15 Essential Thai Ingredients You Need to Know
I have the low-down on core Thai ingredients, plus how to use them.
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Fish sauce is Thai cuisine‘s main salting agent. It’s made from fermenting anchovies with salt to create an umami-filled salty seasoning that is used in everything from salads and dips to stir-fries and curries. We also use it as an all-purpose tableside seasoning, much like salt and pepper are used in the West.
When it comes to choosing a brand, look for a fish sauce with few ingredients. The label should list no more than these three: anchovies, salt and sugar. A high protein content also indicates higher concentration of fish.
Soy sauce is an essential ingredient in Thai cooking, especially in dishes that have their roots in Chinese cuisine. Thai soy sauce is quite light compared to Chinese and Japanese soy sauce and has a different flavor, though it’s fine to substitute regular soy sauce found at any grocery store. If you must choose between dark and light, choose light; dark soy sauce is used primarily to add color to food.
A mainstay in many of our stir-fries, oyster sauce is an absolute must have in a Thai kitchen. It’s not as salty as soy sauce or fish sauce, and it’s sweeter with a much thicker consistency.
Though stir-fries are the main use for oyster sauce, we also use it in dark broths for noodle soups and stews. Thai people have their own oyster sauce, but Chinese oyster sauce can be used interchangeably.
There are two main grades of oyster sauce. The less expensive one will have less oyster flavor, but it’s fine for everyday use. The more premium sauce will list oyster extract as the first ingredient and is more expensive; this can be used for any dish, but if cost is a concern, reserve it for dishes where it’s a main seasoning.
Thai palm sugar is made from the reduced and caramelized nectar of coconut palm or sugar palm trees. It has a beautiful butterscotch-like flavor that is essential in Thai desserts and some savory dishes, such as pad thai.
You can find them in pucks or tubs. For the pucks, simply shave it with a knife like you would a block of chocolate. For the tubs, if it’s soft enough you can simply spoon it out; if it’s hard, heat it up in the microwave briefly to soften before spooning.
All mass-produced palm sugar has some amount of white sugar mixed in, even if it says “pure” or “100%” on the package. Ones with less white sugar will be more expensive, but the only real way to know is to taste—palm sugar with less white sugar mixed in will have a richer flavor.
If you can’t find palm sugar, light brown sugar will be a decent substitute in most cases.
Thai people do not use dairy in our cuisine, so any creaminess comes from coconut milk. Do not buy “light” coconut milk; all the flavor of coconut milk is in the fat, so when the fat is taken out, the flavor goes with it! You’re better off using less regular coconut milk and adding water or stock to lighten it.
Canned coconut milk is the most widely available form, but choose one in a Tetra Pak carton if you can, as it has a better flavor. The best coconut milk should have as few ingredients listed on the package as possible (no more than 2), and never say “coconut beverage.”
Lime juice is one of the two main ways we add tartness to Thai food. In salads, it is the main source of acid for the dressing (we rarely use vinegar). We also add lime juice to many soups, such as the famous tom yum soup. We also often serve a wedge of lime with fried rice and pad thai to add some brightness and freshness to the dish.
It’s best to not cook fresh lime juice, as the flavor deteriorates with prolonged cooking. Instead, add lime juice to uncooked dishes or stir it in at the end of the cooking process. To pick a juicy lime, choose ones with smooth and shiny skins that give a little when squeezed.
Aside from lime, tamarind is the other main source of acidity in Thai cooking. We add tamarind to all types of dishes, including curries, soups, stir-fries and some salads. It has a richer flavor than lime juice, so it tends to be added to heavier dishes.
You can buy Thai tamarind paste already made (often labeled “tamarind concentrate” in English), but I recommend making the paste from tamarind pulp for the best flavor. Tamarind pulp is sold compacted in a block and wrapped in plastic. The pulp needs to be soaked in water and massaged to mix with the water, then strained before using.
If buying premade tamarind paste, choose a product from Thailand or Vietnam; do not buy tamarind concentrate from India. That’s a different product.
Though the name might suggest otherwise, lemongrass is not sour. It gives a wonderful citrusy aroma to all sorts of Thai dishes, like this Thai Shrimp Soup. The long, hard stalk needs to be finely sliced in order to be eaten, or it can be cut into chunks and smashed to bruise and then infused into soups and discarded.
The flavor of lemongrass is stronger in the bottom half of the stalk, so I generally only use the bottom half for cooking. The top half with weaker flavor can be reserved for making stock or tea.
Lemongrass can be cut into chunks and frozen, and you can use the chunks without thawing.
Galangal is a rhizome with a pine-like aroma that is unlike any other herb. We most commonly use it in our curry paste or infuse slices into soups like tom kha gai or this khao soi recipe. It may look like ginger, but it has an entirely different flavor.
Once you’ve bought and cooked with fresh galangal, slice the remainder into rounds and freeze them laid out on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Once frozen, gather them up into a freezer bag. You can use frozen galangal without thawing.
Makrut lime leaves are the intensely aromatic leaves of the makrut lime tree with an aroma that I describe as the grassier cousin of lime. The leaves are tough, so in order to eat them, they must be very finely julienned. But more commonly, the leaves are roughly torn into chunks and simmered in soups, then removed before serving.
If fresh lime leaves are not available, look for frozen ones, which are a great option. Grated lime zest can be used as a substitute, but the flavors are not the same.
Thai chilies come in many varieties: large and small, red and green, mild and spicy, fresh and dried. We use them not only to add heat to food, but they also contribute flavors that are a part of the identity of many Thai dishes.
Larger chilies tend to be milder, and are used to add color and flavor without overwhelming the dish with spiciness. Small chilies are added primarily for heat, so the amounts can be customized to your taste. Keep in mind that dried and fresh chilies have vastly different flavors, as do red and green.
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Thai basil has a beautiful, floral aroma that cannot be mistaken for any other type of basil. The stems can be purple, and often come with purple flowers. Thai basil is most commonly added to cooked dishes such as stir fries and curries.
Regular basil can be used as a substitute in most cases, even though they do not have the same flavors.
Rice is the foundation of a Thai meal. Unless you’re having noodles, all of our dishes are meant to be eaten with rice, including soups and salads. While there are many varieties of rice in Thailand, jasmine or hom mali rice is the most prized one for its soft, fluffy texture. It has a beautiful aroma that you can smell as soon as you open the bag.
When buying Thai jasmine rice, look for one that says hom mali and has a round green and yellow logo on the bag; this is a government certification for genuine Thai hom mali rice.
For some meals, sticky rice is our carb of choice. Sticky rice is consumed all over the country, but more so in Northern and Northeastern Thailand, so it would be appropriate to serve sticky rice with dishes from these regions. The chewiness of sticky rice also makes it the perfect pairing with barbecued meats or fried chicken.
Thai sticky rice is medium-grain and opaque white, and is usually sold as “glutinous rice” or “sweet rice.” Be sure to look for a product from Thailand.
All Thai curries start out with a paste, a mixture of herbs and spices that determine the identity of each curry. While you can make your own curry paste, it is a time-consuming process, so most Thai families buy premade curry pastes for everyday cooking.
Think of curry pastes as flavor pastes, and add them to stir-fries, dipping sauces or even meat mixtures such as sausages or fish cakes. There are many brands of curry paste on the market, so it might take you a few tries to find a brand that has the flavor and level of spiciness that you like. Look for a brand that is made in Thailand, and avoid ones that have additives or seasonings beyond salt.
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