At once hot and spicy, cool and soothing, sweet and sour, bold and subtle— Thai cuisine is a brilliant balance of colors, tastes and aromas. In one dish, for example, the Thai cook might meld an array of hot chili peppers and pungent spices with sweet, exotic fruits or fresh seafood, smooth coconut milk, and bright herbs like mint and lemongrass.
Try these classic Thai recipes:
- Thai Green Curry with Eggplant
- Thai Peanut Dip
- Thai Summer Rolls
- Thai Tofu Lettuce Wraps with Peanut Sauce
Essential Spices for Thai Cooking
Most of the ingredients found in Thai cuisine are a clear reflection of the environment—warm, fertile land and abundant water. Recipes rely on seafood, exotic fruits and vegetables, several types of noodles and sauces. Rice is the mainstay of most meals, providing a perfect balance to the wide variety of tastes and colors that surround it. Spicy seasoning combinations are used to flavor everything from the day's catch to simple servings of rice or noodles.
Thai cuisine will appeal to any cook who loves the art of seasoning. And while many dishes are very hot, those prepared at home can be adjusted to just the right degree for your own tastes. Here are some of the main seasonings used in Thai cooking:
- Basil: Thais have their own varieties of basil, including bai ga-prow, a hot basil; bai horapa, a reddish-purple basil, and bai manglak, Greek or bush basil. Although the result will be slightly different (less tangy or less colorful, for example), ordinary sweet basil can be substituted for any of these. Basil is used both as a flavoring and a garnish in Thai cooking, and handfuls are sometimes tossed into soups, curries and stir fries just before serving.
- Caraway seed: The sharp, warm, peppery taste of caraway seed is thought to heighten the appetite. It's one of the world's most widely used seeds, found in the traditional cuisines of many European countries. Thai cooks use it to infuse meat and game with spice.
- Cardamom: The fragrant cardamom seedpod is used whole in a few Thai dishes of Indian origin, like mussamun curry. For other dishes, the seeds are removed from the pod and used whole or ground. A bit lemony, cardamom also has a slightly peppery and sweet taste and scent. Thai cooks often combine cardamom with other aromatic spices, like cinnamon, nutmeg, and mace.
- Chili peppers: Thai food is hot, thanks to its liberal use of fresh and dried chili peppers. Although chili peppers are not native (they were introduced by the Portuguese), they are now essential to Thai cuisine. There are many varieties, including the hottest and the most often used bird's eye chilies or prig kee nu. You may easily substitute any readily available fresh or dried chilies. The smaller, thinner chilies are generally the hottest, and the most heat is contained in the membranes surrounding the seeds of the pepper. Be careful handling these peppers—they can burn—and add very small amounts at a time to each dish. Chili peppers are sometimes soaked and re-dried, or toasted dry or in oil for Thai recipes.
- Cilantro: Also known as Chinese parsley, Thais use this soft, leafy plant for its distinctive flavor and earthy/musty aroma. (A little goes a long way.) While many other cuisines use only the leaves, Thais also use the fragrant, flavorful roots, stems and seeds (coriander) in seasoning pastes and other dishes. In fact, cilantro is a staple of Thai cuisine. Cilantro root is a main ingredient in the traditional Big Four Seasonings Blend, along with salt, garlic, and white peppercorns.
- Cinnamon: Thai cooks prefer Chinese cinnamon, or Cinnamomum cassia, which is sweeter, a little spicier, and more intense in color and flavor than Cinnamomum zeylanicum. One- to two-inch pieces are broken off and used whole or ground into powder. Cinnamon's aroma and flavor contribute to both sweet and savory Thai dishes, as well as spice blends.
- Cloves: This dark brown, aromatic spice is used whole in the Thai kitchen. Its taste is distinct, sharp, and warm/sweet, and you'll find it in both sweet and savory recipes — especially meats, poultry, seafood, soups, stews, and fruit dishes.
- Coriander: The intensely aromatic and slightly piquant flavor of coriander seeds is prized in Thai cooking. Thai cooks often roast and then pound the seeds to release the flavor; they also use the root and the leaf (cilantro) of the plant. Recipes for stews, soups, vegetables, cakes, breads, meats, seafood, poultry, condiments and spice blends all rely upon coriander. It's often paired with cumin seed.
- Cumin: Thai cooks roast aromatic, earthy cumin seed in a dry pan to bring out its flavor, then grind it for use in curry pastes and other spice blends. Cumin is also a primary ingredient in many spice blends, soups, stews, and meat, bean and rice dishes. You'll find it used in tandem with coriander, peppercorns, garlic, ginger, and onions.
- Curry Powders and Pastes: Thais commonly blend their own curry powders and pastes by grinding various herbs and spices in a mortar and pestle. Curries are used to flavor coconut milk, salad dressings, noodle sauces, seafood and meat dishes, vegetable dishes and soups. Among a long list of possibilities, these wonderful concoctions might include dried red chilies, fresh green chilies, turmeric, coriander, ginger, cinnamon, mustard seeds, cardamom, pepper, salt, cinnamon and cloves. You can use a purchased blend or experiment with your own combinations.
- Galangal: A relative of ginger, this pale yellow spice has a sharp, lemony, peppery hot taste. It’s also known as galingale, Java root, or Siamese ginger. Large, thin pieces of galangal are used to flavor Thai soups, stews and curries; for pastes it’s finely chopped and pounded. Ginger may be substituted for galangal in most Thai recipes.
- Garlic: Thai garlic is smaller and sweeter than Western garlic, though Western garlic may be substituted. Many Thai recipes call for dry roasting and grilling garlic, or making pickled garlic — whole garlic cloves pickled in white vinegar, sugar and salt. Thai cooks value garlic for its health properties, aroma, and the fact that its flavor blends well with a variety of other spices. Garlic is a main ingredient in the traditional Big Four Seasonings Blend, along with salt, cilantro root, and white peppercorns.
- Ginger: Ginger’s spicy warm, yet fresh taste is used to add zest to a dish, or as an alternative to galangal. Thais use ";lesser ginger," or krachai, which is related to, but milder tasting than, regular ginger or galangal. They often dry roast it before adding it to a dish. Ginger blends well with many other spices, and you'll find it in both sweet and savory Thai dishes.
- Lemongrass: The fresh, light, lemony flavor and scent of lemongrass is a staple in Thai cuisine. Thai cooks use the bulb and base leaves of lemongrass to season sauces, soups, stir-fries and curries. It enhances meats, poultry, seafood, and vegetables, and it's especially delicious with garlic, chilies and cilantro. Because the lemon-ginger aroma and flavor are delicate and fade quickly, it’s often added towards the end of cooking.
- Mace: The sweet scent of "closed blossom," as the Thai cook refers to mace, is enjoyed in dishes that have been influenced by Indian and Indonesian cookery. Its mildly nutty, warm taste is found in soups, stuffings, sauces and baked goods. It complements seafood, meats, and cheese, as well as some beverages.
- Mint: Mint is used liberally in Thai cooking, where its fresh taste enlivens salads, beverages, seafood, soups, and sauces. Peppermint or spearmint leaves may be used in recipes calling for mint.
- Mustard: Pungent mustard seed is found in Thai curry blends and other spice mixtures used to flavor meats, seafood, poultry, and vegetables. It's sometimes roasted and sometimes soaked in water before use in a recipe.
- Nutmeg: Thai cooks appreciate the intense aroma and sweet, spicy flavor of nutmeg in recipes for sweet and savory dishes. They use a grater to finely powder the whole spice. You'll find it in sauces, baked goods, soups and spice blends, as well as with seafood, meats, poultry, beans, and vegetables.
- Onions: Shallots (small brown or red bulb onions); green onions and scallions (long, mild onions); and large, white, brown, red, and yellow onions are all used in Thai cooking. They appear in soups and sauces, with meats, poultry, seafood and vegetables — in virtually any savory dish.
- Pepper: Freshly ground black or white peppercorns are used in curries and other herb blends and pastes, stir fries, sauces and soups. They're also often toasted for a few minutes and then cooled and ground to make Thai peppercorn powder.
- White peppercorns (berries that have been picked fully ripe and then husked and dried) are less intense than black peppercorns, yet still pungent and warm. These peppercorns are a main ingredient in the traditional Big Four Seasonings Blend, along with salt, garlic, and cilantro root.
- Sea Salt: Thai cooks use both salt that's been harvested from the earth and salt that's been harvested from the sea, which differ in taste. In fact, the taste of sea salt varies according to which body of water it comes from. Although a dish may be predominantly salty, Thais always use salt in combination with other flavors. Salt is a main ingredient in the traditional Big Four Seasonings Blend, along with garlic, cilantro root, and Thai white peppercorns.
- Star Anise: This star-shaped, pungent spice is enjoyed whole in many Thai dishes. It has a sweet, anise-like flavor and is lovely to look at! You'll find it in meat, fruit, and poultry dishes, stews and soups, spice blends, and an iced black tea.
- Turmeric: The robes of Buddhist monks in Thailand are colored with an ancient, natural yellow dye made from turmeric. Its flavor is sweet, warm, and a little peppery, but it’s used primarily for color in many Thai dishes, including curries, condiments, and seafood and grain dishes.
Convenient Thai Blends
If you enjoy Thai cuisine, you'll want to be sure to stock up on Thai Seasoning Blend, Curry Powder, Garlic Pepper, Garlic Salt, Lemon Pepper and Veggie Pepper.
Other Important Ingredients
Jasmine, sweet, and black rice; bean noodles; banana leaves (for wrapping); coconut; eggplant (or aubergine); and dried mushrooms are all key ingredients in Thai kitchens. Shitake mushrooms are available in convenient, dried form, so you can always have them on hand. To reconstitute, simply soak them in water for an hour or two. Or just add them directly to a long-cooking soup or stew.
Garlic gadgets, grinders and graters, mills and shakers, mortars and pestles, and a vegetable chopper might all come in handy when cooking Thai recipes.