releases the aromatic oils of the different components and ensures that they are evenly blended. In many dishes, the curry pastes are combined with coconut milk to form the liquid part of a finished dish. Despite similarities in how the two curry pastes are made, green curry and red curry do have noticeable differences. Let’s compare.

Green curry vs. red curry
Green and red curries – what makes them similar? Different? Is one spicier than the other?

Table of Contents

How does green curry differ from red curry?

Green curry is made with a slightly different set of ingredients than red curry. While the ingredients in the two pastes do overlap to a considerable extent, there are some important differences.

Along with green chili peppers, green curry paste gets much of its color and flavor from cilantro leaves and Thai basil. Neither cilantro leaves nor Thai basil show up in most variations of red curry, and green chilies don’t either. Red curry is made with dried red chilies that are soaked to soften them; fresh chilies are never used in traditional red curry paste. Red curry gets its color from a combination of chili peppers, palm sugar, and sometimes turmeric.

Is red curry typically spicier than green curry?

The common perception in the West is that red curry is the spicier Thai curry. It may be true that red curry is hotter in some instances, since some Western versions use fresh red chilies (which have their peak level of capsaicin, which causes the heat.) But it’s a misconception, at least when it comes to authentic Thai dishes.

In traditional Thai preparations made in Thailand for Thai people — i.e., not for tourists — green curry is usually the hotter of the two. The reason for the different heat levels is that fresh chili peppers are never used in the traditional Thai red curry, and the dried chilies used typically offer a lower heat level. In comparison, green curry is made with fresh green chilies, and they are typically hotter than the dried red ones used.

But remember: This is not a steadfast rule for all curries everywhere. The spiciness of the curry depends on many factors, not only the specific chili pepper used, but also the quantity required in the recipe, and the amount of milk (or cream) used in the curry. Components of dairy break down the capsaicin in chili peppers, and that impacts your sensation of spiciness, no matter the chili used.

–> Learn More: How To Treat Chili Burn (Dairy Breaks Down The Spiciness)

If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other?

Green curry paste and red curry paste are interchangeable in many dishes because of how many ingredients they have in common. Differences that you should keep in mind when making the substitution are the heat levels, appearance, and herbal flavors.

Green curry will produce a hotter, green dish with notes of basil and cilantro, while red curry paste will give a less-spicy version of the same flavor profile without the basil and cilantro. If you want a milder curry with less aggressive flavors, red curry is the way to go.

What are examples of each?

Gaeng keow wan gai is an example of a green curry — it is chicken in a green curry sauce and is one of the basic green curry dishes. Along with chicken and green curry paste, gaeng keow wan gai also contains bamboo shoots and Thai eggplant.

Gai pad prik king is a red curry — it is chicken in red curry sauce and is the red curry equivalent of the aforementioned gaeng keow wan gai. Gaeng kua is another style of Thai red curry that you will also see written as kaeng kua in some places. The distinctive properties of gaeng kua include strong sweet and sour notes from lime juice and sugar. Gaeng tay po is a gaeng kua dish made with water spinach leaves.

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on April 8, 2022 to include new content.
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