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The cheat: curry paste

Take the hard graft out of pounding your own spice mix and pick up a prepared paste to make light work of a flavour-packed Thai meal.

Curry pastes are a great addition to any pantry - they can be used in many ways, from stir-fries to soups. We find, however, that few supermarket brand pastes match a freshly pounded version and a trip to an Asian grocer or to Thaitown is the only way to buy a good alternative. Stock up with a few and you'll be ready to whip up a curry at a moment's notice.

For a Thai curry, we're big fans of the Maesri and Mae Ploy brands (Maesri pastes come in 114gm tins that are perfect for single use), plus the choices in curry style are many, so experiment. We love massaman, red, green, prik khing, Penang and the extra-hot kaeng par pastes. The result is a curry with authentic flavour without the effort and time of sourcing the many ingredients they entail or the time and elbow grease of pounding your own ingredients.

Spicy prawn and coconut soup with vermicelli
Serves 4
Heat 1 tbsp peanut oil in a large saucepan over high heat, add 115gm kaeng par curry paste and stir until fragrant (1 minute), then add 670ml coconut milk and 500ml chicken stock, and bring to a simmer. Season with raw coconut sugar and fish sauce, then add 150gm sugar snap peas and 115gm baby corn. Bring to the boil and add 18 peeled medium-sized raw prawns and simmer until just cooked (2 minutes). Meanwhile, place 250gm vermicelli in a bowl, pour boiling water over and stand for 5 minutes. Drain and repeat. Drain and divide vermicelli among 4 bowls, top with soup and garnish with bean sprouts, coriander, julienned spring onion, and Vietnamese mint and serve with limes and fish sauce to taste.

Prik khing duck stir-fry
Serves 4
Heat 1 tbsp peanut oil in a wok over high heat, add 2 thinly sliced duck breasts (400gm) in batches and stir until golden (1-2 minutes), then set aside. Add 175gm broccolini and 4 spring onions, cut into 5cm lengths, and stir-fry until just tender. Return duck to wok, add 1 tbsp prik khing curry paste and stir-fry until fragrant (1 minute). Add 1 tbsp raw coconut sugar, 1 tbsp fish sauce (or to taste) and 1 cup Thai basil and stir-fry until basil wilts (1-2 minutes). Serve with steamed rice and lime wedges on the side.

Fish cakes
Serves 8 as an appetiser
Pulse 250gm coarsely chopped skinless blue-eye trevalla fillet in a food processor until minced. Transfer to a chilled bowl with 65gm red curry paste, 40gm rice flour, 30ml fish sauce, 2 tsp crushed light palm sugar, 1 tsp baking powder, 5 julienned kaffir lime leaves, 4 thinly sliced snake beans and 1 small lightly beaten egg and mix well. Heat 400ml peanut oil in a wok over high heat, then add tablespoonfuls of mixture and turn occasionally until golden and just cooked through (2-3 minutes). Drain on paper towels and serve with sweet chilli sauce.

Pork and eggplant curry
Serves 4
Heat 1 tbsp peanut oil in a wok until smoking, add 1 thinly sliced pork fillet (about 300gm) and stir until just scorched (1-2 minutes). Add 80gm Penang curry paste, 6 halved apple eggplant and 1 cup pea eggplant and stir until fragrant (1-2 minutes), then add 550ml coconut milk and 7 torn kaffir lime leaves and bring to the boil. Reduce heat and simmer until eggplant is tender (3-5 minutes), then season to taste with 20gm crushed light palm sugar and 2 tbsp fish sauce. Scatter with Thai basil and serve with steamed jasmine rice and lime wedges to the side.

Hot tips
+ Prepared curries tend to be concentrated in flavour with a high salt content from the addition of fermented shrimp paste, so be wary of adding further seasoning. Balance flavour at the end of cooking with lime juice and palm sugar.

+ Check labels on pastes - some have directions for best use. They have a very long shelf life so stock up with a few.

+ Curry pastes should be roasted in oil to release and toast the flavours. If unsure of your spice tolerance, roast the paste, set aside half and taste the curry when cooked; add more paste if you want a stronger flavour.

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