Tasty Curry-Based Sauce

I’m not sure exactly what this is. If you remove the onions, roasted chilies, and bell peppers, it’s basically Thai curry. You can stop then and be done. I find it’s harder to make normal, broth-like curry that’s also very rich and tasty so I like this. Add an onion, green chilies, bell peppers, and it has more substance. It’s then more of a chunky-style sauce than a bowl of curry. This serves around 4-6.

You can put this on lots of things. Last night I made it for 50 served  over cubed root vegetables – yams and white sweet potatoes. Peel them, cut them into half-inch or a little bigger pieces, rub them with a bit of oil, bake at 375 for 45 min or so on a baking tray (cover with greased foil to make life easier). Move them around now and then. For the quantity below I’d use about 4-6 people to eat. For this I make it a little sweeter.

It’s also great on fish, my favorite is halibut cheeks. Instead of rice I like to put a bed of spinach on each plate – maybe with some kale mixed in. Put some very hot sauce on that which will cook it just right by the time it’s on the table. Then fish on that, with a little more sauce. For this I add plenty of tarragon, and I would leave out the roasted chilies.

This isn’t so much a recipe as a way to make a whole bunch of good things.

In general for Thai ingredients the brands are Mae Ploy or Golden Boy. This matters a lot.


  • Red Curry Paste: They vary a whole lot and most are bad. Mae Ploy is my favorite.
  • Fish Sauce: Golden Boy is good
  • Garlic – about four cloves but up to you.
  • One bunch of Cilantro
  • One 12-oz can of coconut Milk – again, Mae Ploy is good. Don’t do “Lite”
  • Cilantro
  • A good sized onion, generally I use a yellow one
  • Kaffir lime leaves if you have them. These are the magic secret smell and taste that’s almost always missing. You can do it without them and it’s still good, but.
  • Tarragon – fresh great, dried is fine. Maybe 4-6 fresh sprigs, or a tablespoon dried.
  • Basil – about the same amount as the Tarragon. Thai basil is best. Fresh is much better than dried. You can also get basil cubes which are easy and a middle ground.
  • Green chilies – Anaheim or similar. These are optional.
  • Thai chilies if you want it spicier.
  • About 3 fresh limes, you can use lime juice.
  • Bell peppers – Optional again – but good tossed in at the end.
  • Sugar. I get palm sugar which comes in little cakes but normal is ok too.
  • Some oil

For the bare minimum you could do yams, curry paste, a can of coconut milk, a little sugar, a lime or two, fish sauce, and hopefully kaffir lime leaves.

The plan:

The not-very-hot green chilies are optional but are tasty. I roast them on the BBQ Arizona-style and then peel off most of the skin. It’s a bit time consuming but you really don’t have to get it all for most chilies – taste and see if it’s ok. Then remove the stem and seeds and cut up. Do this first and add them when you add the onion to the curry if you want to include this. It’s a smoky addition that’s not right for many variations.

Bell peppers are also completely optional. Toss in one or two cut up if you want at the end.

Cut up the onion. Wash the cilantro keeping the bunch together. Shake it. Cut off the very bottom of the stems and discard. Cut the rest of the stems small (1/4″ or less) until it gets more leafy then stem. Put these in one bowl – they go in the sauce. If you’re really fancy you can cut up cilantro/coriander root, but it’s very hard to find. Then chop the rest loosely and put in another bowl (these go on top at the end). If you have fresh herbs, remove the larger part of the stem and also cut those up loosely.

Heat a little oil and lightly cook the onion and garlic. I garlic-press in the garlic but you can chop it too. Don’t burn or even brown it much, especially the garlic. It goes from tasty to bitter. This takes about 5 minutes or so. If you know you want it spicy add some chopped, with seeds, Thai chilies here. If the pan gets dry I usually add some water instead of more oil. Empty this into a bowl.

Heat a little more oil and put in about two to three tablespoons of the curry paste. Heat gently for a couple of minutes while you mash it around. You’ll smell it as it opens up.

Add a couple of spoons of the more solid part of the coconut milk (what’s on top). If you just dump it all it can separate. Mix it in. I add the cilantro stems here.

Add the rest slowly, keeping it hot while you do. If you’re new it’s good to taste it now and each time you add something to understand what each ingredient does. It doesn’t taste too good now – like curry and coconut milk as you’d expect but kind of insipid.

Add maybe two teaspoons of fish sauce, stir, and taste. This usually makes it taste worse, not better. This isn’t linear-additive, it’s a balancing act, and you just tipped the scale.

Add the juice of one lime. You can do this with a fork – cut it in half, stab it in the middle, work it back and forth as you squeeze, and then use the fork to scrape off some pulp as you hold it closed. The advantage of this way is that you get a bit of the lime pulp, but you can do it how you want.

Taste again. It probably just got worse – salty, tangy…

Sugar is the key to bringing it together. But be careful as it changes really fast from great to cloyingly sweet. Error now on the side of less sweet – the onions and other things will add depth and sweetness too. But it needs to be brought roughly in line here. The flavors from the coconut milk, curry paste, fish sauce, and lime are all in tension. Sugar pulls them together. Too little and it’s all tension and dissonance. Too much and it’s boringly singular.

So add about a teaspoon and taste. It’s almost like magic how just a little sugar brings it together. If you’re adding the onion and all, or meat, it might be better to wait to add sugar until all the ingredients are added. Yeah, that’s probably the safest route.  If it ends up tasty but a little boring, try less sugar. Ok, enough with the sugar.

It’s really good to experiment here – adding some of each of the four ingredients so far to see what happens. I always edit at this point, and you’ll get better over time. I can’t find a repeatable way to do this. Sometimes it’s better than others. It’s strange how small changes make big differences. If it’s not working you can go for the peanut butter option below. In general, fish sauce and lime are the heavy-hitters in the tension area – add them both to make it more interesting.

Add the Kaffir lime leaves if you could get them. I add them whole and tell people not to eat them (which is pretty obvious). You’ll immediately smell the magic – taste it!

You can also add Thai chilies here if you want it spicier without changing the balance of flavors. Or more curry paste will also make it spicier and richer but you’ll have to adjust the other three ingredients as well.

At this point you have basic red curry. You can add some meat, veggies, or whatever, and serve it up. You can cook the meat in the curry itself, or grill it or whatever. You can also add the onion here and still have a pretty normal curry.

If you’re stopping here, one fun option is to add around a quarter cup, maybe more, of peanut butter and go for Panang style. This is always an instant crowd-pleaser. It’s also an easy out if you can’t get the thing balanced right. If it’s still not good you can add sugar. Sweet and peanut buttery is always tasty and no one really minds that you’ve left the path.

From here it leaves the beaten path of traditional Thai.

If you have dried tarragon and basil, add about around two teaspoons of each. Or maybe one of each, taste, and decide. Usually I end up with about 3 . You can use much more fresh in which case I add about half now, half at the very end with the leafy cilantro. You can use a lot. This makes it kind of french-Thai. You can also skip the herbs but keep the other stuff. Whatever you like!

Dump in everything else – onion, roasted chilies if you made them, and bell peppers. Taste some more. It’s usually fairly tame so I often add more lime juice here at the end to make it more interesting. Or pull it together with sugar.

If you’re serving in a bowl like with the root vegetables, put it all together, stir in the leafy cilantro and optionally fresh basil and tarragon, and you’re done. Or layer it on greens, or whatever you want. If you did it right you can’t really go wrong however you serve it.

Have fun!


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