Can I use curry powder in place of curry paste?

In this brief article, we will answer the question “Can I use curry powder in place of curry paste?”, with an in-depth analysis of the difference between curry paste and curry powder. We will also mention a couple of substitutes for when you do not have curry paste readily available.

Can I use curry powder in place of curry paste?

No, you can not use curry powder in place of curry paste because the final dish made with curry powder will not have the same flavor profile as the dish made with curry paste. 

The same is true for when you are trying to substitute curry paste in place of curry powder. The two have very different texture and flavor profiles. Just because they share the same word “curry”, does not mean they can be used interchangeably. 

India is one of the largest producers and exporters of spices in the world.  The country has a share of about 44 % in quantity and 36 p% in value in world spices trade (1).

Curry powder vs. Curry paste

One main obvious difference between curry paste and curry powder is that curry paste is wet with ingredients such as ground chili peppers and oil while curry powder is a dry blend of whole or ground spices.

Curry paste belongs to Thai cuisine. Thai curry paste consists of red, yellow, and green curry pastes. Each one of these have a distinct flavor and get their names from their color. Thai red curry paste is prepared from some herbs, i.e. dried red chili, garlic, shallots, lemon grass, kaffir lime, galangal, spices and additives, such as salt and sugar, all blended together to obtain a homogeneous orange-red paste (2).

For example the main ingredients in red curry paste are red chillies and paprika. The main ingredient in green curry paste are green chillies. Similarly, yellow curry paste has turmeric as its main ingredient.

These three pastes range from mild to spicy, with red being the most spicy and yellow being the mildest. Fresh, Thai red curry paste in a semi-solid form has a short shelf life due to its high moisture content (more than 40%). The growing popularity of Thai food around the world has created the need to preserve this product. Drying is one of the preservation methods that can extend the shelf life of the red curry paste. When curry paste is dried, it turns into powdered form (2).

On the other hand, curry powders are a part of Indian cuisine. They are used to make Indian style dishes. There is a significant difference between Thai and Indian cuisines. The classic Indian curry often combines the following spices: coriander, turmeric, cumin, ginger, garlic as well as other spices and is used in form of powder (5).

Curry pastes tend to be more spicy as they use whole chili peppers. Curry powders are not as spicy as curry pastes because they use ground spices so they tend to be a little mild. 

Curry paste is made with a wet ingredient like oil or water. Curry powders are dry. Curry paste can be fried before cooking the dish because it already has oil while curry powder can not be fried on its own as it will burn.

Drying, as a preservation method, is a very important aspect of food processing. Drying can be defined as a simultaneous heat and mass transfer operation in which the water activity of the material is lowered by the evaporation of water into an unsaturated gas stream. The main function of drying is to lower the water activity of the product and consequently, to inhibit the growth of microorganisms and decrease chemical reactions in order to prolong the shelf life of the product at room temperature (2).

Red curry paste substitutes

Sometimes, when you do not have curry paste but the dish you are making requires curry paste, you can use the following substitutes. They will not give you exactly the same flavor but will considerably taste the same to some extent.

Green curry paste

The main difference between red and green curry pastes is that green curry paste has green chillies. However you can add paprika or chili powder to green curry paste to make it spicier and add a tinge of red color. A basic green curry includes green chilies, coriander, kaffir lime leaves, shallot and rinds, lemongrass, garlic, cumin, and nam pla. The dish has citrus undertones and can be mild or hot (3).

Yellow curry paste

Although yellow curry paste is milder than red curry paste and predominantly has turmeric in it, it can also be used as a substitute for red curry paste. You can add chili powder or chili flakes to the paste and make it more spicy. Yellow curries in Thai food are more similar to Indian curries, with their use of turmeric rhizomes and cumin fruit as the important ingredients (3).,

Red chili paste

Red chili paste can be used in place of red curry paste because it has red chillies. However it lacks the other ingredients such as garlic, ginger, lemongrass, and basil. So they can be added to chili paste to make it taste like curry paste.

The most basic form of chili paste, known as ‘chili boh’, in Malaysia is cooked with either fresh or dried chili, vinegar, salt and sometimes garlic. Another popular form of paste is called the chili-shrimp paste. These pastes are made with chili as the main ingredient. Secondary ingredients often serve the purpose of improving taste, as well as reducing the pH to aid preservation (4).

Turmeric with chili paste

Another main ingredient in curry paste is turmeric so addition of turmeric to chili paste can be used as a substitute for curry paste. Turmeric has a characteristic yellow color due to the presence of curcuminoids. The aromatic plant is due to the volatile oils present to the extent of 1.80–2.49% in dry turmeric. The plants contain essential oil widely used in food, drink, body care products, soap, perfumery, and pharmaceutical products (3).

Tomato paste with chili flakes

This combination will obviously not give the same flavor profile as curry paste but can be used to make a lot of sauces and pastas. Moreover chili flakes can give the same amount of heat as the red curry paste.

Homemade curry paste

You can always make your own curry paste with the ingredients easily available at all grocery stores. 

Other FAQs about Curry that you may be interested in.

Which is hotter: red, yellow, or green Thai curry?

Why does restaurant curry taste better?

Why is my Thai curry bitter?

Conclusion

In this brief article, we answered the question “Can I use curry powder in place of curry paste?”, with an in-depth analysis of the difference between curry paste and curry powder. We also mentioned a couple of substitutes for when you do not have curry paste readily available. 

Citations

  1. Palani, S. An Analysis of Spices Export in India. Sci Technol Develop, 2019, 8, 114-122. 
  2. Inchuen, Sudathip, Woatthichai Narkrugsa, and Pimpen Pornchaloempong. Effect of drying methods on chemical composition, color and antioxidant properties of Thai red curry powder. Agri Nat Res, 2010, 44, 142-151.  
  3. Kanchanakunjara, Taddara, et al. Traditional curry pastes during Sukhothai to Ratthanakosin: The subjective experience of the past and present. Asian Cult Hist, 2015, 7, 175.  
  4. Jamaluddin, Faathirah, et al. A Review of Clean‐Label Approaches to Chilli Paste Processing. Int J Food Sci Technol, 2022, 57, 763-773.
  5. Rathore, M. S., and N. S. Shekhawat. Incredible spices of India: from traditions to cuisine. Am-Euras J Botany, 2008, 1, 85-89.