Any number of Asian stir-fries begin with garlic cooked in oil. But if you add chilies, kaffir lime leaves, sugar, and fish sauce, a stir-fry takes on a delicious, unmistakably Thai flavor. The result is an explosion of salty, spicy, sweet, and sour flavors that sparkle with personality yet all harmonize on the plate. Indeed, the art of Thai cooking is combining ingredients at opposite ends of the flavor spectrum–chile paste and coconut milk, palm sugar and lime juice–and balancing them to create vibrantly flavored food.
Fish sauce may not sound appealing, but used correctly, its flavor is subtle and savory.
To create such dishes at home, stock your pantry with some basic Thai flavorings. Once you understand the main players, you can use them to cook authentic Thai food or to give your own cooking a taste of Thailand.
Fish Sauce: the salt of Thai cuisine. Fish sauce, called nam pla in Thai or nuoc mam in Vietnamese, is used much like salt or soy sauce as a flavor enhancer. It serves as a seasoning in cooked dishes as well as a base for dipping sauces. Made from the liquid drained from fermented anchovies, fish sauce is potent; it’s usually combined with other ingredients when used as a dipping sauce. For cooking, you can use it straight, but never add it to a dry pan or the smell will be overpowering.
Like olive oil, there are several grades of fish sauce. High-quality fish sauce, which is the first to be drained off the fermented fish, is usually pale amber, like clear brewed tea. Because it has a more delicate and balanced flavor, I use a premium-grade fish sauce, such as Three Crabs or Phu Quoc brands, in my dipping sauces. For cooking, I’ll use stronger-flavored, lower-grade brands, such as Squid or Tiparos, which are made from a secondary draining. Whichever grade I buy, I prefer it in a glass bottle; I find that fish sauces bottled in glass taste better and last longer than those packaged in plastic.
For heat, try fresh and dried chiles and ground chile pastes. If you like hot food, add chiles and chile paste to just about everything, as the Thais do. I start all my Thai stir-fries by foaming some little fresh bird chiles in hot oil with garlic. If you can’t find fresh Thai chiles, use fresh serranos or substitute dried. Chile paste, usually a mix of chiles, garlic, salt, and oil, is the base for many Thai soups, salad dressings, dipping sauces, and stir-fries.
Chiles, fresh, dried, and made into pastes, are a must for Thai stir-fries.
Coconut milk and palm sugar are the most common sweet ingredients. The sweet element found in most Thai dishes isn’t cloying. Instead, it balances the heat and counters the sour notes. Coconut milk, often added to curries, stews, and stir-fries, tones down the heat with its creamy sweetness. Palm sugar, made from the sap of various palm trees, comes packaged in plastic jars or as round cakes. It has a caramel flavor that enhances the salty and sour flavors of a dish. If you can’t find palm sugar, substitute light brown or granulated white sugar, increasing the amount called for by about 20 percent.
Palm sugar (left) and coconut milk give Thai dishes sweetness. Limes, kaffir lime leaves, or lemongrass add a fragrant, citrusy note.
Acidic ingredients add vibrancy. Thai cooks use great amounts of tart ingredients, such as lime juice and tamarind juice (made by soaking tamarind pulp in water), to wake up the taste buds. Lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves give a dish a refreshing, lingering lift.
Lemongrass, the most popular herb used in Thailand, is a tall, scallion-like stalk that has a subtle lemony and citrusy flavor and fragrance. Before using, peel away the tough outer layers and crush or chop the stalk to release its flavor.
Kaffir lime leaves impart a most intense floral and citrus flavor and are almost required in Thai curries. Lime zest, while not the same, will give the dish a similar refreshing citrus flavor.
Limes, kaffir lime leaves, or lemongrass add a fragrant, citrusy note.
Bright, fresh herbs are aromatic finishes. There’s another group of ingredients that further enhances all these basic flavors–the aromatics. Fresh herbs, such as basil, mint, and cilantro, are added to finished dishes
in great quantities, sometimes by cupfuls, with leaves often left whole to give a burst of flavor with each bite.
Cilantro, basil, and mint leaves–often left whole and added at the end–are frequently used in Thai dishes.
The shoots of the bamboo are cut when they have grown about 15 cm (6 inches) above the ground. They need to be peeled and the inner, white part boiled for 30 minutes in water. However, the canned variety needs to be boiled for only 10 minutes and may be used immediately in soups or curries. Canned bamboo shoots, once fridge, if the water is renewed every day.
BASIL AND HOLY BASIL
Hindus believe that basil is sacred and they like to plant it in religious sanctuaries. The variety of basil they use is called holy basil and it has a spicy flavour. This is more difficult to find in the West than sweet basil, but pepper or finely chopped chili can be added to the sweet variety to compensate. Both types of basil are used a lot in Thai cooking.
This is a soy bean extract to which a setting agent has been added. Soft beancurd is white, and is used extensively in Chinese dishes. It is available in most oriental shops, and is usually sold in pieces 7,5 cm (3 inches) square. Hard or dry beancurd is made by compressing soft beancurd. Beancurd is available in many other forms – fried, fermented, etc.
The sprouts of the soy or mung bean are crunchy and tender. They can be grown at home, but they are easy to find in most places nowadays. The canned variety is not a very good substitute but beansprouts can be replaced by other fresh vegetables, finely sliced, if necessary.
Also known as kaffir lime, this plant is found everywhere in Thailand and people often grow it at home. The leaves have a delicate flavour, slightly lemony, which goes equally well with curries and seafood dishes. The fruit has a bumpy dark green rind with a concentration of aromatic oils and the aroma of lemon. Sometimes the juice of this fruit is used in Thai dishes instead of lime, or vice versa. The skin is also used in many Thai dishes, especially curries, and can be replaced by grated lime skin if necessary.
The queen of spices, cardamom has been used since ancient times. Produced mostly in India and Sri Lanka, it also grows in south-eastern Thailand near Cambodia. The aromatic pods can be green, white or black and they all contain a number of small seeds. The pods and seeds are used in different types of sweet or savoury Thai dishes, especially in curries.
Powdered cardamom is readily available but it is better to grind your own freshly if possible.
Thai celery is much smaller than the variety found in the West. It is also greener, thinner-stemmed and leafier, with a stronger celery flavour. However, either type can be used equally well for Thai soups, sautés and salads.
Young celery leaves make an attractive garnish which enhances the flavour of the food at the same time.
The Thai add generous amounts of chilies to most of their dishes. No one region is known as the home of fiery food, as each province has its own “hot” dishes.
Many different varieties of chilies are used in Thailand but the most common is 7.5-10 cm (3-4 inches) long and can be red, green or yellow when fresh. Dried, it is red. Another popular chili in Thai cooking is tiny, green and extremely fiery. The seeds are the hottest part of the chili so if you want to keep the flavour, with out the heat, slit open the chilies and discard the seeds. Dried chilies should be soaked in hot water for 10 minutes before grinding.
The Thai use chilies in almost every conceivable way – fresh, dried, whole, chopped, crushed or sliced into rings. Just a few words of caution, always wash your hands carefully after handling chilies and do not touch your eyes or mouth, or they will suffer from a burning sensation.
Can be bought in bottles from Asian stores. A particularly popular one in Thai cooking, especially for seafood dishes, is burnt mild chili paste.
These dried, whole mushrooms have a distinctive flavour. They should always be soaked in warm water for 30 minutes before being added to other ingredients. The stems are seldom eaten, as they are quite tough.
They are sold in most oriental food stores around the world.
In southern Asia, there are many varieties of cinnamon, the dried, aromatic bark of a member of the laurel family. In Thailand the “Batavia” variety is commonly used to give a pleasant aroma to beef and chicken dishes.
In Thai cuisine, cloves are added to curries and they also go very well with tomatoes, salty vegetables and ham. In Thailand, cloves have traditionally been chewed with betel leaves.
The milk itself is the liquid wrung from the grated and pressed coconut meat and then combined with water. In Thai cooking it is used with curries and stews and it is often combined with curry pastes for sauces. The milk is used as a popular cooling beverage and a key ingredient in puddings and candies.
Be sure to shake the tin well before opening to use.
The leaves and seeds are used in many cuisines throughout the world, but Thai cooking makes use of the roots as well.
The round, beige seeds are added to curries and vegetables. The roots are crushed with garlic to flavour meat and are often added to soups, especially beef soups. The leaves are used extensively as a garnish.
Only the seeds are used, dried and ground. In Thai cuisine, cumin is used in sauces and on grilled meats. Cumin can be purchased already ground, but the whole seeds keep their flavour better and they are easy to grind at home.
FERMENTED SOYA BEANS
Whole fermented yellow or black soy beans may be labelled “Dow See” in oriental stores. They are sold in bottles and the English label probably says “Yellow Bean Sauce”. Fermented soy beans are nutritious, strongly flavoured and salty. They replace salt completely in some Thai dishes.
FISH SAUCE (Nam pla)
Fish sauce is also known as fish gravy or nam pla. It is a thin brown sauce made from fermented salted fresh fish, usually anchovies. It is sold bottled and has a noticeable fish odour and salty taste. However, it is a Thai standard and should be used, perhaps sparingly at first; moreover, cooking greatly diminishes the ‘fishy’ flavour, and the sauce does add a special richness and quality to dishes. The Thai brands are especially good, with a less salty taste. It is an inexpensive ingredient so get the best on offer.
Both greater and lesser galangal are related to ginger. In Thailand greater galangal is most commonly used; its aroma is subtler than that of lesser galangal and its inside is milky white. You often find it in curries and soups. It is used fresh in Asia, but elsewhere it may have to be purchased dried. In this case, soak the root in hot water for 1 hour before use and remove it before serving. Powdered galangal is also available.
The Thai garlic head is made up of smaller cloves than the Western varieties. It is used abundantly in Thai cuisine.
The aromatic rhizome of the ginger plant is an important ingredient of Thai Meat Dishes and desserts. It must be peeled before it can be chopped, grated or crushed. Fresh ginger is preferable, but powdered ginger can be substituted if necessary.
This herb is close to being the ‘signature’ ingredient of Thai cookery. Lemongrass is available in fresh as well as dried form. Dried Lemongrass is used for herbal teas, and only the fresh for cooking. Fresh lemongrass is sold in stalks that can be 60cm (2 ft) long – it looks like a very long, thin spring onion. Most recipes use only the bottom few inches of the stem. Lemongrass pieces are removed after the dish is cooked. In recipes that call for lemongrass to be finely chopped or pounded into a paste, it becomes an integral aspect of the dish, and isn’t removed.
Fresh lemongrass can be kept, loosely wrapped, in the bottom part of your refrigerator for up to one week. Please note that lemon is not a substitute for the unique flavours of lemongrass.
You’ll find lime leaves floating in soups or finely shredded. The dried leaves must be soaked in cold water 20 minutes before use. Substitute 1 tablespoon lime juice.
Leaves of the spearmint variety are often used in Thai salads, fish dishes and soups. Sweet basil leaves can be used as a substitute if necessary.
RICE, THAI JASMINE
This fragrant long-grain rice from Thailand is prized for its aromatic and nutty flavour.
Widely available in supermarkets, it is much favoured by Thai cooks and chefs. The taste of jasmine is not quite perceptible, but you sense that the rice is pleasingly different. And there is a difference, however subtle.
Don’t be intimidated by all the foreign writing on these packages of clear rice noodles. For pad thai you’ll need the wider noodles, which look like dry linguine. Rice noodles should be soaked in cold water, then quickly boiled or stir fried.
This sweet-and-sour fruit comes from a fuzzy light brown pod. The pulp (with seeds) is sold in a flat square as tamarind paste. It must be mixed with water and strained before using.
Experiment with Thai flavors
- For a delicious barbecue, try marinating meats with fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar, garlic, lemongrass, and chiles.
- Serve steamed or fried fish with a sauce made with equal parts of fish sauce, water, and sugar, and then accent with garlic, Thai chiles, and a squeeze of lime.
- For a flavorful Thai salad dressing, blend together lime juice, sugar, fish sauce, lemongrass, chiles, and sliced onions.
- Rub a chicken with lemongrass, cilantro, chiles, coconut milk, garlic, and fish sauce and roast as usual. Ten minutes before the chicken is done, baste it with the spice mixture and return it to the oven until cooked. This last-minute treatment creates a most aromatic roast chicken.
Mai Pham is the chef-owner of Lemon Grass Restaurant & Cafe in Sacramento, California. She wrote The Best of Vietnamese & Thai Cooking. Photos: Scott Phillips. From Fine Cooking #31, pp. 72-73.