Few things make me cringe more than overemphasizing or over-hyping food. No food is ever “to die for” and few ever “melt in your mouth”. Pretending they do is little more than lying. Yes, I maybe bland and boring, like the Khao Tom (rice soup) of Thai food, but to make things worse I am also a stickler for terminology. With Thai food the more I learn the more I find inconsistencies. So helping myself to understand I will share my confusion here, through inane ramblings. Below is my attempt to decipher Thai Food Terminology starting with the most confusing of them all, Thai curries. So ununderstandable that myself and Fanfan were close to blows and I spent a sleepless night with curries and soups pouring through my head (note I do overexaggerate on occasions). I don’t think there is a definitive answer to these questions, no right or wrong, but I am always interested in other’s two cents. (Note I recently did similar on Thai street food)
Curries, Soups, or Both
Starting with the obvious, Thai food rarely uses curry powder although there are exceptions. Kaeng Kare (yellow curry) is one curry I can think of which fuses curry powder and it is often referred to in Thailand as an Indian style curry. In fact Kaeng Kare translates to Curry Curry, a curry which contains curry powder. Confusing? Things get a lot worse. So curry is a generic term for a “variety of spiced dishes” and in Thailand the word Kaeng is a common term for curry… but it also means soup. I’m really opening a can of worms here as I think terminology no doubt gets confused in translation. Anyway, anything named Kaeng is a curry? e.g. Green Curry (Kaeng Kiao Wan) or Red Curry (Kaeng Phed). But there are many non-curry dishes with the same name e.g. Kaeng Som (Sour Soup). To confuse things more, the popular reference of “Tom” as a soup can also be preceded by Kaeng e.g. Hot Sour Soup “Kaeng Tom Yum” or Coconut Soup “Kaeng Tom Kha”. So the words curry and soup are interchangeable with Thai dishes, or at least in parts.
Characteristics of a Curry
So there are two common characteristics with curries, one, they generally use a curry paste over fresh ingredients and two, they more-than-not use a coconut milk base. However, there are curries which have neither e.g. Jungle Curry (Kaeng Pa). The opposite is found as well where I see dishes like Khao Soi Curry, a curry paste and coconut based dish, often described as a noodle soup. So curries can be soups and soups can be curries, but are all curries soups? The Southern Dry Curry (Khua Kling), with no broth, is definitely not a soup. And where does this leave foods cooked similar like the Northern Chilli Dip (Nam Prik Ong)? Are chilli dips in fact curries? To date I have always accepted; if people call it a curry it is a curry, if they call it a soup it is a soup but this is obviously not the case.
Is Thai Food Spicy?
Going slightly off topic now. Is Thai food in fact spicy? A spice is a dried seed, fruit, root, bark, or vegetable. The chilli pepper with internal, edible seeds is a fruit but it is not dried and is therefore not a spice. The same goes for fresh ginger, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves…. If dried or pummeled into a powder then yes they are spices (e.g. chilli powder or dried chilli peppers) but most Thai dishes use fresh ingredients and are therefore not ‘spicy’. If anything they are pungent (the technical term) but this doesn’t sound well. I generally avoid using the word ‘spicy’ (or ‘hot’ which indicates it has been heated) and instead opt for the less ambiguous “fiery” which, while as wrong, feels less confusing (as the food is obviously not on fire). For me spicy food should incorporate a number of spices maybe Star anise, Cloves, Cinnamon and shouldn’t highlight just the use of one spice. If a food only has pepper in it, it makes more sense to say peppery.
Deconstructing Curry Pastes
Back to the simple definition of curries being “a variety of spiced dishes. This can help find a more definitive answer? So which Thai curries in fact fuse spices? Okay, this is a little absurd but fortunately I have a lot of time on my hands. To know if Thai curries are ‘spicy’ or contain spices it means deconstructing the pastes. Of course Thai pastes rarely come dry so in themselves they aren’t spices. Many do however contain spices and for some it will be obvious e.g. the ‘Southern’ influences of cardamom and star anise found in Massaman Curry. Others not so much. To keep it simple I will take the two common curries of Red Curry and Green curry. The red curry paste is in fact pounded from dry red chillies, a spice, so it is no doubt a curry. The green curry is pounded from fresh green chillies and appears to be more dubious. However, when deconstructing the paste the green curry in fact fuses the spices of cumin and white peppercorns and while not prominent in flavour the spices do exist so yes the green curry is a curry (sounds a lot better than green pungent soup). Lastly, the obvious misfit from earlier was the Jungle Curry. The Jungle Curry has no curry paste, no coconut milk and to skim through ingredients finds no spices either. I would therefore classify jungle curry as a jungle soup. Again, not definitive.