Red curry paste is a cornerstone ingredient in Thai cuisine. In addition to being used on its own to make red curry, it is also integrated into numerous other dishes and sauces. Many markets which stock Asian ingredients carry red curry paste, and it can also be made at home, for people who want to control their ingredients. Home-made red curry paste also tends to be less expensive.
As the name would suggest, red curry paste is classically red, contrasting it with green curry paste and yellow curry paste, two other common ingredients in Thai cuisine. The precise ingredients vary, depending on the taste of the cook and the region, but generally garlic, ginger, shallots, shrimp paste, chilies, coriander root, white pepper, cumin, coriander seeks, salt, paprika, and kaffir lime rind make an appearance. Depending on the types of chilies used, this curry paste can range in heat from mild to incendiary.
To make red curry paste, cooks grind the ingredients in a mortar and pestle traditionally, although many modern cooks prefer to use a blender or food processor. Ideally, only enough curry paste for a specific recipe should be made, as it tastes best when fresh. However, because making curry paste can take time, some cooks like to make a big batch and freeze it in individual servings, ensuring that they have enough to cook with over the course of several months.
Usually only a small amount of red curry paste is needed, because it is highly concentrated. In curries with a coconut milk base, it is often added early in the cooking process, to fully infuse the coconut milk and the rest of the ingredients, and a dash may be added at the end to refresh the flavor. Red curry paste is also included in things like Thai peanut sauce, used to dress satay, and in other sauces, dressings, and foods.
When handling red curry paste, it is important to remember that it contains seeded peppers, along with all of their volatile oils. As a result, it can sometimes cause a tingling or burning sensation on the skin. Hands should always be washed thoroughly, as pure red curry paste in the eyes, nose, and other sensitive spots is not desirable. If red curry paste does wind up in the eyes, they should be gently rinsed with cool running water, and some lingering irritation may occur.