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Decoding the Thai curry obsession

Why do galangal and bird’s-eye chillies share space with garlic and ‘dhania’ in urban Indian kitchens?

Thai green curry with prawns from Thai Naam.
Thai green curry with prawns from Thai Naam.

For us Indians, there’s only one recipe for the kaeng phet. It starts with kaeng phet paste, sautéed in a wok with onion and garlic, and ends with a cascade of coconut milk and fresh herbs. The dish figures on our weekend dinner menus, alongside pasta and egg fried rice, yet none of us would dare to call it kaeng phet. It’s hard enough to read, can you imagine saying it out loud?

Instead, we came up with a convenient, albeit inaccurate, nickname—the Thai curry. Convenient because it is obvious— it belongs to the Thai and it is a curry. Inaccurate because there is no singular “Thai curry”.

The curries of Thai cuisine vary from the coconut-milk-based gravies of the south to thicker, drier northern dishes that rely on fresh herbs. To cram so much diversity into a “Thai curry” is the same as all of Indian cuisine being squashed into a chicken curry peppered with Indian buzzwords (looking at you, Britain). But we can’t be mad at the British, not about chicken tikka masala at least. The “classic” Indian dish is to the UK what Thai curry is to India. A distorted stereotype for a nation whose dialect of food evolves every hundred kilometres.

Over the last few years, pan-Asian restaurants have snuck into our cities with a promise of hatke (different) food. Each offers variations of sushi, dim-sums and fried rice, but the Thai curry persists, disguised as Mumbai’s KOKO’s “South-East Asian Red Curry” or Foo’s “Foo Yellow Curry”.

Indian diners and their kitchens can’t get enough either. In Chennai, Green Goblin, a provider of exotic veggies, has a section on its website dedicated to Thai produce. Aditi Vasu, its founder, says: “When I moved here, Chennai was horribly provincial. So I started Green Goblin and discovered an audience for Thai produce. Immediately, I was getting weekly accolades from expats, well-travelled adults and curious youngsters.”

In Delhi, chef Vineet Manocha of YOUMEE, a pan-Asian restaurant, says: “The best place for Delhiites to find Thai produce is INA Market. Most Thai ingredients in India are grown in places like Nainital, Bengaluru and Ooty. Now, our vendors source from these farms. Thirty years ago, everything was imported from Thailand or Singapore.”

In Mumbai, vegetable vendors at Bandra’s Pali Market have boxes of assorted Thai vegetables like galangal, Thai brinjal and bird’s-eye chillies. “I started selling my Thai curry paste during lockdown, made the authentic way that I learnt from my parents,” says chef Seefah Ketchaiyo of Seefah in Mumbai, “I use a lot of local produce—lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, coriander root and green chillies.”

The growing availability of Thai produce, paired with the ubiquity of packaged curry paste, has made the Thai curry a go-to weekend dinner in urban homes. But our obsession comes with questions. Nearly every South-East Asian country boasts of a curry—Malaysia has its rendang; Indonesians, gulai ayam. So, why do we find comfort in the Thai curry?

Manu Chandra, chef-partner at The Fatty Bao, reckons, “The Thai curry feeds into the aspirational value of eating exotic cuisines while being reminiscent of certain south Indian flavours.”

The influence of south India is nestled in the curry’s recipe. Coconut milk, an intrinsic ingredient in south Indian cuisine, is the heart of the Thai curry. The Thai boil it until the oil separates visibly. Then, they add the curry paste made with spices familiar to Indians.

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Erase these ingredients from the recipe and the Thai curry loses its essence. Chef’s secret? Not so much—historians are in on it too.

According to researcher Rosemary Brissenden’s archival cookbook, South East Asian Food, the 16th century saw south Indians sojourning at the Siamese capital, Ayutthaya. By then, south Indians had learnt to season with spices and dissect the coconut—the fruit’s flesh was ground into a chutney and its milk cradled their gravies. The theory is that the Siamese adopted these techniques.

But the Thai weren’t alone. The Indian community dispersed through South-East Asia, influencing every cuisine along the way. Still, a rendang or gulai curry paste is rare on grocery store shelves, and the question remains: How did the kaeng phet—out of all curries—find its way into Indian bowls?

The answer lies with Ananda Solomon, the chef behind one of the first Thai restaurants in India—the Thai Pavilion at the Taj President Hotel in Mumbai. “My journey started in the 1990s, when the Taj group transferred me from Goa to Bombay,” says Solomon. “Ajit Kerkar, the managing director at the time, was very keen on getting new flavours to India. He envisioned a stand-alone Thai restaurant. He called me to his office and said, ‘There is this project and I want to give it to you.’”

Chef Ananda Solomon, who played an important role in popularising Thai curry in India.
Chef Ananda Solomon, who played an important role in popularising Thai curry in India.

Solomon boarded the next flight to Bangkok. From working at Salathip by Shangri-La, to cooking at roadside eateries on Sukhumvit Road, he mastered Thai cooking for tourists, and more importantly, for locals. “When I returned, I informed the Taj team of the challenges. The biggest being produce. We couldn’t import ingredients, so we had to grow them at our farm in Marol with the help of a Thai horticulturist. With these ingredients, we made our own Thai curry paste,” he says.

Solomon opened Thai Pavilion in Mumbai in 1993. It was a blockbuster, and word of its fine cuisine spread through urban India. While gazebo-like imitations bobbed up, and drowned just as fast, the Taj erected Pavilions in Hyderabad and Gurugram, Haryana.

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“After seven years, we won an award. I was recognised by the president of India as the chef of the year,” says Solomon. “Now, I run a restaurant called Thai Naam in Mumbai. I went to work in Thailand, and then Vietnam, when I got the opportunity to open Thai Naam. I agreed to, because I love the people, I love the culture, and I love this cuisine.”

The Thai curry has found a place in urban India’s culinary vocabulary. We take comfort in its familiarity and indulge in the exotic aroma of kaffir lime and lemongrass. Sure, we don’t make it the way the Thai intended. Our kaeng phet paste is pre-packaged; it is sautéed with onion and garlic; shrimp paste gets the silent treatment every time.

But authenticity doesn’t have to mean how we make the kaeng phet—it can be how we make it our own. And we love our Thai curry.

Ritik Chopra is a Mumbai-based food writer.

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