So you’ve decided you want to prepare your own authentic Thai meal. Recipes are numerous and easily found, either on the internet or in that new Thai cookbook you’ve recently purchased. But in perusing the various recipes, you’ve discovered that many of the ingredients sound unfamiliar.
Don’t feel intimidated. Many supermarkets now carry an extensive supply of ethnic ingredients, as the popularity of such cuisines is steadily growing. But there are still quite a few obscure items that can only be found at Asian supermarkets or specialty shops. I have attempted to provide a comprehensive list of the most common and some uncommon ingredients and items used in Thai cooking. Once you are familiar with some of them, hopefully the task of preparing a Thai meal will seem less daunting and more enjoyable. After all, prepared correctly, a Thai meal is a glorious adventure of satisfying flavor!
Herbs and spices are an essential part of Thai cuisine. You will find that some recipes often call for an extensive list. Many of them are quite common and may already be in your pantry.
More commonly known as cilantro, this is by far the most widely used herb in Thai cooking. You will definitely want to use fresh coriander for a truly superior taste over dried coriander. It will keep in the fridge for almost a week in a plastic bag.
Probably the second most commonly used, ginger is readily available in supermarkets in various forms. It is used in most forms of Asian and Eastern cookery for its delicious flavor. Try to purchase ginger in a fresh form; you’ll most likely find it in the produce section. A good piece should be firm and unwrinkled. Store it in a plastic bag to prevent it from drying out.
You will find many recipes that call for this. A close cousin of ginger and quite similar in appearance, but it possesses a more peppery flavor. If you cannot find galangal then use ginger as a substitute.
A mainstay in all cultures and often the guest of honor in Thai dishes, it needs no introduction.
Aromatic and alluring, you can find lemon grass in various forms. Groceries will usually stock the ground form, but you may need to go to an Asian grocery for fresh or dried lemon grass stalks. The dried lemon grass will need to be soaked in water approximately 30 minutes before use.
Regular basil purchased fresh from your supermarket is sufficient; for a more authentic flair, you will want to have Thai basil on hand. There are different varieties of Thai basil; if the recipe does not specify which kind, you will want what is known as Bai Horpha, as it is the most common.
Cardamom is found more often in Indian cuisine but is used here in certain Thai curries. It can be purchased as seeds, pods, or in a ground form.
The distinctive flavor of cumin is often used to enhance curries. You can buy it ground or whole.
Available in supermarkets in powdered form, this bitter yellow-orange spice is used in small quantities to add another level of flavor and create a dish with intense color.
Aside from the plethora of herbs and spices, most Thai dishes have other essential ingredients; again some are easily found, others may require a trip to the Asian grocery. You will often find the culmination of all the ingredients results in an unexpected surprise, eash mouthful bursting with intense flavor, as each ingredient adds a another essential brick to the construction of your Thai meal!
There are literally dozens of chillies to be found in most supermarkets these days. For Thai cuisine, you will want to find the bird’s eye chillies – these are small, thin, and either green or red. The smaller the chili, the more intense and hot the flavor will be. If your palette is more suited to a milder heat, remove the seeds before adding the chili to the dish. When handling chillies, it is wise to wear rubber gloves and avoid touching your face, especially your eyes. Afterwards, wash your hands thoroughly. Chillies can be frozen in a plastic bag.
You will want to purchase these fresh and only when you are prepared to cook within a few days, as they will perish rather quickly. You will mainly use these for stir fry dishes.
Not to be confused with coconut cream, which is very thick and sometimes used to enrich a curry or dessert dish. Coconut milk is used more often and can be found canned in most supermarkets. You can freeze any leftover amounts, but it will not stay fresh in the fridge.
Fish Sauce (also known as Nam Pla)
This sauce is made from fermented prawns or fish, and is quite salty. You should have no trouble finding it in your local grocery, but if for some reason it is not available, you will want to seek it out, as there is no suitable substitute. Like most sauces, you must store this in the fridge after opening.
Made from dried oysters, this sauce should also be relatively easy to find. Refrigerate after opening.
Spring Roll Wrappers
A thin doughy sheet, these can be purchased and frozen for later use. Used obviously for spring rolls, but you can get creative and use them for other fried items or dumplings.
Of course there are still many ingredients and items waiting to be discovered as you delve deeper into the realm of Thai Cookery, but in the meantime, this list should provide you with the essential knowledge to get started.
You may want to examine the Asian section of your supermarket where you will surely find other items not mentioned here, such as Red and Green Curries, Pad Thai noodles, and more. Most supermarkets now stock items from a company called A Taste of Thai, which produces many items you will certainly find a tasty use for.