Thai food is an amazing thing, from hot curries to mild stir fries, tangy, herby salads and rich grilled meats. The way Thai dishes are balanced between sweet, salty, sour and umami is a thing of beauty. Classic Thai dishes have something for everyone – think chicken satay, pad thai, tom yum soup and waterfall beef salad.
Many Thai ingredients appear over and over in their dishes and these are the ones I’m focusing on here. While not an exhaustive list, by any means, here’s a list of some simple staple ingredients you can keep on hand ready for your next Thai recipe. Most are shelf stable or able to be frozen effectively.
Table of contents
Salty, rich in umami and pungent, fish sauce is used in many (I’d almost say most) Thai dishes and many other Asian cuisines too. This fermented fish in a bottle is a great way to level up your next stir fry too. Fish sauce has a wonderful savoury, salty flavour that goes well in everything from curries to stir-fries. Non-Asian recipes will benefit from this too – try it in salad dressings and sauteed vegetables.
Fish sauce will happily sit in your pantry for months or up to a year in the fridge. Other fermented seafood ingredients often used include shrimp paste and dried shrimp
Coconut milk in a can is an opaque milky liquid, extracted from the pulp of coconuts. It is rich and creamy and a great alternative to dairy-milk in many recipes. Coconut milk is used in Thai cooking in soups, curries and even for coconut rice and, being shelf-stable, you can have it on hand at all times.
The Thais like their food spicy and Thai chilies, also known as birds eye chillies, add a good punch of heat to many a dish. When fresh, these chillies should be stored in the fridge for up to a week and they can also be frozen. It’s quite acceptable to substitute dried chilli flakes in place of fresh chillies and these are shelf stable.
Jasmine rice is grown throughout thailand and is a staple in the Thai diet. This fragrant rice is shelf stable when uncooked so easy to keep on hand. From plainly steamed and served with curries to the sticky rice (or glutinous rice) of Northern Thailand that is often served with salty snacks.
Giving tang and lift to many Thai dishes, both the zest and juice can be used. Don’t use shelf stable lime juice – it just does not taste as good as the real thing. Fresh lime juice and zest can both be frozen for use at a later time.
From the allium family, along with onions, garlic adds a punch of umami and flavour that you just can’t get without it. It’s often used finely chopped or minced in curry pastes. Keep it in a cool (not cold) dark place, away from potatoes. It can be minced and frozen as well.
Shallots are used in many ways in Thai cookery. From thinly sliced fresh shallot in salads to minced shallot in curry pastes and sauces to crunchy, fried shallots topping noodles. They’ll keep well in a dark, cool, dry (not cold) place for up to months. Keep them away from potatoes. You can also freeze chopped shallots which are suitable for use in sauces.
Fresh herbs are a regular in Thai cuisine. Not only are the leaves used in and over dishes from curries to salads, the roots of the coriander (cilantro) are also used in curry pastes. Herbs are always used in their fresh form in Thai recipes. Thai basil (also known as holy basil) has a light, anise flavour while coriander has it’s own distinct flavour.
Often Thai recipes will call for palm sugar made from the coconut palm tree. Normally sold in small or large block, the sugar is grated to get what you need. It’s not as sweet as white sugar or brown sugar, though either of those in a slightly less amount will work in a pinch. Palm sugar is shelf stable though, so consider keeping this in your pantry.
Sweet and tart, tamarind has a sour tang. It comes from the tacky pulp of tamarind fruit that surrounds a seed inside a nut shell. If you purchase the fruit still with the seeds you should remove those however, tamarind puree in a jar is a very convenient option. It should be kept in the fridge once opened but keeps well.
Part of the ginger rhizome family, galangal has a stronger flavour. All at once more sweet but more bitter, it has a real peppery heat to it. While galangal has it’s own distinct flavour, if you’re in a bind, you can use ginger in it’s place.
Light Soy Sauce
Whilst technically, light soy sauce is a more Chinese ingredient, the Thai’s definitely use soy sauce and theirs tends to be lighter with a slightly different flavour. To save keeping different types though, light soy sauce works well in both Chinese and Thai cuisines. It’s shelf-stable and lasts a long time.
Other regularly used sauces in Thai cuisine are dark soy sauce, sweet soy sauce and oyster sauce.
Lemongrass grows as long stalks and has a lovely lemony fragrance without the acidity. It has a tang without being very sour and is used in many soups and curry bases. Lemongrass is very fibrous, so unless it’s minced in a sauce, it’s best to bruise and drop into slow cooking soups and curries to infuse it’s flavour. It’s also wonderful bruised and stuffed inside whole fish for baking. Lemongrass can be frozen for up to 2 months.
Makrut / Kaffir Lime Leaves
Added whole to soups and curries (to be removed before eating) makrut leaves (previously known as kaffir lime leaves) are wonderfully fragrant and add hint of lime flavour. They can also be chopped finely or minced and added to curry pastes. Roughly scrunch the leaves and stuff them into whole fish for baking. Makrut lime leaves can be frozen for 2-3 months and used straight from the freezer.
While you can make them yourself from scratch, jars of Thai curry paste (like red curry paste and green curry paste) are very convenient. Loaded with a number of punchy ingredients, they have a spicy, tangy and rich flavour. They’re used in everything from soups to curries. Curry paste in jars is shelf stable until opened, then must be stored in the fridge and used up quickly.
Recipes using Thai ingredients
- Thai Chicken Satay
- Thai Panang Curry with Prawns
- Lime Coconut Chicken
- Thai green chicken curry
- Thai green curry paste
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