A classic Southern Thai-style coconut-milk based curry, this spicy, fresh & vibrant Thai green curry prawn is loaded with spicy green chilis, Thai basil and prawns. Once the curry paste is prepared, the curry comes together lightening-fast. Make a batch of paste in advance and freeze it, or use store-bought and you’ve got a takeout-style weeknight-friendly meal.
What is Thai Green Curry
Thai curries derive most of their flavor from pastes made of ground, or pounded, dried spices herbs, aromatics and chilis that are cooked and thinned-down with a liquid - usually either coconut milk - common in Southern Thailand where coconut trees thrive - or water or stock - common in Northern Thailand. Curries are commonly eaten either on their own with rice or as part of a larger multi-dish meal.
Though curries abound in Thailand in endless variation, coconut milk-based curries are some of the most recognizable Thai curries to those who live in the West. Green, red and yellow, along with, perhaps, Penang and massaman curries, are staples on Western Thai restaurant menus.
Coconut-based curries are creamy, but not necessarily thick and rich, they can still feel light, as water is often added to the paste, to make sort of a soupy-broth consistency and they’re often cooked very quickly, unlike Massaman curry which tends to be made with slow cooking meats that break down in the cooking liquid to create a rich gravy-like sauce.
Green Thai curry stands out from red or yellow curries because it uses fresh green chilis in its curry paste, rather than red dried. These fresh chiles - often a mix of mild and hot - along with fresh delicate herbs are responsible for the curry’s telltale vibrant green color.
Want more Thai food at home? Try these fiery drunken noodles or this refreshing cucumber salad with Thai-inspired dressing.
Is Thai Green Curry Spicy?
Green curries are often presented as a mild curry option (relative to yellow and red) in Western Thai restaurants. In Thailand, however, green curries are quite spicy. Traditionally, green curry pastes are made with a mix of milder green spur chilis and very spicy green Thai birds’ eye chilies. Because of the green bird’s eye chilis, green curries are supposed to be spicy.
However, spur and green Thai bird’s eye chilis are not always available in Western grocery stores. Using the easier to find substitutes I’ve suggested in the recipe below - jalapeños and serranos - will result in a relatively mild green curry. Unless, of course, you end up with especially spicy jalapeños - which happens!
In any case, you can always customize the spice level of any curry you make at home.
If you want a Mild Curry:
- Choose milder chilies for the paste, like jalapeños or even bell peppers.
- Taste a piece of each jalapeño before adding it. Sometimes you get a rogue super-spicy jalapeño and you may want to leave those out if you’re spice-averse.
- Omit the serranos or bird’s eye chilis.
- Remove the seeds and membranes and discard them before adding the chilis to the paste.
If you want a Spicy Curry:
- Choose spicier chilis for the paste - Thai bird’s eye if you can find them, serranos if you can’t.
- If using the milder serranos as your main source of heat, add a few more than called for in the recipe.
- Keep the seeds and chili membranes in the paste.
- Add a garnish of thinly sliced spicy chilis, like habaneros.
Authentic versions of Thai green curry contain a number of ingredients that are fundamental to Thai cooking but are considered specialty ingredients in much of the West. Without these, at-home Thai food can be delicious, but it won’t taste exactly like Thai food. Some of these ingredients - like galangal and marakut lime - are difficult to find, and may need to be ordered online. But others, like coconut milk or fish sauce, have become widely available in the West in recent years, either through well-stocked grocery stores or Thai and Southeast Asian specialty markets.
When shopping for these ingredients, choose Thai brands when possible and opt for frozen herbs rather than powders or pastes.
If you garden and love cooking Thai food or curries, you can grow some common curry ingredients yourself - even if you’ve only got a small patio or balcony space. Thai basil, lemongrass, coriander roots and bird’s eye or other Thai peppers are all great container plants and easily grown in most North American growing zones. If you live in a warm climate you may even be able to grow your own galangal or makrut lime tree.
I’ve opted to leave out a few ingredients that are commonly used in Thai green curry pastes - galangal, makrut lime zest and coriander root - because I don’t have access to them. If you’re using a store-bought paste it won’t matter as much but, otherwise, if you can find these ingredients, try adding them to your paste if you’d like a more authentic flavor.
Ingredient Notes and Substitutions
Lemongrass is one of the most commonly used herbs in Thai cuisine. It has a unique citrusy flavor. It has become easier to get lemongrass in the West over time, but usually in frozen, paste or powdered forms.
It is easy to grow your own lemongrass from seed or plug plants. It grows well in pots, its foliage has an attractive ornamental grass-like appearance and the stalks can be frozen for longer term storage at the end of the growing season.
If you can’t access lemongrass in any form, you can substitute lemon zest.
Palm sugar is a sweetener made from the nectar of coconut or sugar palm trees. As compared to white sugar it has a unique butterscotch-like flavor that is more nuanced than purely sweet. It’s hard not to snack on as it sits in your mise en place.
Hard palm sugar is sold in firm disks that you shave or grate before using. It can be found either in a local Thai or Asian grocer or ordered online.
White sugar can be used as a substitute as can brown sugar, which has a similar butterscotch flavor. Other sweeteners, like honey or maple syrup, aren’t the best substitutes, as they may add discordant flavors to your Thai food.
Green Thai curry is commonly made with a combination of large mild chilies, usually green spur, and small spicy chilis, usually green Thai bird’s eye. Spur chilis are uncommon in the West and bird’s eye chilis are usually sold when red, rather than green. What you want from the chilis are the green color, fresh and fruity flavors, and heat, so use whatever combination of mild and spicy green chilis you can access.
Green bell peppers or poblanos, jalapeños and serranos are commonly available at grocery stores in North America and work just fine as substitutes. Green bird’s eye chilis have a similar spice level and flavor to habaneros, which can also be used as a substitute if you want your curry spicy. You won’t get the same green color, but you can always compensate by adding more cilantro stems and Thai basil to the curry paste. Some people even add fresh greens, like spinach, to the paste, to enhance the color.
If you like spicy food, specialty hot peppers are worth making space for in your home garden - even if it’s only a patio or balcony space. Hot peppers tend to be smaller plants that are easy to grow and do well in pots as long as you have a sunny location.
Thai basil is a soft herb that tastes mild and sweet with a hint of anise or licorice. It is an absolutely key ingredient for authentic tasting green Thai curry. To my tastebuds, adding several handfuls of Thai basil to the curry is the single most important step in making homemade curry taste as close as possible to the green curry from my favorite Thai takeout place.
Despite styling these photos with Italian Basil, I wouldn’t recommend substituting Italian basil for Thai. It tastes completely different. However, some sources say you can use Italian as a substitute and you may want to if it is all you have and you don’t want your curry to be too bland. Give it a try and see what you think.
Thai basil is another Southeast Asian ingredient that is easy to grow, even in small spaces. If you already grow Italian basil in your herb garden, you know how to grow Thai basil and adding a or two is well worth it.
The best coconut milk to use for green Thai curry is fresh, though it is difficult to find in the West. If you’re feeling ambitious and can find fresh coconuts at your grocery store or Southeast Asian grocer, it is possible to make your own fresh coconut milk.
Otherwise, canned coconut milk is widely available in most Western grocery stores although, unlike fresh coconut milk, it normally contains preservatives or additives that impact the texture and flavor and may prevent it from splitting or separating as you want it to. Canned coconut milks vary in quality so try different brands till you find one you like. Look for Thai brands made of unsweetened pure coconut.
A paste made from fermented shrimp or krill that adds saltiness and a funky umami flavor to curries and stir-fries. You may find that it has an overwhelming smell, but it doesn’t really taste the way it smells. Shrimp paste is sold in small tubs and should be relatively easy to locate at either a local Southeast Asian grocer or ordered online. It’s worth picking up if you plan to make your own curry pastes; otherwise either use a substitute or leave it out.
When substituting shrimp paste you won’t be able to replicate its flavor exactly, but you can add some saltiness plus some fermented funk with:
- Brown soybean paste
- Anchovy paste
- Fish sauce
- Soy sauce
You can also just leave it out and make up for it by adjusting the curry sauce for saltiness at the end of the cooking process.
Cracking, Splitting or Separating the Coconut Milk
Traditional Thai coconut-based curries have a thin layer of glossy oil, or a sheen of separated drops of oil floating on top of the curry sauce. It’s there for the aesthetic, but also for the feel in your mouth. This texture is achieved by first separating the coconut milk in the wok or pan and then sautéing the curry paste in the separated milk before adding the rest of the liquid for the curry sauce.
To split your coconut milk, you will need either fresh coconut milk or a brand of canned coconut milk made without stabilizers or additives. Fresh coconut milk is an unstable emulsion of fat and water-based proteins. When heated in a wok or pan, the two will separate. Canned coconut milks, on the other hand, often contain stabilizers that prevent it from splitting.
When using canned coconut milk, don’t shake the can first. The cream that rises to top of the can as it sits is what you want to split. Simmer the coconut cream over medium heat until pockets or pools of oil appear and the cream becomes thicker and drier. This can take up to 10 minutes.
If after 10 minutes your coconut milk has not split, don’t worry about it. It won’t affect the taste of your curry. Either continue cooking the recipe, adding the curry paste to the unsplit coconut milk, or add a tablespoon or two of coconut or vegetable oil and then add the curry paste.
Make it Faster and Easier
Thai curry might not seem like a quick-and-easy weeknight dinner, but it can be, as long as you simplify the making of your curry paste, use store-bought, or make a big batch in advance and freeze it so it is ready to go.
For another coconut milk-based curry - that doesn’t involve a curry paste - try this Burmese-inspired chicken and eggplant curry.
Use Store-Bought Paste
It may feel like cheating, and it’s certainly not traditional, but most modern Thai households use pre-made pastes at least sometimes. Of course, they likely have access to really good ones, including, I assume, ones that have been hand made by someone else.
Ideally, buy your pre-made curry pastes from a local Thai or Southeast Asian grocer or order online from an Asian grocer. Look for brands made in Thailand and opt for pastes that come in bags or tubs rather than those that come in jars or cans.
Pre-made curry pastes that are manufactured for Western markets, like Thai Kitchen, tend to be milder in flavor than those intended for Thai consumers. When using them, unless you are looking for a mild curry, consider adding more paste than called for in the recipe.
Doctor-up a Store-Bought Paste
Another option is to use a store-bought paste but enhance the flavor by adding in some of the fresh ingredients listed in the curry paste recipe below. Taste a bit of your paste and adjust it how you’d like it.
- If it’s not spicy enough, add some green thai chilis, jalapeños or serranos.
- If it’s lacking a freshness, or needs some color, add some Thai basil, cilantro stems or roots or spinach leaves.
- If it’s a little bland, add some shrimp paste, fish sauce or salt.
Skip the Mortar and Pestle
Green curry paste is worth making from scratch, because the flavor and color of the fresh chilies and herbs are harder to replicate in processed products. If you want to make your own, the traditional method is to pound the ingredients with a mortar and pestle. If you want to speed up the process, you can use a blender, a food processor, an immersion blender and/or spice grinder instead.
I suggest using both a spice grinder and a large, heavy duty blender. This works best if you are making a larger amount of curry paste, which is why my recipe below makes enough paste for two curries. Start by toasting and then grinding the dry spices in the spice grinder, then blend the spices along with the chilis and other fresh ingredients in a large, heavy-duty blender. It helps to chop the fresh ingredients into smaller pieces before blending, but you can skip that step if you’ve got a good blender and don’t want to bother.
You can always start with a food processor or blender and then transfer to a large mortar and pestle if it is not broken down enough, or vice versa. Give the mortar and pestle a try and if it’s becoming too time consuming, transfer the paste to a blender to finish the job.
Customize your Green Curry
Curries are versatile. My recipe below opts for eggplant, water chestnuts and prawns, but you can customize your green curry to swap in different vegetables or a different protein, to suit your taste or whatever you have on hand.
For another weeknight-friendly meal using prawns, try this shrimp scampi with spinach and bread crumbs.
Prawns (or shrimp) are my favorite protein to use in green Thai curry. They pair well with fresh chilis and herbs and cook quickly. If using prawns, you can either remove the shells before cooking or leave them on. Leaving them on looks nice, adds flavor to the curry sauce and helps prevent them from over-cooking, which can happen quickly. But, of course, diners will have to remove the shells as they eat, which can be annoying.
For properly cooked prawns, you want them to curl somewhat and go from grey and translucent to pink and opaque. They should be curled into a loose c, if they become a tight c or o shape they are most likely overdone. To avoid this, pull the curry off the heat just before the prawns are finished so residual heat can finish the cooking.
Traditionally, however, green Thai curries are often made with chicken, beef or fish balls. If you don’t want to use prawns, I recommend chicken. For the quickest curry, try using leftover shredded chicken or shred a rotisserie chicken. If you’re starting with raw chicken, thighs are less likely to dry out than breasts, cut them into bite sized pieces and give them a bit more time to cook than the prawns, about 15-20 minutes.
The vegetables most commonly used in authentic Thai green curries are Thai or other Asian eggplant varieties and bamboo shoots. But you can use whatever vegetables you want. Curries are great for using up home grown vegetables or kitchen scraps. Throw in whatever vegetables you have, keeping in mind that some vegetables will take longer to cook than others. Prawns only take a few minutes to cook, so add longer cooking vegetables, like broccoli, first and wait for them to be cooked through before adding the prawns.
- Other vegetables that work really well in curries include baby corn, snow peas, bell peppers, broccoli, green beans and asparagus.
- I like to use canned water chestnuts, because they are readily available where I live and mimic the crunch of bamboo shoots. Use bamboo shoots or even julienned daikon instead, if you can find them.
- Eggplant is somewhat of a polarizing vegetable and can be difficult to find. Summer squash or zucchini make good substitutes with similar texture.
Leftovers, Storage & Freezing
- If making your paste from scratch, the recipe below makes enough for two curries. Use half in your curry and store the other half either in the fridge for up to 3-4 days or freeze it for up to 2 months.
- To freeze the curry paste, transfer it to an ice cube tray, spooning about 2 tablespoons into each cell. Freeze until solid and then pop the frozen cubes of curry paste into a freezer bag.
- Store any leftover curry in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
- Leftover paste and curry is likely to discolor as it sits in the fridge or freezer, especially if you have used a lot of fresh herbs, but this will not affect the taste.
Thai Green Curry Prawn Recipe
Cook Time: 35 minutes
For the Curry Paste: (Skip if using store-bought)
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
- ½ teaspoon cumin seeds
- ½ teaspoon peppercorns (white, if you have them)
- 4 large jalapeño peppers (or green spur chilis, if you can find them), chopped
- 5-6 green Thai bird’s eye chilis, or serranos, chopped
- 1” piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
- 2 stalks lemongrass, peeled and thinly sliced
- A handful (about 15 grams) of cilantro stems, roughly chopped
- 4 small shallots, finely chopped
- 6 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
- 1/4 teaspoon table salt
- 10 Thai basil leaves, roughly chopped
- 2 teaspoons fermented shrimp paste
For the Curry
- 1 400 ml (14 fl oz) can coconut milk
- 2 tablespoons coconut or vegetable oil (optional)
- ½ cup Thai green curry paste (homemade or store-bought)
- 1½ tablespoons palm sugar, grated (or sub granulated)
- Scant ¼ cup fish sauce
- ¼ pound (about 2) Thai or other small eggplant, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 can Chinese water chestnuts, drained and sliced into thin strips
- 340 grams - 1 pound prawns (shrimp), peeled if desired
- 1-2 handfuls of Thai basil
- 1-3 green or red bird’s eye chilis (optional)
- Jasmine, basmati or white rice, to serve
- (If using store-bought curry paste, skip to step 3). To make the paste: add the coriander seeds, cumin seeds and peppercorns to a small skillet over medium heat. Toast until fragrant, about 3-5 minutes. Transfer to a spice grinder and grind into a fine powder.
- Add the jalapeños and serrano chilis, ginger, lemongrass, cilantro, shallots, garlic, salt, Thai basil leaves and spice powder from step 1 to a large, high-powered blender. Blend into a fine paste (you may need to add a few tablespoons of water). Transfer to a bowl and mix in the shrimp paste. Set aside.
- To make the curry: set a wok or large saucepan over medium heat. When hot, skim the thick cream from the top of the can of coconut milk and add it to the wok. Cook until you see it split, about 3-5 minutes. If your coconut milk does not separate, add 1-2 tablespoons of coconut or vegetable oil. Add ½ cup of the green curry paste and sauté until fragrant, 3-4 minutes.
- Add the rest of the coconut milk from the can, along with the eggplant, fish sauce, and sugar, bring to a simmer and cook until the eggplant is cooked through, 10-20 minutes depending on the eggplant you’ve used.
- Add the water chestnuts and prawns and cook until the prawns are pink and opaque and curled into a loose “c” shape, about 3-5 minutes.
- If the sauce appears thick, add some water to thin to a soupy consistency. Add the fresh chilis and Thai basil, then taste & adjust for seasoning. You want a lot of flavor - spice, saltiness and herbaceousness - as it will mellow when combined with rice. Add more chili, fish sauce and/or herbs if necessary. Remove from the heat and serve immediately with rice.