When I was learning Thai cooking, there was never a recipe per se. Mom used to add chilies, or shrimp paste, or turmeric or other ingredients to the paste after a sniff of the paste. Mom always added a little fish sauce, sugar or soy sauce to the dish while adjusting it to her preference, or more specifically, to dad’s and ours. Experiment and experience make a good Thai cook. As for me, I tend to be a little bland with my food. I am sensitive to saltiness. When I cook for others, I try to make the dish a little too salty for me, and then it would be just right for ones who enjoy it.
what do you need in a thai kitchen?
Although fresh Thai ingredients are sometimes hard to find, many Asian grocery stores in town offer a variety of both fresh and bottled ingredients. Different stores carry different things so be sure to visit many of them to look for the best ingredients you are looking for. As you learn to cook Thai food, you will also learn to substitute some Thai ingredients with the available high quality local ingredients. One thing to remember though, consider the taste of the original ingredient before substituting with other ones. Something that looks alike might not taste the same. Here are some main ingredients in Thai cooking that you can find in your local Asian stores and some tips on substitutions. Here is the list of Asian grocery stores in Austin. The best one for Thai cooking will be My Than Market and Hong Kong Supermarket. This list is compiled by Mick Vann, a very very good friend of mine. It’s the most complete list of all the ethnic stores you will need in Austin. Thanks Mick.
Bamboo Shoots (nor mai)
Bamboo shoot is excellent for curries and stir-fried dishes. They are a little bitter in taste but after cooking, it loses its bitterness a little. When buying canned bamboo shoots, rinse before using.
There are different types of basils. The ones that are available at Asian supermarket are the Thai sweet basil (bai horapa). The leaves are used in red and green curries. They can also be used as a side vegetable for egg rolls or spring rolls. The other type that is commonly used in stir-fried dishes is holy basil (bai grapao). Holy basil is sharp and hot. It is difficult to grow in non-humid weather. Asian supermarket carries bottled holy basil, garlic and chili paste for stir-fried dishes. The paste works well to maintain an intense flavor of holy basil. I usually use the paste and add Thai sweet basil to the dish to create the freshness of the dish while keeping the strong taste of original recipe.
Cassia leaf (bai grawan)
Cassia leaf is used in masaman curry and in beef soup. It is sold in Indonesian name, daun salam, in Asian store. However, bay leave can be used to substitute.
Thai chilies are available in Asian supermarket. It will be marked “Thai chilies”. Thai chili has its own flavor and should not be substituted with other kind of chilies. The little ones (bird’s eye chillies) are hard to come by. I have never seen in any Asian supermarket. The ones that are available are a little less hot but are good enough for Thai cooking.
Coconut Milk (kati)
Coconut milk is used mostly in curry dishes or in desserts. Coconut cream, which is the top part of the can, is used to stir fry curry paste. Coconut milk (haang kati) can be made by adding some water to the top cream. I have been very happy with the canned coconut milk. Although, the canned coconut cream does not crack or separate as much as the hand-squeezed coconut cream, the taste of curries is very much satisfactory. The brand I used is Chao Kho. You should be able to find it at Asian food store in town. It is the most common brand. I heard that Mae Ploy brand is also good. I haven’t tried it but many Thai cooks recommend this brand too.
Curry Paste (Nam prik kaeng)
Curry pastes are available in cans. In Thailand, we hardly make our own pastes. Mom usually buy her pastes from her trusted stall in the market. However, she often adds chillies or onions or garlic to her own taste. The pastes are made using pestle and mortar. Curry paste made with food processor will not give the same texture. When not around the markets like the ones in Thailand, the canned product is pretty much reliable. Personally, I prefer Mae Sri brand because it has richer flavor than other brands. Many Asian store carry this brand but if you can’t find it in your local store, try Temple of Thai, they carry most of the Mae Sri brand curry pastes.
Egg Plant (makeua)
The most common eggplant that are locally found are the long eggplant (makeua yao). They are green in color. The ones that are easily found are the Japanese eggplants that are purple. The purple eggplants can be used as an alternative. Eggplants are used in green curry or grilled to make salad or stir fried with soybean paste and chilies.
Fish Sauce (nam pla)
Almost all Thai dishes has this amazing seasoning. Add fish sauce to anything, and it will do wonders. Funnily enough, when on its own, fish sauce smell and taste very pungent. When added to dishes and cooked, fish sauce completes the taste of Thai cooking as it blends and supports other flavors. Soy sauce should not be used as a substitution. The two sauces are different in almost everything.
Garlic is used in almost all the curry pastes. Minced garlic is used in almost all of the stir-fried dishes. Before anything, minced garlic is fried with vegetable oil until golden brown before adding other ingredients into stir-fried dishes. I mince my own garlic every time I cook. Bottled minced garlic loses its flavour and scent.
Kaffir Lime Leaves (Bai Magrood)
These leaves add great flavor to curries and soups like Tom Yum or Tom Kha. They are not usually available in the market. If you get some, freeze them, and they stay forever. You can buy a starter plant from nurseries in town at Natural Gardener, Gardens at 35th, It’s about Thyme out on Manchaca. Or go to the Sunset Valley Farmer’s Market and there are a few nurseries that sell the plant. You can order them by mail here or fromhere. Adding these leaves will make a big difference in your cooking. The flavor of the dish will be deeper and stronger. Kaffir lime plants can be found in some nurseries. If you run into one, buy it. You have to grow them in pots because these plants are sensitive to winter weather. Bring them in during winter and they will give you enough leaves in spring to freeze and use in winter time. You can buy the tree here. There are many more sites that sell these trees but if you live in Texas, you can’t have it shipped to Texas because Texas grows their own citrus trees and they prevent sending citrus trees from outside of the states.
Lemongrass (ta krai)
The plant is used in curries and soup like Tom Yum and Tom Kha. Lemongrass is easily grown by striking the bulb in water and then plant in a big pot. Keep the soil moist.
Lime (ma nao)
Thai limes are smaller than what can be found here. However, big limes are becoming common in markets in Thailand. Use fresh limes to squeeze limejuice instead of using limejuice that is available in the supermarket.
Fresh mushrooms that are available in the market are not my favorite. They tend to be too bland and hard to cook. Thai mushrooms are sweeter. I usually use straw mushrooms that are available in cans in Asian grocery store. They taste better.
Oyster Sauce (nam man hoi)
Although of Chinese origin than Thai, oyster sauce adds flavors to many stir-fried dishes. Have a bottle at home to use interchangeably with soy sauce and sugar. It is salty and sweet.
Oil (nam maan puet)
Vegetable oil is used for all the dishes. Sometimes, mom uses pork fat to make oil. Pork fat gives a rich texture to the dish. Not many people use pork fat as it is rich in cholesterol.
Peppercorn (prik thai)
The kind that is used in Thai cooking is the white pepper corn. It is ground using pestle and mortar. I use ground white pepper as a substitute and it works very well. When making an all-time-favorite marinade, pepper, salt and garlic, I use peppercorn and grind it with the rest to make the paste.
Red Shallot (hom daeng)
Shallots are used in curry pastes or in salads (fresh). It is also used to add to Thai omelet.
The favorite Thai rice is the long grain jasmine rice kao hom mali- literally mean rice fragrant jasmine. The ones that are sold outside Thailand are usually the best quality jasmine rice. I never had a chance to eat such good rice until I moved to the US.
Shrimp Paste (kapi)
Shrimp paste is the heart of Thai cooking. It is in almost all curry pastes and many stir-fried dishes use this paste to season. The smell of shrimp paste is worse than fish sauce and is extremely pungent. You can buy shrimp paste at Asian supermarket. Thai shrimp paste is different from the ones from other countries; so make sure you buy shrimp paste from Thailand.
Sticky Rice (kao neuw)
Sticky rice is eaten with many salads or is used to make desserts. Sticky rice is a different kind of rice. It is more glutinous than jasmine rice. The rice needs to be soaked at least for four hours or overnight before being steamed. In Asian supermarket, it is called sweet rice or gluttonous rice. Although called glutinous rice, sticky rice does not contain any gluten. So, it is safe for gluten free diet.
Sugar (nam tarn)
Palm sugar (nam tarn peep)- is rich in flavor and is preferred when cooking Thai food. Palm sugar is available in bottles and is available in Asian supermarket.
White sugar (nam tarn sai) is used as a substitute for palm sugar and is as good. There are only a few dishes that will be distinctively different when using palm sugar. The recipes will indicate if palm sugar is a must.
Soy Sauce (sii euy)
Thin soy sauce – Thais prefer to use thin soy sauce in their stir-fried dishes.
Thick soy sauce – It is used to add golden brown color to stir fried dishes or to marinate meat for dishes that has some influence from Chinese food.
Sweet soy sauce –is used with other ingredients to marinate meat.
Soybean Paste (tao jeuw)
This paste is used to make many dishes often with the influence of Chinese cooking. The yellow soybeans are salted and then fermented with rice mould. It is used to make sauces, in soups, in steam dishes and some stir-fried dishes.
Tamarind (ma kaam piak)
Tamarind is used to add sour taste to the dish. The most common way of using tamarind is to use tamarind pulp that can be bought at Asian grocery store. Rinse the pulp and add warm water. Leave it for a few minutes until the pulps are softened, then squeeze and work the pulp to get the juice out of it. Thick tamarind water can be added to curries, soup or other Thai dishes.