Panang Curry vs Red Curry: 4 Differences You Need To Know

It’s no wonder there are many types of Thai curry. Curries are the staple of Thai cuisine and probably the first dish you should try if you’re interested in experiencing their way of cooking. 

Today we’re discussing some of the most famous Thai curries: Panang curry and red curry. Both of these dishes are classic Thai recipes and they encompass everything a traditional Thai dish would. However, there are some crucial differences between them. 

In this article, we will define both dishes, their ingredients, and methods of preparation. And of course, we will highlight some of the most important differences between them. 

What is Panang curry?

When it comes to Thai cuisine, you will come across dozens of different curry types, variations, and twists – both modern and traditional. In addition to red, green, yellow, and Massaman curry, Panang curry is certainly one of the best-known kinds.

As the name itself implies, Panang curry originates from the island of Penang. It is actually one of the best choices for people who are just getting into Thai cuisine, as it has many of the traditional, staple curry elements

You can also find these staple curry elements in the majority of Panang curry recipes. Some of these include galangal, lemongrass, coriander, shrimp paste, soy sauce, and coconut cream to get the desired consistency. 

However, what makes Panang curry stand out is one special ingredient – peanut. Whether it be peanut butter or fresh peanut, it is what makes Panang curry so recognizable among dozens of different Thai recipes.

Since Panang curry and red curry look quite similar, many people tend to confuse the two. Others, who know the difference, may refer to Panang curry as a red curry variation. While there is some truth to that, the peanut component makes the Panang curry quite unique. 

Panang curry is simply impossible to imagine without the peanut. It gives it a recognizable nutty, warm, earthy flavor and a dose of sweetness. Aside from the flavor and aroma, the peanut component also provides a distinctive texture in this curry.

When it comes to the flavor profile, Panang curry is predominantly nutty (due to the addition of peanuts). But also sweet, mild, but still aromatic and flavorful. Since it doesn’t include red chilis, it is suitable for those of you who aren’t too fond of spicy curry.

How is Panang curry made?

Before we get into the recipe, it is important to address a few important factors of your Panang curry taste. If you choose to go to a Thai restaurant in order to have a full experience, that is probably the safest choice when it comes to this dish.

However, Panang curry is a dish that you can master at home. The best thing about it is that you get to control the flavors and ingredients. We wouldn’t necessarily recommend going with store-bought Panang curry paste

The secret behind the complexity of flavor in a curry lies behind the preparation process. Thus, you can only achieve it if you make it from scratch. Luckily, it isn’t too complicated of a dish to make at home, as long as you’re working with quality ingredients.

When it comes to the uniqueness of Panang curry, the trick is in the sauce, and it is easier to make than you may think. All you need to do is throw the ingredients into a food processor and create a coherent, aromatic mixture.

Usually, the Panang curry sauce consists of many elements. It includes coconut cream, galangal, tomato paste, soy sauce (light or dark), fish sauce, shrimp paste, onion, garlic. And, of course, crushed almonds. On top of that, it is necessary to add a selection of spices and herbs to achieve that deep flavor.

This spice mixture usually includes turmeric, a bit of paprika and chili flakes, ground coriander, ground nutmeg, ground cinnamon. The liquids added to the sauce to create the desired texture and add to the flavor are coconut milk and a bit of lime juice. 

As for the chicken, you can use boneless chicken thighs, breasts, and drumsticks. In many Panang curry recipes, veggies such as peppers and tomatoes are added. 

Once you’ve prepared the sauce and cut up the chicken into cubes, all you need to do is combine the ingredients. Use a casserole dish and bake it in the oven. As you can tell, the process is quite simple, and the flavor lies in the combination of these ingredients.

What is red curry?

One of the main Thai curry differences is the color, which also gives away the main spice used in each type. In yellow curry, the dominant spice is turmeric, while green curry is based on cilantro, basil, lime leaf, and kaffir.

Red curry, on the other hand, gets its vibrant red color either from chili flakes, chili powder, or red curry paste. Therefore, it is usually on the spicier side, but the spice levels will vary from recipe to recipe, and the chili component isn’t always as dominant.

Compared to Panang curry, red curry is definitely less sweet and nutty. It does include elements that give it a warm, tangy aroma characteristic for the majority of Thai curries, though.

In traditional red curry recipes, it was common for Thai chefs to add up to 20 red chili peppers which made these dishes extremely spicy. It also gave them an extremely bold, vibrant red color – hence the name red curry.

Since a dish this spicy isn’t necessarily commercial, many chefs choose to add far less spice. They might just not add fresh red chilies at all, but rather chili powder which is easier to control. Also, the red color vibrancy can be enhanced with tomato paste or fresh tomatoes.

Red curry, aside from chicken, can also include other protein such as salmon, but it is usually made with chicken. It incorporates all the main curry ingredients, including coconut milk, shrimp paste, galangal, as well as spices, and of course – red chili peppers or powder.

How is red curry made?

Some people may be intimidated by the curry-making process. As we’ve explained, it is essentially quite a simple process, and the secret lies in combining carefully chosen ingredients and using an adequate spice mixture

Also, if you enjoy that deep, rich curry flavor, you should always use full-fat coconut milk. Mixed with all the other ingredients and spices, it will give your curry that extra aroma and thickness of the sauce. 

For the red curry sauce, you’ll need onion, galangal, garlic, soy sauce, coconut milk, lime juice (if you enjoy a bit of acidity in your curry), tomatoes or tomato paste, and spices. 

The spices include salt, pepper, basil, any other herbs of your choice. Of course, also red chili flakes or powder – if you aren’t using fresh ones. In case you are using fresh chilies, make sure not to go overboard and add as many as you can take (as they can be extremely hot). 

You can add the sauce ingredients to the processor and make a mixture. You can also combine the ingredients in a pan once you’ve sauteed garlic and onion – it is up to you. As for the chicken, you can use boneless chicken breasts, thighs, and drumsticks

It is always a good idea to throw in some veggies into your curry, both for the flavor and the texture. In this case, we’d choose red bell peppers and diced tomatoes, which will also add the desired color in case you’re not using much chili powder.

What is the difference between Panang curry and red curry?

As we’ve mentioned, many people refer to Panang curry as a red curry variant, as their ingredient list is practically the same. However, there is a difference between red curry and Panang curry, and it can be noticed in the following aspects. 

1. Level of spiciness

Let’s start off with the most obvious difference between these two curry types: the level of spiciness. While the red curry is based on red chilies, whether it be fresh peppers or chili flakes/powder, Panang curry is usually not spicy at all.

In some Thai restaurants, chefs will use many fresh chili peppers to get the desired spiciness and color of the red curry. After all, it’s what makes it so unique. It can often be quite hot, and therefore not suitable for people who don’t tolerate as much spice. 

Panang curry, on the other hand, may include seasoning such as chili powder and/or pepper. However, these spices are certainly not the dominant flavor

2. Flavor

There is also a noticeable difference in the flavor profile of these two dishes. The original Panang curry recipe includes almonds as the staple ingredient, which gives the dish a warm, nutty, earthy flavor.

Generally speaking, the accent in the Panang curry is placed on sweet, warm flavors, rather than spice. This dish is predominantly sweet, yet aromatic, being that it also includes garlic, onion, and galangal. 

Red curry, on the other hand, usually doesn’t include almonds or similar nutty additions. It’s rare to come across this kind of taste in this dish. It does, however, include chilies or chili flakes/powder, which makes it quite spicy. 

3. Color

While both of these curry types are technically red curry, there is usually a difference between the shades of red.

Panang curry, on one hand, will probably be a lighter shade of red, or sometimes even pink. It totally depends on the quantity of tomato paste.

Red curry, on the other hand, usually has a bright red hue, which makes it stand out. The color is achieved by adding red chili peppers, chili flakes, chili powder, as well as tomato paste, and fresh tomatoes

However, if you’re making curry at home, you can always manipulate the color by adding veggies. Tomatoes and red peppers will work great, or even spices such as chili powder and chili flakes.

4. Consistency

While both of these dishes mostly have a similar consistency and texture, there can be a slight difference. Panang curry is usually a bit richer and creamier than the traditional red curry.

This kind of consistency in Panang curry is achieved by using coconut cream instead of coconut milk, which is much thicker and creamier. However, you will also come across Panang curry varieties that include coconut milk instead of cream.

Are Panang curry and red curry the same?

While there are many visible similarities between these two types of curries, they are essentially not the same dish. They usually include the most important curry ingredients, such as shrimp paste, coconut milk/cream, galangal, garlic, and chicken.

However, their spice level is significantly different, as Panang curry varies from mild to medium-hot (on rare occasions), whereas red curry is usually quite spicy – especially if there are fresh red chili peppers in it.

While the red curry is always red, Panang curry doesn’t have to be as vibrant, and the emphasis isn’t on the color of the dish. It can even be red-pinkish, especially if there is coconut cream, and there isn’t much tomato paste.

The coconut cream in Panang curry makes it thicker, creamier, and richer in flavor. Also, the emphasis in this dish is on the sweet, nutty flavor provided by almonds, rather than the spice that is dominant in red curry.

Finally, both dishes are quite complex and nutritious, yet easy to make at home – and there are numerous varieties you could try.