Ingredients – The Key to Great Thai Meals

Learning to make Thai meals is always one of my most popular classes. Since so many people love it, I thought I would write a few Tips on this subject. Last week was the difference between Thai and Indian curries. This one discusses Thai cooking in a general sense and the next one will concentrate on Thai curry pastes. If you want to learn how to cook Thai in your own kitchen, contact me for information. In the meantime, for some tips on cooking Thai at home, read on.

One thing I teach over and over is that mastering cooking techniques rather than recipes should be the goal of all of us. If you have a good grasp of techniques, you can cook any cuisine. The techniques of cooking Thai as opposed to Italian or Indian or French are not all that different. What really makes the difference are the ingredients.

What do I mean by cooking techniques? I would recommend reviewing a couple of resources as a starting point. On my Home Page, you can download a free article entitled “Great Tips to Improve Your Cooking”. I also wrote an earlier Tip on “What Not to Do in the Kitchen”. These would be a great foundation for you.

Besides what you will find in those articles, a good cook should know the difference between cooking methods such as sauteing, stir-frying, grilling, roasting, poaching, steaming and so forth. Having good knife skills and always trying to improve is also important. (Why not book a class concentrating on Knife Skills?) Knowing what pots/pans are best to use for a particular dish as well as controlling the heat under that pot is very helpful.

For the rest of this Tip, we are going to presume you have a working knowledge of good cooking techniques. Let me move to what makes Thai food taste differently than other cuisines and that is Ingredients.

There is no way I can discuss all the ingredients that a Thai cook might use but I do want to go over some common ones. If you really want to make Thai dishes with authentic flavor, I strongly encourage you to seek out the real ingredients rather than relying on some of the substitutions I list. The following are listed in alphabetical order.

Aromatics

These are veggies from the allium family and include items such as shallots, onions, scallions and garlic.

Basil

Most commonly used is Thai basil, a relative of Mediterranean basil. It has purple stems and flowers with a slight licorice flavor and a hint of spiciness. As the flavor profile is so distinct from Mediterranean basil, it is best to seek out the Thai version rather than substituting if that is what is called for. Some Thai recipes call for sweet basil, which is the Mediterranean version.

Chiles

Although it does not have to be overly spicy, most Thai food will have somewhat of a bite to it. This is provided by fresh and dried chili peppers. The one most commonly seen in our local supermarkets is called a Thai chili pepper, a small and very hot pepper. In reality, though, there are many different varieties with varying heat level. On the Scoville scale, they can range anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 heat units. To put that in perspective, the jalapeno averages around 5000 units. For more information on chili peppers in general, see this Cooking Tip.

Cilantro

Also known as Chinese parsley, this herb is commonly found in our supermarkets.

Coconut Milk

Although not used in all Thai dishes, it is used in many. Coconut milk is made by soaking fresh or dried coconut in water, squeezing out the liquid and discarding the pulp. It is not the liquid inside fresh coconuts. Although you can drink that, it is not generally used in cooking. Also, stay away from Cream of Coconut, which is a sweetened product used for making cocktails.

The best coconut milk has a significant layer of coconut cream that rises to the top of the more liquid part. This is one thing that distinguishes a quality coconut milk from a lesser one. The better ones have a nice layer of cream on top. At times, you will want to use the cream separate from the thinner milk and at other times, you will just mix it all together. The cream layer, though, will give you a more luxurious taste and texture. My preferred brand is Chaokoh. Cooks Illustrated also likes that brand but at their last review, they chose Aroy-D as their favorite. These may or may not be available in your local supermarket although they certainly would be at an international market.

Curry Pastes

Thai curry pastes are a mixture of many fresh and dried ingredients. They are totally different from curry powder. There are numerous kinds with some of the most common being red, green, yellow, panang and masaman. Each has a different blend of ingredients yielding a different taste and level of spiciness. They are used not only in Thai curries but can also be used in Thai soups and stir-fries.

You can make your own but despite the advice in my Spice Cooking Tip, it is not something I normally do. The ingredient list is long and fairly complex. There are great commercially available curry pastes from which to choose. My favorite is Mae Ploy. The important thing to remember is that even among the same type of curry paste, the flavor and especially spiciness can vary greatly from brand to brand. Whether you are using a recipe or making your own Thai curry paste, always start with less than you need. If you are used to using one tablespoon of your favorite brand, don’t assume one tablespoon of another brand will be the same. I recommend finding a brand you like and then sticking with it for consistency.

Fish Sauce

Made from fermented fish, typically anchovies, this is the “salt” of Thai cooking. It is both a condiment and an ingredient and is full of glutamates that enhance flavor. In taste tests, the best fish sauce had the highest protein content. The higher protein content helps to balance the saltiness and other flavors. Most experts recommend the Red Boat 40°N brand but other highly rated ones are Thai Kitchen, A Taste of Thai and Golden Boy. Megachef is another recommended brand but the one you are most likely to see in an international market is in a blue bottle and is said to be formulated more for Vietnamese cooking. Megachef does have a Thai version in a brown bottle but is more difficult to find.

Galangal

Another herb with a pale yellow root and a distinctive flavor. Since it is a relative to ginger root, you can substitute that although it will not have the same taste.

Kaffir lime leaf

These are the leaves of a dark green knobbly lime that add a sharp and sour flavor. The leaves are used in curries and soups and the juice is sometimes used in soups. There is no real substitute but you can try lemon leaves or finely grated lemon/lime rind. One kaffir lime leaf is equal to ½ tsp lemon rind.

Lemongrass

This is a Thai herb with a distinctive, lemony flavor. The outer layer is discarded along with the straw-like top. Only the bottom ⅓ is used and is normally sliced or chopped. Although many mainstream grocery stores will carry pre-packaged lemongrass in their herb section, I usually find it dried out and not worth buying. You are much better off getting fresh lemongrass from the international markets.

Limes

Juice from regular limes is a very common ingredient used to add sourness and balance other favors.

Palm sugar

Made from various palm trees, it is a light brown, raw sugar. It comes in two forms: hard/lumpy or softer/paste-like. I would suggest you seek it out due to its distinctive flavor but in a pinch, you could try substituting raw sugar, brown sugar, coconut sugar, maple syrup or even honey.

Rice

Easily found in our supermarkets due to its popularity, Jasmine rice is the type that is served with Thai dishes. It is very flavorful with a distinctive aroma.

Tamarind

This is an ingredient made from the seed pod of a large Asian tree. It often comes in a block requiring you to break off a piece and soak in lukewarm water for 5 mins. (1 Tbsp of pulp in ¼ cup water) After soaking, the pulp should be squeezed & kneaded well to dissolve everything that can be dissolved followed by straining out the seeds/fiber. You can also easily find tamarind concentrate, which does not require soaking/straining. Although the taste will not be authentic, you can try substituting lemon, lime or grapefruit.

This is not an exhaustive list but if you have these items in your pantry, you are well on your way to delicious Thai meals. Stay tuned for the next Tip on Curry Pastes.