Cooking Thai food overseas: substituting ingredients
It’s all too easy to fall in love with Thai food during a visit to Thailand. Whether you’re travelling in the bustling capital Bangkok, strolling along streets with green mountainous views in the northern city of Chiang Mai, or sipping cocktails on the white-sand beaches of southern Thailand’s celebrated islands, it’s the same story just about everywhere in this majestic country: delicious, inexpensive and expertly prepared street food abounds, ingredients and fresh and of tip-top quality and often include exotic varieties of fruits and vegetables that you have never seen before.
If you’re anything like us, by the end of a trip to Thailand you’ll be itching to recreate those same irresistible Thai dishes in your own kitchen as soon as you get back home. In fact, chances are you’ll already have spent much of your time in Thailand wishing you had a kitchen here, so that you could not only tour all those sense-stimulating fresh markets, but actually pick up some ingredients and take them back to get stuck into some cooking right away. You might even have taken a cooking class - like the ones we offer at The Market Experience, in the heart of Bangkok's infamous 24-hour wholesale flower market - as a way to get as close as possible to that enriching feeling that home cooking brings.
Yet it’s pointless denying that cooking authentic Thai food overseas presents its own set of challenges – not least in getting hold of all the top-notch, local ingredients those street cooks and five-star chefs used in Thailand to prepare the dishes you drooled over so much. It’s not an insurmountable challenge, but cooking Thai food at home does take a bit of adaptation – luckily we’ve got a go-to guide to make the process painless and enjoyable for you. Read on for our tips on recreating fabulously authentic Thai food overseas.
Herbs are perhaps the kind of Thai ingredient you are likely to face the most difficulty in tracking down overseas. Although they are often only light in weight, their fragility and the speed with which they can go bad means the real deal is often sparsely stocked outside of Thailand. That’s especially true with specific types of herbs, such as kaffir lime leaves in particular, which are prohibited for import to many countries in their fresh form (dried or frozen kaffir lime leaves are often fine, for instance).
Choice is thankfully growing, as a result of both consumer demand for imported varieties and the work of innovative growers who are producing locally grown varieties of the same herbs as a way of overcoming customs restrictions and exorbitant transport costs. In many countries, these days you’ll find typically Thai herbs like kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass stalks on supermarket shelves labelled up to indicate they have been grown right there domestically. (If you want to take this a step further, many exotic Thai herbs – especially the kind of basils popular in stir-fries and curries) will grow beautifully from seed on your windowsill, giving you constant access to an unlimited supply of the flavours of Thailand in your home cooking!)
Where none of this is possible, here’s our quick guide to substituting Thai herbs with locally available alternatives:
If you can’t find kaffir lime leaves, instead use strips of kaffir lime skin if you can get hold of the whole fruits themselves. If that’s not possible, you can substitute kaffir lime leaves with the leaves of regular limes – but not lemons, which carry a different flavour.
Fresh turmeric, widely used in Thai curry pastes and in the preparation of other dishes, can be hard to come by overseas – if you can’t buy it, substitute twice the amount of turmeric powder.
Holy basil leaves, known in Thai as bai krapao, are the foundation of the nation’s favourite stir-fry, pad krapao (stir-fried meat, such as minced chicken or pork, with chilli, garlic, and holy basil leaves). But bona fide holy basil leaves can be one of the hardest Thai herbs to track down abroad – if it proves a struggle, go ahead and replace them with more commonplace Italian or Greek basil leaves. The flavour won’t be quite the same, but it will come close. Just avoid using the other well-known type of Thai basil, horapa or sweet basil – that’s more at home in dishes like green curry, and throwing it into a stir-fy meant to contain bai krapao will throw the flavour off.
Some dishes call for green peppercorns – both in curry pastes and in stir-fries – but if you can’t get them, you are better off leaving them out altogether rather than attempting to substitute them with something else.
Sauces and condiments
Thai cuisine uses a whole host of unique sauces and condiments to create its distinctive combination of memorable flavours, and ideally you will use as many of these as possible when recreating your favourite Thai dishes as home. But some of them are much easier to get hold of than others, and some can prove a real headache depending on where it is that you are cooking. Here are a few hints for substituting where necessary:
If shrimp paste is proving elusive, or if you’re looking to make a dish containing this unmistakably potent Thai ingredient suitable for vegetarians, you can use soy beans instead. Take the amount of shrimp paste the recipe calls for, and use double that amount of salted soy beans – but note that you’ll want to pound the beans and drain off the residue, using only the beans themselves and not the juice that escapes from them.
Tamarind is used in Thai cooking as a paste or in the form of liquid produced by hand-squeezing fresh tamarind in water. It offers a powerful sweet and sour flavour to a whole host of Thai dishes, from pad thai to various curries and even some preparations of somtum papaya salad. But it’s not always easy to find overseas, so it can be replaced with the likes of apple vinegar, rice vinegar, or the slightly less ubiquitous pineapple vinegar.
It’s to be fully expected that not all of the beautifully exotic fruits and vegetables gifted to Thailand by its tropical climate will be available to those of us living in more temperate climates. Luckily, substituting the kinds of vegetables found in popular Thai dishes doesn’t necessitate sacrificing the flavours you love them for. Here’s how to easily switch out vegetables that are hard to come by back home:
Baby aubergines or eggplants, also known as apple eggplants, are a staple in authentic renditions of infamous dishes like green curry, and they also crop up in favourites like somtum papaya salad and in some stir-fries. If you can’t find them, then just replace them with the long aubergine/eggplant that’s far more easily found overseas – you’ll just need to chop the aubergine accordingly while preparing the dish. And if you can’t find a suitable aubergine at all for the kind of Thai dishes that call for them, then you can substitute them with courgettes.
For some people, Thailand’s infamous somtum papaya salad – arguably the true national dish, never mind pad thai or green curry – is only the real deal if it’s made with green unripe papaya. Papayas, though, can be difficult to procure overseas and, where they are available, they are often prohibitively expensive, because of both their weight and the cost of transporting them quickly before they begin to ripen. So it’s good news that there are actually any number of variations on the delicious dish we call somtum. In Thailand it’s commonplace for the salad to be made instead with chopped green beans, cucumber, or even carrot, and overseas it’s perfectly acceptable to substitute just about any firm vegetable, such as swede. Or go for a fruity twist and try making somtum with a crisp green apple!
What are your top tips for substituting hard-to-find ingredients when cooking Thai food overseas? Let us know in the comments!