Comprising an eclectic cacophony of flavours, Thai cuisine is known for its crisp aromatic allure and unbeatably fresh taste. We take a closer look at all of the essential ingredients you can expect to find in traditional Thai recipes
"Fresh herbs add an extra dimension of flavour to many traditional Thai dishes"
Flaming hot broths, delectable buttery sauces and the satisfying crunch of fresh vegetables – these are just a few of the sumptuous sensory experiences you can expect from an authentic Thai meal. The Kingdom’s cuisine is known for its profusion of exotic flavours, ranging from the sour tang of lime juice drizzled atop a fresh herb salad, to the sweet slippery indulgence in a plate of traditional stir-fried noodles.
A walk through any of Thailand’s fresh produce markets, or passing the abundance of roadside food stalls, may convince you that the list of ingredients Thai chefs work from is inexhaustible – but this is not the case. From the northeastern kitchens of Isan to the southern kitchens of Phuket, each Thai chef has a staple set of ingredients to work with – and this always includes a generous supply of fresh herbs and spices, each of which contributes to the unique flavour of traditional Thai food.
We take a look at the fresh essentials to stock up on before setting out on your own Thai cooking adventure.
"Thai food gets its sizzling hot edge from fresh and dried chillies, also black peppercorns"
Thai cuisine would be incomplete without its powerful fiery kick, which is provided in the main by a blend of fresh and dried chillies. However, before the arrival of these spicy ingredients in the 16th century, black peppercorns were used to add a fiery tingle to many Thai dishes.
When it comes to preparing specific dishes, the choice of chilli is important, and you’ll often notice that roadside food vendors have a rainbow of fresh chilies at their fingertips, ready to use. While the fresh cayenne variety are ideal for whipping up a Thai curry, the bird’s eye varieties are generally used for sauces and stir fry plates. Dried versions can be used in both, for an extra punch of flavour.
"Lemongrass adds a tart edge to many Thai dishes"
While lime juice and kaffir lime leaves are often utilised to give a tangy lift to Thai salads, soups and even noodle dishes, it’s lemongrass that forms the jewel in the crown of Thailand’s zesty culinary goodies. This versatile ingredient is used in a variety of ways, from being chopped and pounded into thick curry sauces, to simply bruised and left whole in curry sauces, ready to infuse its zingy goodness into each mouthful of the dish.
While lemongrass offers an irresistibly citrus-like flavour to a dish, it lacks the sharp acidic edge of lemons and limes, this creating a subtler depth of flavour. When you’re grocery shopping for all of your Thai staples, look out for lemongrass shoots with intact roots, as these will deliver a more powerful flavour.
Depth of flavour
"Flavoursome curry pastes add a complex depth of flavour to authentic Thai dishes"
The multi-layered tastes that permeate many Thai dishes are formed as a result of the paste that forms the base for the meal’s flavour. In fact, a large proportion of Thailand’s greatest gastronomic offerings start from a curry paste. Traditionally, a blend of herbs and spices are pounded together in a pestle and mortar to release the flavours, although many chefs today will use a food processor instead.
The majority of the Kingdom’s colourful curry pastes start with a simple selection of shallots, garlic, galangal and tamarind pulp. Galangal is a close relative of ginger, and brings a depth of earthy flavour to the dish without the fiery spark of ginger. Tamarind, on the other hand, brings a potent sweet yet tart note with a strong, fruity intensity. The best Thai chefs will be well-stocked up with an array of aromatic ingredients, but garlic and shallots are the essentials you can’t do without in order to create a successful curry paste.
Sweets for my sweet
"The sweet taste of palm sugar offsets the more powerful aromatic flavours in Thai food"
Thai food is all about balance, and that delicate equilibrium of flavours wouldn’t be quite right without the sweet infusion of palm sugar to offset the tart tang of lemongrass and lime juice. Palm sugar is made by boiling down the sap extracted from the flower stalks of the plant. Palm sugar hales from the south of Thailand, while northern kitchens have traditionally relied on darker brown cane sugar to add a sweet flourish to their culinary creations.
Palm sugar isn’t as sweet as white cane sugar, which is important as otherwise the sugary depth might become too overpowering for the dish. Smoky caramel and rich butterscotch undertones dominate, providing the perfect balance for the rest of the dish’s aromatic ingredients.
"Leafy green herbs add a pop of colour"
Fresh, leafy green herbs are an irreplaceable component in many of Thailand’s finest dishes. In many cases, they represent the final flourish of colour and flavour. Coriander and Thai basil are the most commonly used herbs, and once again, it’s best to look for stems with the roots still attached for the most powerful punch of flavour. Thanks to its almost liquorice-like flavour, fresh Thai basil provides the perfect flavoursome flourish when added to a traditional red or green curry.
"A generous helping of fresh wild herbs accompany this traditional northern-Thai dish, larb moo muang"
Broadly speaking, Thai cuisine can offers a delightful cacophony of sweet, sour, spicy, salty and bitter flavours. However, if you delve deeper into the country’s gastronomic offerings, you’ll notice a distinct set of regional differences in flavour.
Southern Thailand’s signature dishes are largely dominated by seafood. Dishes in this part of the country are known for their fiery, hot flavours and the curries often have a sweeter taste, thanks to the abundance of coconut plantations and sugar palms in the area. The same sweet flavours can be detected throughout Central Thai cuisine, but close to Bangkok you’ll notice a Chinese infusion of flavours and cooking traditions a lot more.
Northeastern Thai or Isan cuisine lacks the seafood component that’s so plentiful in the south, with freshwater fish playing more of a prominent role. Crisp green mango and papaya salads are two of the best dishes to originate from this region, known for its light and flavoursome food.
Moving further towards northern Thailand, wild herbs play a stronger role in the local dishes. The proximity of Myanmar and China to this area has influenced the food, with warm dry spices like coriander and cardamom creeping into the local fare.