Decoding the Differences: Panang Curry vs. Red Curry

Panang vs Red Curry – What’s the difference?

When it comes to Thai curries, there are numerous varieties to choose from. Two curries that often confuse people are panang curry and red curry. While they may look similar and share some common ingredients, they have distinct differences that can greatly affect your dining experience. In this article, we will explore the differences between panang curry and red curry, focusing on their ingredients, heat levels, color, consistency, and overall flavor. In the end, you will be armed with the knowledge to differentiate between the two and make an informed choice based on your preferences.

What is Panang Curry?

Panang curry is one of the most famous and popular Thai curries. It originates from the island of Penang in Thailand, hence its name. While there are variations of panang curry in different regions and individual cooks may add their own twist, the core components remain consistent.
The defining characteristic of Panang curry is its rich and flavorful sauce. To achieve the distinctive flavor, the sauce contains ingredients such as galangal, lemongrass, coriander, shrimp paste, soy sauce and coconut cream. These ingredients are essential to creating the depth of flavor that makes Panang curry unique. Onions, garlic, almonds, and various spices such as turmeric, paprika, coriander, nutmeg, cinnamon, and chili flakes are also commonly used.
What really sets Panang curry apart is the inclusion of peanuts. The dish can incorporate either peanut butter or fresh whole peanuts, or even both. This gives the curry a distinct nutty and earthy flavor, as well as a delightful texture. Panang curry can also include vegetables and meat, with bell peppers, tomatoes, chicken, and beef being traditional choices. The sauce remains the focal point, and as long as the main ingredients are present, the dish can be considered Panang curry.
In terms of flavor, Panang curry features a pronounced peanut taste accompanied by a blend of spices. Lemongrass and ginger provide additional aromatic notes. The intensity of the curry’s heat can be adjusted to personal preference, usually by adding chili powder or flakes. The texture of Panang curry is notably thick due to the presence of coconut cream, peanuts, and vegetables. This thickness provides a satisfying mouthfeel and a pleasant crunch from the peanuts.
Panang curry is typically served with rice, either sticky or jasmine. It can also be enjoyed with Asian flatbreads such as naan, roti, or chapati. Garnishes often include lemon or lime slices, fresh basil, chili slices, lime leaves, and a dollop of coconut cream.

What is red curry?

In Thai cuisine, a curry is often distinguished by its color. Red curry gets its name from the addition of red chilies, which give the dish a vibrant hue. However, it’s important to note that “red curry” encompasses a wide range of recipes with different flavor profiles.
Red chilies in the form of flakes, powder, or paste are essential for making red curry. In addition to chiles, other common ingredients in red curry include coconut milk, shrimp paste, soy sauce, tomato paste or fresh tomatoes, and galangal. Chicken is the most popular meat for this curry, but other types of meat and seafood can also be used. Vegetables are not commonly added, although garlic and onion are sometimes added to enhance the flavor.
Red curry is known for its predominant heat, with the chili flavor often overpowering other flavors. It is less sweet than Panang curry and lacks the nutty undertones. The dish still contains a variety of spices that contribute to its overall flavor profile. In terms of texture and consistency, red curry is more saucy and less thick. It pairs well with accompaniments that can absorb the flavorful sauce.
Traditionally, red curry is served with rice or flatbread. Flatbread is especially good for scooping up the sauce. Garnishes for red curry may include coconut cream, fresh chopped chiles, or basil leaves. Citrus garnishes are usually avoided due to the already spicy nature of the dish.

Panang vs. red curry – similarities and differences

While Panang Curry and Red Curry are both classic Thai curries, they have distinct characteristics that set them apart. Here are the main differences and similarities between the two:

  1. Flavor and heat:
    • Panang curry has a nutty, earthy and umami flavor derived primarily from peanuts and meat. It has a mild level of heat.
    • Red curry is primarily spicy, with the chili flavor at the forefront. It has less sweetness and fewer ingredients, resulting in a simpler flavor profile.
  2. Color:
    • Both panang curry and red curry have a reddish color, but red curry is typically richer in color due to the prominent use of red chiles.
  3. Consistency:
    • Panang Curry has a thick and creamy consistency due to the addition of coconut cream and peanuts. It has a rich texture with crunchy peanut bits.
    • Red curry is more saucy and has a thinner consistency, making it easier to pour over rice or soak in flatbread.
  4. Ingredients:
    • Panang curry contains a variety of ingredients such as galangal, lemongrass, coriander, shrimp paste, soy sauce and coconut cream. Peanuts are a key ingredient.
    • Red curry has a simpler ingredient list, with red chilies, coconut milk, shrimp paste, and galangal as the main ingredients. It is less complex in terms of flavors.
  5. Meat and vegetables:
    • Panang curry usually features meat options like chicken or beef, along with vegetables like bell peppers and tomatoes.
    • Red curry often focuses on chicken as the main meat choice, with fewer additions of vegetables.
  6. Level of heat:
    • Panang curry is considered milder in terms of heat, making it more accessible to those who are sensitive to heat.
    • Red curry is significantly hotter and may not be suitable for those with a low tolerance to chili heat.
  7. Side dishes:
    • Both curries are typically served with rice, but panang curry’s thick consistency makes it a better match for rice. Red curry’s saucy nature makes it ideal for soaking in flatbreads.

In summary, panang curry and red curry offer different experiences in terms of flavor, heat, consistency, and ingredients. Panang curry has a nutty and creamy profile with a mild level of spice, while red curry is known for its heat and saucy texture. Understanding these differences can help you make an informed choice based on your personal preferences and heat tolerance.


What are the main differences between Panang Curry and Red Curry?

Panang curry is known for its nutty and creamy flavor with a mild level of heat, while red curry is significantly hotter and has a saucier texture. The main difference lies in the ingredients used and the level of heat.

Is Panang Curry hotter than Red Curry?

No, Panang curry is generally milder in spiciness than red curry. Panang curry offers a more balanced flavor profile, making it suitable for those who prefer a less spicy dish.

What gives Panang Curry its unique flavor?

Panang curry derives its distinctive flavor from a combination of ingredients, including galangal, lemongrass, coriander, shrimp paste, soy sauce and coconut cream. The defining element, however, is the addition of peanuts, which contributes to its nutty flavor.

What gives red curry its bright color?

Red curry gets its vibrant color primarily from the use of red chilies. The red chilies are an essential ingredient in the curry paste that gives the dish its characteristic hue.

Can I adjust the heat level of these curries?

Yes, you can adjust the heat level of both Panang Curry and Red Curry to your liking. For Panang Curry, you can add more or less chili flakes or powder to control the heat. Similarly, in Red Curry, you can adjust the amount of red chili paste or flakes to make it milder or hotter.

What are the best accompaniments for Panang Curry and Red Curry?

Both Panang Curry and Red Curry are traditionally served with rice. However, panang curry’s thicker consistency makes it particularly good with rice, while red curry’s saucier texture makes it ideal for soaking in flatbreads like naan or roti.