Though Thai cuisine is brilliantly complex tasting and known for its amazing balance of sour, sweet, bitter and salty it’s actually easy to make at home. Gather up these 10 simple ingredients and you have the basics for getting started cooking Thai.
Known in Thai as nam pla, this seasoning is a pungent brine made from fermenting fish with salt. Check the label: it should contain only anchovies, salt and water. It has over 1,000 mg sodium per tablespoon, so use it sparingly. Try mixing minced fresh bird or serrano chiles with fish sauce (as we do in this photo). Use this recipe for Fish Sauce with Chiles as a condiment or in place of regular fish sauce in recipes.
Though you can make your own, even in Thailand most cooks buy premade curry pastes. Red and green varieties can be found at well-stocked supermarkets. Both have notes of galangal, lemongrass and coriander root. Green is flavored with fresh green chiles and red with dried red chiles.
Along with limes, unseasoned rice vinegar adds sourness to dressings. Its essential in many dipping sauces, including nam jim that is served with grilled chicken. Cider vinegar is a good substitute.
Used in Thai curries, fresh coconut milk is made by rinsing the oils out of coconut flesh with warm water. Canned coconut milk is an easy option and widely available in the Asian section of well-stocked supermarkets. Cut 280 calories and 16 grams of saturated fat per cup by using a “lite” version or dilute regular coconut milk with water.
Sticky rice, also called glutinous rice, is the staple in north and northeast Thailand. It is eaten out of hand, like a piece of bread. Jasmine rice is grown throughout central Thailand and is a staple in much of the country. For whole-grain rice choose brown jasmine or black sticky rice.
Fresh and dried chile peppers provide heat in Thai food. Fresh cayenne chiles are used in curries. Fiery hot Thai “bird” chiles are used in sauces and stir-fries. Refrigerate fresh chiles up to a week or store in the freezer. Use serrano or jalapeño chiles if you can’t find bird or cayenne. Dried red chiles are commonly used to make curry paste and add heat to soups and stir-fries.
Black peppercorns were the original source of heat in Thai food before the arrival of chiles from the Americas in the 16th century. They’re part of traditional marinades for grilled chicken and grilled beef.
Lime juice gives a tart lift to grilled meats, salads and fried rice. Lime leaves are often used in Thai cooking, but if they’re hard to find use freshly grated lime zest to give a similar floral, citrusy aroma to curries and soups.
Grilled shallots are chopped and added to vegetable salsas like Grilled Eggplant Salsa. For a little crunch and bite, thinly sliced shallots appear in Thai yam (salads) of all kinds. Garlic is crushed or minced and then tossed into hot oil as a flavoring.
Abundant fresh herbs including cilantro, mint, Thai basil and Vietnamese coriander add distinctive flavors to everything from salads to curries to fried rice. Thai basil has a sweet anise flavor. Use it if you can find it, otherwise substitute regular basil.