Like many Asian cuisines, Thai food works to achieve a complex variety of flavors that harmonize together into one dish. Most recipes achieve a combination of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty thanks to commonly used Thai spices and seasonings.
Are you learning all about spices, like me? Be sure to check out these little spice factoids.
The Thai Spice Rack
The food of Thailand is rich in flavor and often quite spicy. Its distinctive curries and fresh food draws from the food plentifully available as well as regional influences. Like many Asian cuisines, Thai food manages to achieve a complex variety of flavors that harmonize together into one dish.
Most recipes manage to achieve a combination of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty all on one plate.
Keeping some of your favorite Thai spices on hand allows you to replicate some of your favorite Thai meals.
If you love Thai food and trying to replicate your favorite dishes at home, consider adding some — or all! — of these spices to your pantry.
Traditional dishes or non-traditional, if you’re aiming to replicate your favorite Thai meal, you’ll want to include a lot of fresh herbs and spices along with the pantry staples.
Related to the Genovese sweet basil variety commonly used in Italian cooking, this basil has a distinctly different taste and aroma. It has purple stems and the leaves can be both purple and green.
It has a strong spicy note, with a hint of licorice or anise. It can be identified by its deep purple flower heads. It is what gives green curry paste its color, and is used to bring a hint of bitterness to recipes.
Some recipes use it as vegetable like spinach or kale. When a Thai recipe calls for basil, this is the basil to use.
This basil differs from Thai basil, but is often confused for it. Perhaps because some people refer to it as Thai holy basil. It has a strong and somewhat spicy flavor that is released when heated. In fact, both Thai and holy basil can withstand high cooking temperatures better than Genovese basil.
Also known as takrai, lemongrass is native to the Indian subcontinent. It is a grass like plant that grows in damp locations. The inner tender shoots look like leeks, and are chopped up or ground into paste.
Some Asian markets also carry dried lemon grass powder for use in recipes or herbal teas. Lemon grass provides a pungent citrusy aroma, while giving subtle lemon flavor to a dish.
Coriander or cilantro is used for its leafy green leaves in Thai cuisine. The leaves provide a bright astringent flavor to dishes. It is used to help balance out the other flavors common in Thai food, and as a digestion aid. This herb is commonly used in Pad Thai recipes, made with rice noodles, tofu, eggs, and bean sprouts.
Kaffir Lime Leaves
Kaffir lime leaves are the dark, shiny leaves of the Kaffir lime tree. It is usually used whole in Thai recipes, much like a bay leaf. It imparts its distinct mild and lime-like flavor to a broth, but is usually not eaten as part of a dish. Most Thai cooks will say to skip this ingredient in a recipe rather than substitute it with something similar.
Use them in this Thai green curry recipe.
Thai Chili Peppers
Thai chilies or prik kee noo provide the ubiquitous heat to Thai cuisine. They can be purchased fresh or dried, red or green. They originated in Central America, but were brought back to Asia through trade. They are very small, slender chilies that are extremely hot. Green ones provide heat on first bite, whereas the more ripe red ones have a heat that sneaks up on the eater.
Galangal Ginger Root
Galangal or Laos powder is a relative of the ginger plant, and one of the popular Thai spices. It used either fresh from the rhizome, or dried in powder form. Galangal has an intense flavor that is similar to fresh ginger, only more flowery and less spicy. [Read about ginger vs. ginger powder.]
Turmeric is grown from rhizomes like galangal and ginger, and is related to both. It has a deep yellow-orange flesh that is usually sold in a powder, but if you’ve got access to fresh tubers, use it! It is also referred to as Indian saffron because it can provide the saffron-yellow color at a fraction of the price. Turmeric provides a peppery bitterness to dishes and is a common spice used in curry powder and Thai curries.
Use it in this balti curry that combines cauliflower, bell pepper, and green beans to craft a vegetarian curry with delicious spice. Or try making this spicy pickled turmeric.
Garlic is a common ingredient in Thai cooking, which provide a bit of heat and complexity to a dish. The garlic variety used in Thai cuisine tends to be from small bulbed plants with pungently flavored cloves. They are extremely spicy when raw, but the spiciness mellows some with cooking. Use it in this easy Thai peanut sauce recipe.
Often used instead of onion in Thai cuisine, shallots look like little mini onions. The variety used in Thailand tends to be purple or reddish, instead of brownish like most Americans see in their grocery store. They are used to make cooked foods more complex, and a subtle sweetness in both cooked and raw dishes.
The distinctively flavored pulp of tamarind, or ma-khram, is used in Thai cuisine. Pods that look similar to large brown beans grow on trees. The pulp inside the hard shell is extracted and the seeds are removed before using. Tamarind is available in whole pods, bricks of pulp, and jars of paste to be used in recipes. Immature pods provide a sour flavor, more highly ripe pods provide an acidic notes and sweetness to recipes.
These are commonly used in Thai dishes like stir fries and curries. While you would never eat black peppercorns straight, fresh green peppercorns can be eaten whole, and are often brined.
Ready to Use Ingredients
Besides the fresh herbs and dried spices that pack a punch of flavor, there are some grocery store items that you should pick up to stock your pantry.
These bottled and jarred ingredients add flavor to recipes, and some are shortcut versions of some Thai favorites. (The Thai people are over there just rolling their eyes…)
Nam bplah, or fish sauce, is made by fermenting salted fish, usually anchovies, for a long period of time. It is used much like soy sauce to impart an earthy saltiness to dishes.
Many users find the smell off-putting, but it is a distinctive flavor that provides a subtle and easily missed flavor in Thai dishes. (My husband recoils at the odor, but doesn’t mind it when it’s actually used in a dish.)
Thai Curry Paste and Sauces
Curry pastes are readily available at most grocery stores. They are a concentrated blend of Thai seasoning perfect for adding to a variety of recipes. A little goes a long way in adding flavor and spice.
Yellow curry sauce and red curry sauce are thinner than the pastes, and ready to use as part of a meal. Use these Thai sauces as you’d use jarred marinara sauce that’s ready to pour right onto noodles. It’s fast and easy, but it’s probably not the best Thai meal you’ll have.
Curry comes in a broad range of flavors. But it’s not the flavor that gives curry its name. Curry is actually the name for the sauce, or gravy, that accompanies your favorite curry dishes.
This blend of spices, often includes turmeric, chili powder, coriander, cumin, ginger, and pepper. Blends are available ready made or you can make your own by combining spices. Making your own spice mixes allows you to vary the heat to suit your tastebuds.
Use it in this delicious curry chicken soup made with a chicken and coconut milk broth.
Garlic Chile Sauce
I like to keep a jar of this on hand to add flavor and heat to a variety of recipes. You can also make your own. It’s an easy blend of Thai chilies, fresh garlic, rice vinegar, and sugar.
Use it in this easy coconut soup with peanuts.
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