In short—absolutely not.
Curry is the basis of some of the world’s most fundamental and flavorful dishes, from blindingly hot, chili-fueled Thai dishes to hearty, slow-burning Indian masalas and kormas. This trademark, sweat-inducing heat is provided by curry paste and powder, which despite the shared name are in fact two distinct ingredients.
However, if you’ve ever been in a kitchen pinch and considered swapping one of these ingredients in for the other, you may have asked yourself: When it comes down to cooking with this flavorful “curry,” how similar are the paste and powder, and are they interchangeable? In short: Definitely not.
Although curry powders and pastes can share some universal spices, the flavor components of each are distinct from the other. In fact, typically these two mixtures are used to prepare different kinds of cuisine altogether. While curry powder is a staple of Indian cooking, curry paste (which is also sometimes used in Indian cooking, but more rarely) is most often associated with the deeply spicy and fragrant flavors of Thai food.
The clearest visual distinction between the two is that while curry powder typically maintains a bold golden Turmeric-tinted hue, curry pastes range widely in color from green to red to yellow.
Curry paste tends to have an extremely potent flavor, achieved by the hand crushing or machine processing of a variety of strong spices and herbs like red chilies, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, and Kaffir lime. This mixture is then combined with vegetable oil to form a paste, which can last up to six months when stored in the fridge. The oil, in addition to giving liquidity to the mix, also protects the ingredients from being penetrated by air, making the intense flavor last longer.
From this standard spice and herb combination, the ingredients can be altered and added-to in order to create different forms of curry paste, including Green Curry Paste made with jalapenos, cloves, cumin, and olive oil; yellow curry paste, the sweetest and most mild of curries made with yellow peppers; and red curry paste, with a medium-level heat that makes it the most versatile with a number of dishes and meats.
In Thai cooking, this paste is typically combined with coconut milk and chicken, seafood, or vegetable stock. In order to most effectively bring out the bold flavors of the ingredient, the paste should be pan-fried for a couple of minutes before being the other ingredients are added in.
Dishes that work best with curry paste are Southeast Asian inspired dishes like Chicken Curry, Tofu with Red Curry Paste, Chicken Panang Casserole, Thai Green Curry Mussels, and Coconut Curry Chicken Soup.
On the other hand, curry powder is a standard dried spice mixture made with a base of turmeric, red pepper, cumin, and coriander, often also incorporating paprika, fennel seed, mustard, and more. From this fundamental ingredient list, numerous varieties of the powder can be made, such as brown curry powder, which includes cloves and other peppers. This mixture can also be combined with water to make a paste of sorts, but it differs from what you would commonly think of as curry paste.
Unlike the oil-based curry, the powder is added into dishes that are already in the process of being cooked, rather than being used as the foundation of the dish.
This dry mix is used in more wide-ranging and diverse recipes, lending its distinctive flavor to unique dishes like Curried Potato Salad, Spring Pea Salad with Creamy Curry Dressing, and Sugar Curried Pecans, in addition to more traditional Indian recipes like Vegetable Pakoras and Lamb with Garam Masala Crumbs and Curried Mint Sauce.
Though both of these widely-used ingredients bring warmth to your dishes, perhaps the most important distinction between the two is curry paste’s lack of turmeric, which is the primary element of its powdery cousin. Because of this difference, the two curries are far from interchangeable, as evidenced by recipes that call for both paste and powder, like Broiled Tilapia with Thai Coconut Curry Sauce, Broiled Tilapia with Thai Coconut Curry Sauce,
Despite the common identity, curry powders and pastes are not all created equal. So, the next time you’re crafting a spicy Thai noodle dish or a rich Indian stew and run out of the wet or dry mix you need, rather than swapping one for the other, you’ll have to attempt to make your own, taking the spice reigns into your own hands.