Thailand is a lush country with highly fertile farmlands, abundant waters and forests providing its people with a diverse abundance of food ingredients. You can expect to see both the exotic and the familiar arrive at your table during your visit. Here is a list of common Thai ingredients by category that you should be acquainted with, along with their special qualities.
Herbs and spices
Garlic: called ‘kratiem’, it is the heart of Thai spiciness. It appears abundantly in most curries, dips, sauces and marinades, giving the foundation for the richness of Thai flavour sensations. It is also known as a natural antibiotic, and helps reduce cholesterol levels. No wonder Thais can’t get enough.
Shallots: Thais use shallots, called ‘hua hom daeng’, in curry pastes and in their chili dips among other ingredients. They are prized for their mild oniony flavour without the full eye-watering knockout punch of their larger cousin.
Lemongrass: called ‘takhrai’, lemongrass is almost as popular as garlic for its use in curries, sauces and marinades. The tall grass with fleshy stems can be seen growing in clusters outside the majority of rural Thai households. Its light aromatic lemon scent adds depth to all manner of foods and is essential among Thai ingredients.
Lime: Thais love one kind of lime for their leaves, and the other for their fruit. Deliciously aromatic kaffir lime leaves (bai makrut) are used in curry pastes for their bouquet, and are also used to garnish many curries and soups. Common limes (manao) are used for their juice to add tang to many popular sour dishes such as tom yam goong.
Galangal: called ‘kha’ in Thai, it is found in many Thai soups and curry pastes, utilized for its rich aroma and flavour boosting abilities. For instance, it is the middle word in the staple tom kha gai, chicken and coconut milk soup. The root is also a carminative and aids in digestion. Seldom among ingredients of other cuisines, it features strongly in Thai food.
Chillies: the Thais utilise several varieties of these hot little devils, called ‘prik’ in Thai. Most notably prik kii nu (literally ‘mouse dropping chilies’) which are very tiny and hide in the food quite easily as their name would suggest, waiting to surprise any unsuspecting diner. Prik chi faa (sky pointing chilies) are slightly less hot and are used in the Thais’ favorite condiment, prik naam pla, ‘fish sauce with chilies.’
Pepper: native to Southeast Asia, peppercorns – whether green, black, or white – are all from the same plant and called prik Thai, meaning ‘Thai pepper’. They have a long history of culinary use as ingredients in Thai soups, marinades and garnishes. Expect to see green peppercorns garnishing seafood and chicken dishes, black pepper in stirfrys with garlic, and powdered white pepper atop your fried noodles and soup. Sometimes the dishes feature sprigs of whole peppercorns.
Turmeric: called ‘khamin’, it is used to flavour soups, curry pastes and stewed dishes. It is most prevalent in southern style seafood dishes, and in northern Burmese-influenced foods. It has a very strong flavour and adds that distinctive yellow colour when added to food such as the infamous khao soi gai.
Kra–chai: this is a relative of ginger with a strong flavour and smell with no equivalent name in English. These Thai ingredients are used in soups, curries and curry pastes. It also has medicinal qualities, aiding in digestion as well as working as a diuretic and mild pain reliever.
Basil: Thais love basil for its aromatic properties that flavour foods and heighten the senses. ‘Bai horapha’ (Thai basil) which is most similar to the basil of the West, is commonly used in soups and as a garnish. ‘Bai krapao’ (holy basil) is similar in flavour, but only releases its oils upon cooking so it is always used in stir fry dishes like ‘pad kee mao’. Basil aids digestion and eases muscle cramping too, who knew ?
Cilantro: called ‘Pak chi,’ this entire plant is used in Thai cooking. The thick stem base and roots, as well as the seeds, are pounded into curry pastes or used in soup stocks. The seeds are also essential to many Thai grilling marinades such as that of Gai ‘yang’, Isaan grilled chicken. Then it also seems that leaves and stems garnish nearly every Thai dish with their intense smell and taste.
Pak Chi Farang: Even though it has a ‘Farang’ in the name, most Westerners are not familiar with this herb in Thai ingredients. It has a serrated dandelion shaped leaf with strong herbal taste that works great with Thai food. In a real good ‘tom yum goong’ you can expect this flavourful leaf to be in there.