Influenced by Chinese stir fries and Indian curries, Thai cuisine is a hodgepodge style of cooking that encourages experimentation, which will come in handy if you have trouble finding some of its more obscure ingredients.
Unfamiliarity with these foreign flavors, let alone figuring out how they relate to each other, is a common beginners’ obstacle, but don’t let that discourage you! We promise this will be quick and relatively painless, and the reward-exposure to a new world of flavors-is well worth the effort.
So the next time you’re planning a meal, resist your hankering for a quick take-out fix; check out our beginners’ guide to Thai cuisine below instead, and find out how a little culinary background info and an adventurous palate can make cooking something you actually look forward to, and healthy! We’ve also compiled a list of several traditional Thai ingredients along with everything you’ll need to know to about them, from cooking techniques to health benefits to tips on where to get them. So get psyched for…
Thai Cooking 101
Unlike westerners who generally eat in several courses, a typical Thai meal has just one and is laid out all at once. Steamed rice is a constant at mealtimes, and is accompanied by a number of (typically wok-fried) dishes-approximately one per guest. Eating together is a communal activity, and all the dishes are shared around the table according to custom.
There is generally a balance between sour, salty, sweet and spicy flavors in a dish or across a meal, and it is believed to restore harmony between the body’s Yin and Yang forces. The Yin represents cold, or soothing energy, e.g. coconut milk, and the Yang represents hot energy that increases the pulse rate, e.g. chili peppers.
This theory has been passed down from generation to generation, and while many swear by it, we encourage you to find out for yourself.
The highly-prized and aromatic jasmine rice is almost exclusively native to Thailand, making it one of the less accessible fundamentals of Thai cuisine 🙁 Don’t panic just yet, jasmine rice lovers: more health food and specialty stores are stocking jasmine rice in their packaged grain section, and Asian groceries/marketplaces are even more likely to carry it. Another popular Thai rice is short-grain sticky rice which is easier to find at similar markets, and can be substituted by sushi rice if unavailable.
Tip: Store dry Jasmine rice in a cool area away from moisture and open air; cooked rice can be refrigerated for up to seven days, or stored in the freezer for six months.
An essential ingredient in Thai dishes, Lemongrass is an aromatic (some say minty) herb with a lemony flavor. It grows in long fibrous stalks of which only the juicy white-yellow bulbs are used, and it is customary to bruise them with a knife before cutting and cooking to help bring out their aroma and flavor in a dish.
Lemongrass can be finely minced and added to curries and pastes, but it’s most often used like cinnamon or bay leaves, which are typically removed before serving.
Lemongrass has been used since ancient times to relieve fevers, abdominal pain and cold symptoms. It is slowly becoming a more common sight in health food stores and can almost always be found at Asian groceries. If you’re not lucky enough to have one in your area, a mix of lemon zest (rind) with a small amount of ginger is a common substitute for lemongrass, and lemon leaves are sometimes also used. If fresh lemongrass is unavailable, there are dried and powdered varieties. Two tablespoons of powdered spice is equal to about one fresh stalk, and use an extra 2-3 pieces if cooking with dried lemongrass (when seasoning, bear in mind that dried lemongrass is already salted).
If you want the freshest lemongrass possible, you can grow it yourself, but keep it indoors during the colder months if you live in a cooler climate. Seeds can be bought online or at specialty seed stores, or you can just germinate a bulb from another stalk in a jar of water until it roots, and then transfer it to its own pot.
Tip: Basil is another garden-friendly component of Thai cuisine that flourishes in many climates.
A ubiquitous staple in Thai food, Coconut milk is the rich base for many curries, sauces, drinks and sweet dishes and is often used to balance out hot or spicy elements. It can be found in most supermarkets or even made at home!
To prepare coconut milk, mix the grated meat of a ripe coconut with warm water and then squeeze out the juice, but unless you can find fresh coconuts, you’re better off using the canned stuff.
A layer of fat at the top is normal (like with real milk), and this fat lowers bad cholesterol (LDL) while promoting good cholesterol. Coconut milk also boosts immunity and provides valuable fatty acids, putting it at the top of the list of healthy Thai ingredients.
Palm sugar is made from the sap of the palm tree and can be found at Asian or Indian specialty food stores. Since it stores well, ordering online is also entirely acceptable. Aside from sweets and desserts, palm sugar can also be used in savory dishes, like fish, to play against their saltiness. The sugar is a golden brown paste, and can be light-colored or dark and gooey. If you can’t get your hands on any, you can substitute with brown sugar.
Perhaps the most widespread taste in Thai food is fish sauce, sometimes called the soy sauce of Southeast Asia. The best fish sauces are usually thin and virtually clear with a salty taste derived from fermented fish (anchovies are the most common).
It has a very pungent aroma and is said to be an acquired taste, but it’s practically used as a salt substitute in many parts of the world. Sugar is sometimes added to highlight its saltiness.
Fish sauce can virtually always be found at an Asian marketplace/grocery near you and is also becoming a regular in the aisles of many specialty-foods store.
Generally speaking, the smaller the pepper the hotter it is, and the prik kee noo, the smallest and most popular of the Thai chilies, is no exception. Recent studies show that eating hot red peppers like these can help you fight fat all in itself! Chilies can be served in countless forms, from dried pieces (which are hotter than fresh ones) to minced in a sauce.
The pri kee noo is rated the second hottest pepper in the scoville scale, an index of hot peppers, and the seeds are the hottest part. Many cookbooks recommend preparing them with gloves to avoid skin irritation and not to touch your eyes before washing your hands.
If you can’t find Thai peppers, try dried whole Mexican chilies and soften them with a soak in hot water.
Tip: Don’t drink water to relieve chili heat-rice, beer or milk drinks do a better job.
Congratulations! You’ve passed the course and learned the basics of Thai cooking. Hopefully this guideline has made you feel more comfortable about experimenting with eastern cuisine and armed you with all the facts you need to prepare mouthwatering nutritious meals. For healthiest results, use small amounts of oil and opt for steaming instead of frying whenever possible. Now go have some fun, and don’t be afraid to experiment with different ingredients and combinations. Variety really is the spice of life, and it’s also one of the best ways to get your family excited about eating healthy.