Panang tofu curry, also known as panaeng curry or phanaeng curry, is a type of Thai or Lao curry that has tofu substituted for meat. Usually, the dish is made with beef, but it can also be served with shrimp, chicken, pork, other types of meat, no meat at all, or tofu.
Many people who don't enjoy very spicy food like panang curry because it is milder than many other Thai curries, such as red curry or green curry. Like the other well-known Thai curries, the base of panang tofu curry is made from combining a curry paste of spices with coconut milk (or another liquid), fresh herbs, and tofu. The dark-red sauce is often thicker than other curry sauces, which sometimes resemble soup or stew more than they act as an accompaniment to a dish. Consequently, panang is known as a "dry" curry. Two notable differences between panang and other types of Thai curry are that panang curry is made with only the cream of coconut milk (the thickest part) and that the curry is fried in the milk sauce rather than boiled.
Tofu is the main ingredient and serves as the "meat" in the dish or the main focus. It's popular with vegetarians, but since tofu also soaks up marinades and flavors particularly well, many meat eaters also enjoy the tofu curry. Unlike some other Thai curries, panang does not contain many vegetables, if it has any at all. Most often, it's served with just the panang sauce covering the meat or tofu in the dish, and it may be garnished with fresh herbs. Panang curry usually contains dried chili peppers, galangal (a ginger-like spice), lemongrass, coriander root, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, garlic, shallots, and salt. It may also have peanuts, shrimp paste, or kaffir lime peel.
Where to Buy
Almost every Thai restaurant has panang curry as a menu option, and most offer it as a vegetarian choice as well. Look for it under the "curry" section of the menu. Asian supermarkets and Thai grocery stores with delis or cafe portions are also good places to seek out panang curry. Finally, some large supermarkets that offer pre-made hot dishes from different parts of the world may occasionally serve panang curry.
How to Make
You can make panang curry paste yourself at home. If you do choose to try that, you'll likely need to go to a Thai supermarket or Asian grocery store to pick up all the ingredients you'll need, since many of them are not available at conventional American supermarkets. Substituting more common items won't taste the same, so it's worthwhile to spend some extra time tracking down the original ingredients that a recipe requests. Making the curry paste can be time-consuming, but again, it will result in a curry that tastes fresher and is more flavorful than a curry that comes from a pre-packaged paste.
If you're short on time, though, using a pre-packaged paste is a valid option. Asian grocery stores stock several varieties of prepared Thai curry sauces and pastes to form the base of sauces, and they also sell the coconut milk you'll need to combine with the paste to make the sauce. Even conventional supermarkets usually have an international section in which they sell ingredients such as Thai curry paste and coconut milk.
When you're making panang curry at home, you have the luxury of choosing exactly what goes in it. Even though the sauce is traditionally served just with meat or tofu, you can add vegetables or additional herbs if you like and make the sauce as thick or thin as you want. You can also prepare your tofu differently by frying it, breading it, or crisping it before tossing it with the sauce.