Curry paste and curry powder each have the word curry in their name, so it is easy to understand how someone might get them mixed up. In addition, both are associated with Southeast Asian cuisine and have flavor profiles that may seem exotic to western taste buds. If you are unfamiliar with either blend, you may have some questions such as: How similar are these spice blends? Are they interchangeable? What are the best ways to use each of them? We will answer these questions and more in this edition of SPICEography Showdown.
How do curry paste and curry powder differ?
The first major difference is one of texture and is indicated by the names of the products: paste and powder. Curry paste has a certain amount of moisture as a result of its wet ingredients like chilies, lime, and galangal. It has a paste consistency. Curry powder consists of ground spices and is thus a dry spice mix.
Curry paste and curry powder come from two different food cultures. Curry paste is primarily used in Thai dishes, while curry powder is usually used in Indian-style (but not actually Indian) dishes made in the west. It is not used in true Indian cooking; Indian cooks use other spice blends.
Another big difference is the heat level. Curry paste is often made with green, yellow, or red chilies, which means that it can be relatively hot. The yellow variant is the mildest of the three with the red being next in heat level and the green being the hottest of all. Most standard curry powders are formulated to be mild, though there are exceptions like Madras curry powder which does have more heat than regular curry powder blends.
Lastly, curry paste is not quite as widely available as is curry powder. To find a quality curry paste, you may have to visit an Asian grocery store; in comparison, curry powder can be found in most grocery stores.
Can you use curry paste as a substitute for curry powder and vice versa?
Because curry paste is a completely different product from curry powder, you cannot use it in place of curry powder and expect to get exactly the same flavor profile. The same would be true if you were to try using curry powder as a curry paste substitute—the flavor profile would be wrong. In addition, the textures of each spice affect how they can be used. Curry paste is often fried beforehand. Curry powder by itself cannot be fried as it would burn. While you could make it into a paste by adding water or a wet ingredient like ground chili peppers, the flavor profile would still be very different from that of curry paste.
All that said, they are both used in savory dishes so they could be switched out and the results would still be enjoyable in most cases; however, the final dish would be considerably different than it would be with the right spice blend.
When is it best to use curry paste and when is it best to use curry powder?
Curry paste is essential if you are making Thai or Thai-style dishes. You can flavor seafood as well as with beef or chicken with it. You can use it as a marinade as well. Curry powder can be used to make a host of traditional Indian-influenced dishes like lamb or chicken curry. You can also add it to soup or use it in dry rubs for grilled meat.