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I’ve been making Thai curry pastes by hand using a pestle and mortar for decades now, but even on my lazy days, I would get frustrated that I couldn’t find a store-bought paste that was even close to the freshness and authenticity as my own. There are plenty of pastes on the market that is ‘okay’ or at the best ‘good’, but I would find myself adding more kaffir lime leaf or chilli.
There just needs to be a Thai curry paste where you don’t need to buy or add any extras. I couldn’t see my children, all busy young adults, making fresh paste in their kitchens every time they want a curry – they love curry! I thought this would be a neat way of them to have whenever they needed it, without the hassle. It was a bit of fun to start with!
Back in late 2018, I spent 8 months travelling back and forth to Thailand, visiting different producers small and large. What I saw astounded me, it was not what I expected at all. The small producers made wonderfully fragrant and fresh curry paste, which they sold locally and reminded me of my own childhood, meanwhile larger producers were “packing out” their products with ingredients that did not look as fresh or vibrant, even those with organic credentials!
They seemed to skimp on the more expensive elements like Kaffir lime rind and various spices, choosing to add more salt, lemongrass and garlic. Many didn’t peel some of the ingredients and added parts of the plant that would’ve normally been thrown away or used in stock. Worse of all they added strange ingredients that bear no authenticity. We even found some adding orange juice concentrate in Yellow curry paste!
All this to attract the international export markets with basement prices, their “we know best” attitude to what they wanted me to accept, I knew this wasn’t path for me. At this point I was pretty angry and bitterly disappointed, even Thai manufacturers selling within Thailand were cutting corners.
How was traditional and authentic Thai paste going to survive this commercialisation, would it abandon all its therapeutic benefits that make Thai cuisine so exceptional. Now it wasn’t about the fun of making pastes for my children, I felt inspired and motivated to do something about it, to produce a flavoursome, fresh and authentic Thai curry paste, would this be my time to shine? I turned back to the small producers who were selling the real stuff locally.
They were so enthusiastic to help, but they didn’t have the equipment necessary for an international operation that would allow me to import and sell it into the UK. So, there lay my challenge, I had to find a producer that was not so big, that understood my frustrations and was willing to work with me to replicate my own recipes using only ingredients that I would buy and add to my paste as if I was making it at home.
I want to give my customers no less then I would give my own family. After several trips and many meetings later, I found a producer close to my home province of Trang, my birthplace, that wanted to help me achieve this goal. Over the following few months, we worked together to replicate the aroma and flavour of my recipe while using a modern facility, with cleaning, pan roasting and blending technologies to ensure we had a product that could be imported and sold safely.
Having gone to great lengths to make sure that the ingredients were prepared as if making the paste at home using only the best raw ingredients, for example, mother turmeric, I was faced with another dilemma. Do we sterilise or pasteurise?After testing, we felt that sterilisation was just too aggressive and affected the natural aroma and taste, the downside was that pasteurisation would only give us a 18-months shelf life rather than the 24-month shelf life that other products offered.
It was a compromise worth taking, it tastes so good, why would you want to keep it that long anyway? I was satisfied that we had created a blend that captured my love for the real tastes of Thailand, undiluted by years of commercial alterations, and staying true to the proportions that bring maximum benefit, not just in taste, but in therapeutic properties.
Being close to my hometown my local family were there help maintain my high-quality standards, conducting source inspections for every batch we make. I want to make sure that we deliver the best product we can. While the use of shrimp paste in Thai cuisine is common, you won’t find any in our products, even though most other brands include it. This was intentional; it is in keeping with our desire to offer an authentic product.
In Thailand, shrimp paste is not normally included in the blend of fresh raw herbs and spices sold in Thai markets, it is something that is added at the time of cooking, or while making the paste for immediate use. Other than allergy concerns, or to meet vegetarian requirements, I believe that blending shrimp paste, or fish sauce, together with the other ingredients compromises the freshness of this otherwise raw blends of natural goodness.
Adding shrimp paste, with it’s distinctive and strong odour would taint the otherwise fresh herb and spices (Samunprai – see further down), it shouldn’t be there as a marinade, it’s too strong for that. There are good reasons why shrimp paste is added at the time of cooking, and when you consider the inevitable time the ingredients are combined during transit, you get a better appreciation of why we have excluded it.
Adding fish sauce, which is available in local supermarkets is an acceptable substitute, it isn’t the same I will concede, but it was a compromise worth taking for those that cannot get hold of shrimp paste.
Now comes the business bit, I’m no businesswoman (not yet at least), so I enlisted the help of my family, and here we are today. With the Mae Jum brand, it empowers me to do what I believe in, to make a real difference to those that care about the things I care about.
I am realistic, I’m not expecting to revolutionise the Thai Curry Paste market, but if I can make a difference for you, then it would have been worth it. – Jum
The word Samunprai is Thai for “Herbs and Spices”, but it has a deeper connotation as it is often used in Spas and Health Clinics. That is because the word also encapsulates the health benefits and properties of these ingredients. Read about samunprai here. I have always believed in the therapeutic nature of specific herbs and spices, some of which have been labelled superfoods.
I have always found ways of including these ingredients into my cooking, and I plan to talk more about them on my website and blog. I encourage their inclusion as part of a balanced diet, not only do they provide flavour and aroma but they bestow the beneficial properties that Mother nature has intended. It is for this very reason why compromising on shelf life was particularly important, as was the need to use the right ingredients in authentic proportions.
"Our Authentic Thai Curry Pastes use high quality, 100% natural ingredients, fresh from local farmers, blended to an age-old recipe that respects traditional proportions, for health, vitality, aroma and taste."- Mae Jum