I would recommend this inspiring book called The Big Book of Thai Curries, from Vatcharin Bhumichitr. It's an enjoyable read and the photography is stunning. Most importantly, the author pleasantly describes the origin and the role of each herb and spice in the paste that it impels a true beginner at curry paste-making , like my good self, to make her/his own paste and reproduce the balance of flavours exactly as the author makes it. And then, you can adjust as necessary to suit your own taste. Also good to know, these freshly made pastes can be frozen - they may lose a little flavour but they will still taste better than shop-bought ones.
There is no comparison between a fresh homemade curry paste and a pre-made one bought from the store. To this day, I truly think that pre-made thai curry pastes are overly salty and are lacking in character, and in most cases have zero aroma. In fact, fresh curry pastes are known for their strong pungent smell and intense flavour.
Thai curries are uniquely light and refreshing because they are based on fresh ingredients. They also have very distinctive colours and are determined by the colour of their ingredients, mostly the chillies and the curry pastes, hence the famous red, green and yellow varieties.
Some of the most commonly used herbs and spices in a Thai curry paste, clockwise from bottom center:
fresh red chillies
galangal (same family as ginger, but more intense in flavour and aroma)
Although, every one of the curry paste recipe in the book makes roughly 15-20 tablespoons of paste, I like to prepare just enough for the recipe I'll be using it for, as I prefer my pastes to be very fresh. For this recipe, I used scallions instead of shallots (I ran out of them...but they worked well for me) and less chillies - unlike many Vietnamese, I have a low tolerance for fiery hot and highly spicy foods.
Recipe "au pif":
3-4 small dried red chillies (fresh ones can also be used - both found in local asian grocery stores)
1/2 tsp coarse sea salt
4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1 tsp finely chopped galangal, toasted
1 lemongrass stalk, finely chopped
1/2 tsp shrimp paste (found in local asian grocery stores)
2 whole cardamon pods, toasted (husks removed and seed scraped out - found in spices section of local asian or arabic grocery stores)
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp white peppercorn, toasted until brown
1 shallot or 1 stalk scallions, finely chopped
3 coriander roots, finely chopped
Golden rule to preparing a great Thai curry paste:
The preparation of the curry pastes is the same for each curry. The ingredients should be ground using a pestle and mortar. Start with the hardest ingredient and then add the other ingredients one at a time. It is recommended to start with the chillies and the sea salt - the coarse sea salt helps to cut through the chilli skin. As you add each ingredient, check the aroma of the paste to see how the new ingredient is balancing previous ones. This will ensure that you don't add too much or too little of any ingredient. You are aiming for a harmonious blend with no one flavour dominating.
Pound and grind until you reach the desired texture.
Any leftover paste will keep in the fridge for two or three days. The best way to keep it fresh is to wrap it in clingfilm and place it in an airtight container.
Makes roughly 2 tablespoons of paste.
You're now ready to make your first homemade Thai curry, with meats, poultry, vegetables or fish!