Yellow Curry – Kaeng Kari (แกงกะหรี่)


thai yellow curry

Kaeng Kari Chicken with Rice and Ajat

Of all the recipe requests that have come into my mailbox, the so-called “yellow curry” has got to be one of the top five. I’ve written about it in my weekly column on Serious Eats. But before you head over there, there are two remarks I’d like to make:

1. Nobody in Thailand calls this curry, “yellow curry” (kaeng lueang). If you order kaeng lueang (a name which leads to another possible confusion — more later) in Thailand, you’ll definitely get a different curry. I’d stick with calling it, “kaeng kari.” It’s a funny name, because literally it says, “curry curry.” But at least, there’s no confusion. Knowing that there are two curries that aren’t always clearly distinguished from one another helps you to avoid the mistake of not only ordering the wrong kind of curry at a restaurant, but also buying the wrong kind of curry paste.

2. Kaeng kari is almost always served with a small bowl of ajat in Thailand — the same kind of cucumber relish that comes with your satay. Even though most Thai restaurants overseas don’t do so, you may want to try it. The acidity of the vinegar, the cool and crunchy cucumber, the bite of the shallots, and the heat from the fresh pepper help kill the unpleasant feeling/flavor of “lian” (เลี่ยน) — a Thai word used to describe a rich, oily, and mostly bland-ish (for the Thai standard, anyway) dish.

Here’s a very basic recipe for kaeng kari made with boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Not exactly my favorite cut of meat for this particular curry, but it seems to work for a lot of people.

21 Responses to Yellow Curry – Kaeng Kari (แกงกะหรี่)

  1. B October 15, 2012 at 4:11 pm #

    I noticed that you call for splittling the coconut cream as a first step to every curry. I have tried to do that with Chaokoh canned coconut milk, and was not able to get the cream to split. I cooked the cream (top thicker part of the contents of the can) for over 10 minutes, until it was bubbling a lot and practically scorching, with no luck.

    Is there some step I’m missing, or trick to getting the cream to split?

    • Leela October 15, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

      I’ve noticed that with Chaokoh as well. This leads me to believe that they might have recently started adding emulsifiers to the coconut milk. What’s funny is that some cans do that and some cans don’t. If your coconut cream doesn’t split, don’t sweat it. If you deal with a curry that requires a long time to cook (for example, massaman curry made with a tough cut of beef), the coconut milk will eventually split as the curry cooks. But if you deal with a tender cut of meat, such as chicken breast, as is the case here, simply do the best you can to activate the herbs in the curry paste by frying it in coconut milk. Even though the coconut milk doesn’t split, it’s still better than dumping the paste into the coconut milk without frying it first.

      • B October 15, 2012 at 5:32 pm #

        Makes sense – thanks for the detailed answer.
        So, even in the situations when the cream doesn’t split, you wouldn’t add a bit of oil to help fry the paste?

        • Leela October 15, 2012 at 9:10 pm #

          It won’t hurt. I have a vat of rendered lard around for this reason. There’s some history to this in terms of restaurant practice and the reason for it. I’ve been wanting to write a post on this.

          • Pete October 15, 2012 at 11:54 pm #

            On the subject of ‘splitting’ the coconut cream, because the curry paste needs to be fried rather than boiled, to release the aromatic characteristics, this explains why the coconut cream must be ‘split’ to sufficiently fry off the raw paste.

            For my personal preference, I believe the wonderful freshness, luscious creamy characteristic of the coconut cream is totally ruin by ‘splitting’ it, and you end up with a curry that seems disjointed, that’s why I usually finish my curries with fresh coconut cream at the end to help regain some of the wonderful characteristics of fresh coconut cream.

      • Gail October 17, 2012 at 4:47 pm #

        I made a double batch of curry last weekend and used two cans of Chaokoh. One seemed to be all cream, and the other all thin milk. Not complaining, because in that situation it worked out perfectly, but I’d have been annoyed if I made a regular amount and opened the latter can. I think it’s probably best to choose your cans carefully; I’m pretty sure the all-cream can seemed a bit heavier, and it most likely wouldn’t have sloshed if I shook it!

        • Kenneth Gallaher October 17, 2012 at 6:38 pm #

          An all cream can should actually be lighter…since the cream floats on top.

  2. Laura October 15, 2012 at 10:34 pm #

    The rich oily comment is funny, because as much as I love “yellow” curry it does also kind of overwhelm in those regards. The best one I had in Thailand was in Chiang Mai at an open air restaurant. Yum.

  3. FreeRangeNan October 16, 2012 at 1:36 am #

    I haven’t had a problem with Chaokoh. Since I’m cooking for two, I buy the 5.6 oz size.

    I wonder if adding a bit of coconut oil along with the coconut cream would give good results.

    • Leela October 16, 2012 at 1:38 am #

      Funny you should bring this up as I’ve been experimenting with coconut oil in coconut-based curry these past few days!

  4. Kenneth Gallaher October 16, 2012 at 11:55 am #

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/16/science/the-chemistry-behind-great-food-pairings.html

    Speaking of greasy and sour…

  5. Laurie October 16, 2012 at 12:34 pm #

    In regards to splitting the coconut milk, I’ve found another brand (product of Thailand) that splits into thick and thin quite well. It’s “Golden Star” brand, purchased at the big box store beginning with a W.
    Also, to me, it tastes closer to fresh coconut milk, NO preservatives, and it’s cheaper! Hope that you can find it.

  6. spicytofu October 16, 2012 at 12:51 pm #

    Would this work with fried tofu instead of chicken? For the vegetarians, that is.

  7. Chey October 16, 2012 at 1:02 pm #

    Hello! I initially stumbled across your site by searching for a good Tom Kha Gai recipe and fell in love! I moved from California (with Thai restaurants abounding) to Michigan (NO *good* thai restaurants) so stumbling across your site was the best thing that’s happened to me all year!
    Have you thought about posting your take on Yom Woon Sen?

  8. Lambsy October 16, 2012 at 5:59 pm #

    Thanks for this post and recipe. This is certainly a really good curry for the non-spicy eaters and the ajat is a refreshing accompaniment – love it! I learnt to make it at the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School.
    My real reason for posting a reply is to ask you about Yum in Chiang Mai. In fact anywhere you love to eat in Bangkok or Chiang Mai would be a wonderful share.
    Thank you!!

  9. mycookinghut October 18, 2012 at 2:20 pm #

    I love curry especially during autumn/winter.. comfort food for me!

  10. Paula October 20, 2012 at 9:00 am #

    Oh my God I so miss Thai food… it’s so hard to get the ingredients in Italy!

    I’ve nominated you for the Inspiring Bloggers Award – because you’ve inspired me to comb the city for ingredients!

    http://lovefromitaly.wordpress.com/2012/10/20/inspiring-blogger-award-wow/

    Wish me luck…

  11. Lenore February 18, 2013 at 5:49 pm #

    It isn”t splitting because of the lower fat content in coconut milk. There are two types of coconut products by Chaokoh brand, one is a milk and one is a cream. Read the label, cook with the cream (higher fat content) and it will split.

    • Leela February 18, 2013 at 6:11 pm #

      There’s much more to this whole “cream” versus “milk” terminology arbitrarily used by these brands, and this warrants more investigation and probably a separate post dealing with this more fully.

      If you refer to Chaokoh’s coconut cream product meant for dessert making (the green can with an orchid), I don’t think that’s made from the first extraction which would be coconut “cream” in the truest sense of the word. It’s just coconut milk plus some stabilizer/thickener which makes it appear more concentrated. I don’t have a can of it with me right now, but can you verify that this Chaokoh coconut “cream” actually has twice the fat content of its coconut milk product (which is to be expected of true coconut cream)?

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    [...] top ostinsibly as per instructions for “Kaeng Kari” from friend Leela who’s blog She Simmers and satellite writings for Serious Eats, provide much needed guidance to Thai food. Though, I left [...]

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