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

June 19, 2023 10 Comments

Mixture of red and green chillies with heat explanations

Update. October 2018. As a Thai and the owner of My Thai Curry, a curry paste company that ships its products all over the world I feel I am pretty well placed to answer this question. Until fairly recently I had no difficulty in giving an unequivocal answer to the question. However, times change and trends come and go and what was once true is not now always the case. In traditional Thai cuisine we tend to think of curries being served at an appropriate heat level for that particular curry. Certainly in Thailand that would be the case. However in many Thai restaurants overseas this no longer holds true, increasingly diners are being asked “How spicy would you like your curry?” and back in the kitchen the chef will be chopping green chilies or adding chilli powder to the dish you have ordered. I must admit that to me such a practice is almost sacrilege and certainly detrimental to the preparation of the curry and how it should taste. (Note, there is a difference between tweaking the spice levels of a properly made curry and simply adding chilli to the mildest possible curry base.) But I can’t deny the existence of this practice and the fact that it influences people in their perception of how spicy a Thai curry should be. Hence the reason for me adding this preface to the article below which was written more than 3 years ago. The article remains true when we are talking about traditional Thai cuisine but increasingly this is no longer the case. 

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

This question had never occurred to me until recently. As a Thai this was not even up for consideration. Green curries are hot, red curries less so.It had always been so, that is simply the way it is. Therefore, I was surprised to find out that in the West the reverse was often thought to be the case. That Thai red curry is the spiciest with the Thai green curry being much milder. I wondered how this came about since I had never encountered a single Thai who would think like this, I wondered just how this message got out there. I did what many of us do when seeking the answer to a question; I googled it. Well that shook me up a bit I can tell you. I was amazed to see how many people confidently asserted that red was the spiciest of Thai curries. Well it just ain't so. A green curry in authentic Thai cuisine will always be hotter than a red curry and the heat will also differ between the regions, green curry from the South of Thailand (excepting the tourist areas) tends to be much more fiery due to the addition of Bird's Eye chillies. Genuine bird chillies are much smaller and far spicier than the varieties that UK supermarkets often mistakenly label as bird chillies. 

Bangkok-Style-Green-Curry-Paste-web

I wondered how this misconception that red was hotter than green came to be. Sure, you know that on sites like Yahoo answers you would take any information given is as likely to be wrong, as it is right. However, there are other sites out there handing out exactly the same misinformation. After I had read through a few of these I started to get a nagging feeling that I was reading the same thing over and over again, sometimes almost word for word all over again. A blogger friend demystified it for me. Apparently, some of the larger sites earn their money from the advertising that they carry and employ people to write articles about anything and everything. They don’t have to know anything about the subject they are writing about, just be good at assembling information and making it look like they know what they are writing about! So, much like a rumour, an incorrect statement is endlessly repeated. Now I was beginning to understand why people did not only know which was the spiciest Thai curry but were getting incredibly confused trying to find the right answer. 

Southern-Thai-Curry- Paste-Pouch

However where I truly started shaking my head was when I started reading some of the recipes for Thai red curry making the paste from scratch. The top listing on Google not only used fresh red chillies but also tomato ketchup! I don’t know what I find more surprising, the use of fresh red chillies or the use of tomato ketchup. You see we would never use fresh red chillies to make a Thai red curry paste. (No tomato ketchup either!) We use dried red chillies that we soak. We do this as it extracts some of the harshness and heat from the chilli but allows us to concentrate the flavour. (Chillies are not all about heat!) Doing it this way means we can use more chillies in the paste with more flavour, which will come out in the curry. Even if we were to take away the tomato ketchup, there were still surprising amounts of recipes using fresh red chillies. Maybe this is because people find it easier to buy fresh red chillies, I really don’t know. However, what I do know is that in Thailand a Thai red curry is never made this way. Call it what you want, just don’t call it Thai.

Thai-Red-Curry-Paste-Pouch




10 Responses

Elizabeth Slaughter
Elizabeth Slaughter

April 07, 2022

I made the classic mistake when I first ventured into Thai cuisine many years ago – Red is the colour of fire right? Green is a cool colour. I NEVER forgot my error!!

Jon
Jon

January 24, 2021

I just had my first experience with a Thai curry paste, and I was blown away to not get virtually any heat from it. It turned out to be sweet and savory, but not at all hot, which was just not what I was expecting. Quite enjoyed it, however. But maybe for the next one I’ll have to try a green curry paste rather than a red, and try for some heat, as well.

Nitsa Raymond
Nitsa Raymond

September 01, 2019

You can have a spicy red curry and a sweet green curry if that is how someone wishes to make them. But no, that is not how they would be served in Thailand.

Greg
Greg

September 01, 2019

I also had this backwards. My local Thai restaurant’s says something along the lines of “Spicy red curry” and “Sweet green curry”. Is sweet green curry not really a thing in Thailand?

Michael
Michael

March 26, 2019

Thank you for this write up. I enjoy most curries, but especially love Thai curries; both the green and the red varieties. More than the heat level, it’s the wonderful aromas and underlying flavours that set them apart from other types of curries. It is always a disappointment and an amusement to me when I am asked how hot I want my Thai green curry dish, and my answer dictates how much ground red pepper flakes get added into the dish. When I ask for a hotter Thai green curry dish, I expect more of the delicious spicy underlying flavors of the curry, not just extra heat to added to deaden my taste buds.

Liz Scambler
Liz Scambler

December 05, 2018

Thank you so much for sharing this information, I too thought that a thai green curry was milder than a red. However the most helpful part was about the flavour from dried chillies, I grow my own chillies and dry them but always thought that dried chillies would be hotter than fresh because of the concentration!! Thanks again.

Ignatius Tse
Ignatius Tse

November 05, 2018

I live in Sydney and I asked a Thai restaurant owner once which was hotter. They told me it was a myth and the level of heat was dependant on the amount of chilli you put in the curry so it is possibly to make a red curry that is hotter than curry and vice versa. But what you have written makes sense to me.

Paranoimia
Paranoimia

August 02, 2018

I wish I’d read this before I ate the take-away I ordered last night. I ordered a Thai Green Curry and it blew my head off! I’ll definitely try a red curry next time.

I wonder if the confusion comes from the whole “red for danger, green for safe” thing which is drilled into us from an early age?

Denise Severn
Denise Severn

May 07, 2018

I think that the reason I have had a difficult time keeping track of which curry is the hottest, red, yellow or green is probably a little bit silly but might be the same way others get confused. My brain wants to think of it like a traffic stoplight, which green meaning “go” or mild,yellow “slow down, getting hotter, and red meaning “stop” or hot. I finally think I have it straight now though. Green the hottest, red medium and yellow the mildest. Correct?Just thought I would share my personal insight.😊

Carlo Russo
Carlo Russo

October 14, 2017

Thank you for this article. I too have had the same confusion….even down to my Thai cookbook not saying “DRIED red chilies” for the red curry paste recipe.

Also another perspective on western ideology…often in Mexican\Southwest foods so popular in the USA, green sauces are usually the milder choice, often tomatillo based. Even the green jalapeno Tabasco sauce is the mildest offering..I could see that ideology just getting implied due to blissful ignorance :)

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