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Indian vs Thai Curry – 15 Surprising Differences

Lots of Asian cuisines use the term curry. But is curry the same no matter what country you’re talking about? And specifically, what are the differences between Indian and Thai curry?

As a general rule Indian and Thai curry differs in that Indian curry contains cumin and coriander, and may also be simmered with curry leaves. Thai curry is made with fresh chili peppers and herbs in a base of coconut milk whereas Indian curry is made with dry spices and can be cream-based or tomato-based.

Thai curry uses a variety of curry pastes, mixed with coconut milk, to form a rich sauce in which meat and/or vegetables are simmered.

But there’s a lot more to these amazing cuisines than just that, so let’s dig in further.

Let’s review the . . . 

15 Surprising Differences Between Indian and Thai Curry

Both Indian curry and Thai curry share a love of garlic, onion, cumin, and fresh cilantro leaves. But they are altogether different and mostly just share a name.

1. Thai curry has a solid base of coconut milk, whereas Indian curry rarely uses coconut milk

Coconut milk is a staple ingredient in Thai curry. No coconut milk; no Thai curry. That being said, in India, “curry” is all about the spice blend.

While Indian food does sometimes call for coconut milk, cream or yogurt are much more commonly used to enrich sauces. But rich, spicy, tomato sauces are also very common in Indian food.

2. Jarred Indian curry powder is a British invention and is not used in Thai cooking

Outside of India, there’s probably no better place for Indian food than the UK. In fact, many people’s favorite dish, chicken tikka masala, was invented in Scotland.

The reason the UK is so well versed in Indian cuisine is due both to the British occupation of India from 1858 to shortly after World War II, as well as the fact that a large number of families from India have emigrated from India to the UK over the decades.

Thus, curry powder, which is on the shelf in every grocery store in the US and UK, is a British invention and not something used whatsoever in Thai curry.

3. Thai curries start with curry paste which is a blend of fresh ingredients and not dried spices

While you can find Indian curry paste, like curry powder blends, it too is likely more of a UK invention than a traditional Indian staple.

But Thai curries always start with curry paste which is a mashed blend of lots of fresh herbs such as garlic, onion, lemongrass, galangal, and chile peppers.

Thai food would not traditionally call for any dried herbs and spices other than maybe salt and pepper (and even then gets much of its sodium from fish sauce which has a saltiness similar to soy sauce).

4. While Thai curry often is garnished with fresh cilantro leaves, the dried seed of the cilantro plant, known as coriander, is almost never used in Thai food

Coriander powder is used EXTENSIVELY in Indian food.

Contrary to popular opinion, it is often used in double quantities compared to cumin or turmeric. Coriander seeds are the dried seeds of the cilantro plant, but unlike cilantro leaves, coriander has a sweet, lemony flavor.

Thai food does not use coriander but both Indian and Thai food are often garnished with fresh cilantro leaves.

5. Almost all Indian dishes start with ghee (clarified butter) and many contain heavy cream or yogurt-based sauces. Thai food, by comparison, rarely uses dairy products

Ghee is butter that has been gently simmered with any solids or impurities skimmed away and then allowed to solidify again.

Ghee is an Indian invention and used to sauté almost everything in Indian food. Indian food also uses cream and yogurt to create rich sauces.

By comparison, Thai food is almost always cooked in coconut oil, palm, peanut, or soy oil and not butter or ghee.

Thai sauces often use coconut milk, but may also contain chicken broth and fish sauce which are not commonly used in Indian cuisine.

6. Almost all Indian food is served with basmati rice, whereas most Thai food is served with Jasmine rice, or noodles.

Both Indian food and Thai food share a love of serving rice to accompany a meal.

The traditional rice in India or Pakistan is Basmati rice, which is an aromatic, long-grain rice that, when cooked, smells faintly of popcorn. It was introduced to other Middle Eastern countries by Hindu traders and these days can be found extensively in Arab countries too.

Jasmine rice, by comparison, is also long-grain rice which is a bit more floral in nature. It also loses flavor faster, thus it’s best to find vacuum-sealed jasmine rice.

Jasmine rice is used extensively in Thailand and Cambodia.

7. While the leaves of the curry plant are often simmered in traditional Indian curries, the curry leaves are not used in Thai food.

Curry leaves are ultimately where the concept of curry comes from.

Because they don’t have much flavor when dried, curry leaves are rarely included in jarred curry powders (which is a UK invention anyway). Curry leaves get simmered in Indian food and then are often discarded like a bay leaf.

The use of curry leaves is totally unique to Indian food and not used at all in Thai cuisine.

8. While both Thai and Indian cuisines call for ginger, Thai ginger, often called galangal, tastes radically different.

Galangal and ginger are close cousins under the rhizomes family of root vegetables. However, galangal, while looking almost identical, has a rootsy and citrusy taste and overall is much stronger in flavor.

You also can’t grate Galangal, but it is easily sliced or diced. To do Thai food right, don’t substitute regular ginger.

9. Thai food often substitutes rice noodles for rice, whereas Indian food is never served with any form of noodle.

Pad Thai might be everyone’s favorite Thai dish, but you can’t have Pad Thai without rice noodles, right?

Rice noodles, whether thin like angel hair or wider and flatter like fettuccini or pappardelle, are staples items in Thai food, although they love their jasmine rice too.

By comparison, India does not use any form of pasta and strictly has rice as its starchy side dish, either plain steamed basmati rice or pulao or biryani which are more like rice pilaf or a stir-fried rice.

10. The dominant spices in Indian food

Indian food starts with dry spices such as cumin seeds (often toasted and ground fresh), coriander, mustard seeds, and turmeric powder. While not every spice gets used in every dish, you can expect those to dominate the flavors of many of the best-known dishes.

11. The dominant spices in Thai food

Thai food uses fresh herbs such as Thai basil, lemon grass, red chiles, or fresh green chilies. Those are blended into a paste. There is not a single “Thai curry paste”. Instead, you’ll find yellow curry paste, red curry paste, green curry paste, and a few other variations.

Coconut cream or milk is often simmered with the paste in conjunction with things like kaffir lime leaves.

12. The consistency of the curry

Thai curry often has a soup-like consistency due to the coconut milk. By comparison, Indian curry is thick and hearty and rarely pours like soup. In fact, aside from the overall flavor profile, the consistency is the main difference between Indian and Thai curry.

13. Spice levels

While Indian food can be spicy (sometimes very spicy), generally speaking, Thai food, and Thai curry, in particular, is hotter. While you will sometimes find chili peppers in Indian food, dry spices tend to dominate their cuisine.

In Thai food, by comparison, red chilies and green chilies get used frequently and in generous amounts.

Of course, if you’re making Thai curry at home, it is easy to vary the spice level by using a smaller amount of curry paste in relation to the coconut milk. But at Thai restaurants, especially when ordering green curries, get ready for heat!

14. Bread as a side dish

Indian food almost always comes with naan bread, chapati, pappadum (fried like a chip), or some type of bread. And while pappadum is often made with lentil flour, most of the time, normal white or wheat flour is used for the bread products.

By comparison, Thai food is NEVER accompanied by bread.

As a complete aside, while there are a lot of similarities between Thai and Vietnamese food, because Vietnam was once occupied by the French, you will often see bread (especially baguettes), in Vietnamese food.

15. Use of goat or lamb meat

While both Thai and Indian food sometimes lean towards being vegetarian, you will find meat in both cuisines.

However, since in many (but not all) parts of India, eating beef is forbidden, it is rare to see beef used in Indian food. Hindus certainly tend to avoid beef, and slaughtering cows is illegal in many parts of India.

In part because of that, while chicken is used extensively in both Thai and Indian food, Indian food also features a lot of goat meat and lamb meat. By comparison, goat and lamb meat is rarely used in Thai food.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is curry?

The term curry originated with the Tamil people of India and Sri Lanka and was originally used to describe a variety of meat and vegetable dishes that were cooked using a spice rub mixture without sauce.

One of the cornerstones of Indian curry is the use of the leaves of the curry plant when making the spice rub.

Ironically in most US spice blends labeled curry powder, the leaves of the curry plant are missing (which we get into below). Also ironically, much of what we, in the US, think of when we think of Indian food is heavily rooted in Great Britain.

England, of course, once occupied India, and a great many people of Indian descent live in England. Thus, things like curry powder and even Chicken Tikka Masala, are, in fact, UK inventions.

Over time, the term “curry” spread across much of Asia with many Asian countries adopting the term, Thailand in particular.

In Thai food, curry is traditionally made with curry paste that is either red, yellow, or green (there are other variations too, such as panang). The paste gets mixed into coconut milk to form a sauce.

Is there a difference between Thai curry and Indian curry?

There is a huge difference between Thai and Indian curry as really the only similarity is the name. Indian curry starts with dried spices and often includes cream and tomato.

Thai curry starts with fresh chili peppers ground into a paste mixed with coconut milk and fish sauce.

Indian curry, which came first, uses a blend of Indian food spices as a rub on meat and vegetables. While the meat and/or veggies might be cooked with tomatoes, it isn’t heavily sauced.

Thai curry, on the other hand, is made using a variety of curry pastes, which, unlike spices mixes, are made from fresh ingredients and have a thick, moist quality.

The curry paste gets mixed with coconut milk to form a rich sauce.

The spiciness is controlled, in part, by how much curry paste gets used, but it’s often just a few tablespoons for a large pot of curry.

What they both share, primarily, is a richness of flavor and tantalizing spices.

But aside from the heat, sometimes using turmeric for color, and a love of using fresh cilantro leaves as a topping, Indian curry, and Thai curry are almost completely different.

Let’s dive into each below.

What is Thai curry?

Thai curry usually gets broken down into a few types, such as:

  • Green (the hottest)
  • Yellow (the mildest)
  • Red (in the middle)
  • Panang (similar to red but with a little tang from shrimp paste)
  • Massaman (milder and sweeter, often containing peanuts)

Originally, all Thai curries were created using the same base ingredients; ginger, garlic, lemongrass, galangal (Thai ginger), and chili peppers.

One of the main ways Thai curries differ from one another is in which chilies get used.

Green chiles play a big role in green curry, which is traditionally the hottest, and red curry uses red chiles to give it a slightly milder heat and a distinctive red color.

Yellow Thai curry, by comparison often contains a lot of turmeric, which gives it that distinctive yellow color, and a lower amount of chili peppers, usually making it the mildest of all Thai curries.

What is Indian curry?

Jarred curry powder is a British invention dating back to the English colonization of India.

In India, curry does refer to a blend of spices, but each dish would use different spices rather than the same homogenous blend for all dishes.

The spices used in Indian curry vary a lot, both in the US and in India as well. In India, each region and area might have its own preferences on what Indian food spices to use.

That being said, some of the most common Indian food spices in curry powder include:

  • Corriander (the powder made from dried cilantro seeds)
  • Cumin 
  • Turmeric
  • Cayenne chili powder

But you might also see fenugreek, asafoetida (hing), cardamom, and other Indian food spices as well. Contrary to some information out there, things like cinnamon or ginger powder are not traditionally used in curry.

Cinnamon (along with clove) is a major ingredient in garam masala powder which is often added at the end of the cooking process.

Ginger is a major ingredient in Indian food but is almost always done with fresh ginger, not powdered.

Why are curry plant leaves missing from most curry powders?

The leaves of the curry plant are not typically used in curry powder, because when dried, the leaves of the curry plant lose their delicious and distinctive flavor. But in India, curry powder is not usually used. That is a British invention that became widely used in the US.

Curry leaves are an essential ingredient in Indian food, especially in South Indian cooking. They add a subtle but noticeable flavor to whatever they are cooked into.

While they are edible after being cooked, most people push them aside when eating, like you would a bay leaf.

You can often find fresh curry leaves in Indian markets and I once bought a live curry plant too. As I mentioned above, avoid buying dried curry leaves as they won’t impart much flavor.

Does Thai curry taste like Indian curry?

Thai curry does not taste like Indian curry at all. Thai curry is often spicier and tangier but lighter in consistency. Indian curry can be spicy too but is often heavier and cream-based using large amounts of dried spices such as turmeric, cumin, and coriander to create the flavor profile.

While there are some ingredients that are shared between the two cuisines (ginger, garlic, turmeric, chili peppers, and cilantro), they are very different.

While both Indian food and Thai food can be spicy (and made milder or spicier), overall I have always found Thai food to be a tad hotter.

Thai curry also relies heavily on coconut milk, whereas Indian curry is all about the spices and far less saucy.

When Indian food does get saucy, it tends to rely heavily on ghee (clarified butter) and cream in many dishes, whereas Thai food doesn’t use a lot of dairy products.

Indian food also uses the dried and ground leaves of the cilantro plant (called coriander) heavily, whereas Thai food mostly uses fresh cilantro leaves.

Ultimately they mostly share the curry name, but do some tasty exploration and decide for yourself.

What is the best Thai curry?

“Best” is extremely subjective, so if you ask 10 people this question, you’ll likely get 10 different answers.

That being said, in my experience eating at Thai restaurants and selling Thai ingredients in my time at Whole Foods Market, green curry always seems to be the most popular. Yellow, Panang, and massaman tend to, by far, be the least popular.

Personally, though, I prefer Panang which has a nice tang from the added shrimp paste. It can be a little spicy, but the heat doesn’t overpower the flavor, which can sometimes happen with green curry.

But I haven’t met a curry I didn’t like, so try ’em all!

Which Thai curry is the mildest?

Bear in mind since all Thai curries start with curry paste, you can easily vary the heat by using more or less curry paste.

After the initial paste gets sautéed in some oil with maybe chopped onion and garlic, coconut milk gets added.

That being said, green curry and red curry get their distinctive colors from chili peppers. Thus, yellow curry is often the mildest since it gets its color from turmeric.

Which Thai curry is the spiciest?

Green is the winner here.

So if you love spicy food, you’ll probably love Thai green curry. Fresh, young green chiles give green curry its distinctive color and heat.

Almost all chiles start off green on the vine, which is when they are the hottest.

If left to age on the vine, they often turn various shades of yellow, orange, and then red. So, for example, red bell peppers cost more than green because they were allowed to stay on the vine longer.

Staying on the vine longer gives the farmer less yield over a year compared to picking them more frequently. Thus since they get picked (and then re-grown) less frequently, red peppers cost more.

The longer they age on the vine, the milder they get (although don’t think for a minute that vine-aged ghost pepper is going to be mild).

What are the main Indian food spices?

The beauty of Indian food is that while there are a number of core Indian food spices, Indian chefs don’t just toss in cumin, turmeric, ginger, and coriander powder into everything.

Each dish has custom spice blends that make one dish very different and distinctive from the next. So while not every spice gets used in every dish, these are the most widely used Indian food spices:

  • Turmeric
  • Coriander
  • Cumin
  • Fenugreek
  • Asafoetida (hing)
  • Cardamom
  • Mustard seed
  • Saffron
  • Garam masala (itself a mixture of cinnamon, clove, coriander, cardamom & cumin)

As I mentioned above, while ginger is very common in Indian food (and Thai), Indian cuisine rarely calls for ginger power and uses freshly grated ginger.

What is the difference between Madras curry and garam masala?

Garam masala is a spice blend of cinnamon, clove, coriander, cardamom & cumin. By comparison, Madras curry, a British invention, can refer to a curry powder or sauce made with chili peppers, and tamarind, and is often mixed with yogurt. Garam masala gets added to dishes when they have finished cooking.

Garam masala is very commonly used in India.

Madras curry is made with plenty of chili powder and then the dish is often mellowed (a little) with the addition of yogurt. Madras curry also typically contains tamarind which has a raisin-like sweetness giving the overall flavor a sweet and sour taste.

But ultimately garam masala and Madras curry are totally different.

What’s the difference between Indian curry and Jamaican curry?

Jamaican curry uses allspice which has an almost licorice-like flavor, as well as thyme. and chili peppers. Indian curry uses cumin, coriander, turmeric, and sometimes chili peppers or paprika creating a very different flavor profile from Jamaican curry.

Unlike Indian curry powder, which is a British invention and not often seen in India, Jamaican curry is a staple of Jamaican cuisine.

That being said, Great Britain did once occupy Jamaica too, so the flavors could have been introduced then as well.

Allspice, and especially thyme are rarely if ever, used in Indian cuisine. Jamaican curry also features fresh chili peppers, thus Jamaican curry powder itself isn’t that spicy since no chili powder is used.

They do share a heavy use of turmeric powder, coriander, cumin, and fenugreek.

Final thoughts

In this post, we took an in-depth look into the world of Indian and Thai food, specifically curries.

We broke down the history of curry, what Indian food spices are the dominant ones in Indian curry and the differences between Indian and Thai curry.

Indian curry and Thai curry are really unrelated and don’t taste similar at all. Each has some amazing differences that make them special. Ultimately the name is the only real similarity.

Do you prefer Indian curry or Thai curry?

If you’re looking to buy any small kitchen appliance, don’t forget to check out my Recommended Products Page (click to see my page) which breaks down all my best picks by category.

I always hand select items that I either own, have used, or have researched well to ensure they are great items. I also give not only top of the line as well as inexpensive alternatives so my choices work for any budget.

Jeff Campbell

Michael Oneal

Thursday 21st of May 2020

Well done. I enjoyed the information and found it well written and easy to read and understand.

I will be going to get some Thai seasonings and coconut milk now.

Jeff Campbell

Thursday 21st of May 2020

Thanks, Michael

Glad you enjoyed it! I hope your dish turns out great!