7 essential ingredients to buy from a market to stock your Thai kitchen
At the heart of the Thai cuisine we know and love is an extensive repertoire of fresh and store-cupboard ingredients that marks the country’s food out from that of any other and makes it sing to the hearts of Thai foodies everywhere. The difficulty in sourcing some of these ingredients – especially the fresh ones – is one of a handful of factors that weigh on how authentic (or not) Thai meals served in restaurants and homes overseas feels. And, whether in Thailand or abroad, stocking the pantry with the right ingredients is an essential task for anyone hoping to accomplish real-deal Thai home cooking.
But it needn’t be as daunting as it might sound – the key is to start with these bare essentials, which you’ll come to need time and again as you work your way through a compendium of Thai recipes. They are a mix of ambient goods, which will keep for a long time if stored correctly, and fresh pickings that you’ll need use quickly and replenish frequently. Of course, shopping for these ingredients at local fresh markets in Bangkok or elsewhere around the country is the best way to get the full-on Thai foodie experience, but you’ll find most without trouble at Thai and Asian stores around the world.
You won’t get far cooking Thai food at home without a ready supply of fish sauce. This thin but undeniably pungent liquid is used as the salty base for everything from stir-fries to salads and more.
Together with chillies and garlic, it’s the main component of the unmistakable wok breath that gets in the eyes and throat of anyone in the vicinity of a stir-fry stall as the first ingredients of each dish hit the hot oil. And at its most basic, jim jaew – the hot-and-sour dipping sauce that accompanies much of northeastern Thailand’s infamous cuisine – is little more than fish sauce, lime juice, and crushed dried chillies.
While fish sauce keeps for a fairly long while, its taste does begin to deteriorate over time as a salty sediment begins to build up at the bottom of the bottle. For this reason, unless you’re expecting to be churning out big enough batches of homemade Thai food to feed the five thousand, you’re probably better off buying a smaller bottle of fish sauce every so often rather than investing in one enormous bottle to last a lifetime.
Vegetarians, and others with specific dietary requirements, can get close to the real thing by substituting fish sauce for vegetarian-friendly soy sauce – or, for a deeper flavour, a combination of equal parts soy sauce and homemade, well-salted mushroom broth.
Such is the richly diverse ensemble of flavours and ingredients that goes into the majority of Thai dishes, by the time they reach the table the garlic in them is hardly discernible on its own. But make no mistake, it’s almost always there – chilli aside, garlic is probably the single most central plant-derived ingredient in Thai cooking. It’s there as the starting point in somtum papaya salad, stir-fries like pad krapao, and all manner of Thai curry pastes.
Small baby garlic cloves are the kind most often used in Thai cuisine, and they’re a cook’s dream: so soft and tender are their skins that they don’t even need to be peeled, instead being perfect for just throwing into the mortar and pounding as they are. But baby garlic is less common overseas, where the same quantity of peeled and crushed regular garlic cloves can be used without issue.
How could you contemplate Thai cuisine without thinking of chillies? It’s a myth that all Thai food is spicy by nature – what about pad thai, omelettes, grilled and fried meats, and deeply flavoured but creamy, not spicy soups and curries like tom kha gai and gaeng massuman? – but there’s little getting away from the truth that the humble chilli is at the centre of it all.
In the context of Thai cuisine, chillies come both fresh and dried, and at fresh markets in Thailand and good Thai and Asian grocery stores abroad you’ll find both in a number of varieties. Perhaps the most commonly used fresh chillies, and therefore those most worth stocking in your Thai pantry at home, are medium-hot prik chee fah chillies (literally ‘chilli pointing to the sky’) and smaller, hotter prik kee noo chillies (literally ‘mouse-dropping chilli’). Both are good generalists for the bulk of Thai dishes, with the former regularly appearing in stir-fries and salads. Prik kee noo chillies are appreciated for their fire, meaning they are a staple for curry pastes alongside other more specialised and even spicier chilli varieties – you can also throw them into everyday stir-fries if you’re after more of a kick.
Of the various appearances dried chillies make in Thai cuisine, home cooks are most likely to come across them in the form of prik pon dried crushed chilli powder. This is at the base of jim jaew dipping sauce and other Thai sauces, as well as featuring in northeastern Thai dishes like laab, in mainstays such as pad thai, and as an essential condiment for noodle soups and other similar dishes. Prik pon stores well but, just as with fish sauce, you’re better starting off with a small amount and replacing it as necessary, in this case to avoid it turning musty if kept too long.
The lime might not be the first fruit you associate with Thai cuisine, but in fact it is at the heart of the country’s cooking. The popular adage that Thai food is a balanced harmony of sweet, sour, spicy, salty and sour is undeniably an oversimplification, but it’s not intrinsically incorrect, and an element of sourness is without doubt central to plenty of famous Thai dishes.
Somtum wouldn’t be somtum without the sourness of lime to counteract the salty fish sauce and sweet palm sugar in the famous papaya salad’s base dressing, for instance. Sour undertones are likewise an essential component of the flavouring of Thai cuisine’s numerous other salads, and even iconic Thai recipes like tom yum soup need a twist of lime to balance out the hot and sour.
While lime juice admittedly doesn’t feature as prominently in many Thai stir-fries or curries (although it does appear in some, like gaeng som sour curry), even the likes of fried rice usually come with a wedge of lime to allow the diner to adjust the seasoning themselves – so too do noodle dishes like pad thai. Lime juice also comes into its own in a vast array of Thai dipping sauces, from the simplest prik nam pla to the likes of jim jaew and more.
Lemons will do if they’re as close as you can get, but the flavours are markedly different and limes are easy to source in most parts of the world. You’ll find them in just about every fresh market up and down Thailand, sold individually, in bags of four to 10 fruits or so, and at more wholesale-geared markets even by the kilo. To the casual market-goer, limes can appear to fluctuate in price perhaps more than just about any other Thai crop, since farmers’ yields depend so heavily on the changing weather – expect to see limes for a single baht per fruit (or even less one day), and then up to five times as expensive the next. Keep your limes refrigerated; they last a fair while but, for the best flavour and the greatest amount of juice, you want to use them as quickly as possible.
Thailand’s cuisine wouldn’t be half as show-stopping as it is without the abundance of herbs that play its leading role, and a stroll around a fresh Thai market wouldn’t be half the experience without the sight of bundles and bundles of leafy green herbs you’ve never seen or heard of.
All manner of herbs are central to the most famous Thai dishes, plus countless other lesser-known ones that go under-appreciated. Think krapao holy basil in the eponymous stir-fry (including the flowers as well as the leaves); horapa sweet basil in green and red curries; mint in various versions of laab as well as salads like kung che nam pla raw prawns marinated in fish sauce; coriander leaves in all kinds of Thai salads as well as a variety of other dishes, and coriander roots into curry pastes and marinades; kaffir lime leaves in everything from penang curry to tod man pla fish cakes and pad prik gaeng stir-fries; the likes of lemongrass and galangal (alongside kaffir lime leaves) in curry pastes as well as oups like tom yum and tom kha; prik thai on green peppercorns and krachai wild ginger in dishes including the spicy pad cha stir-fry; and more specialist herbs like bai yila cumin leaves in the likes of pad phet stir-fries.
Put simply, you’ll need an array of different fresh herbs in the course of your Thai cooking adventures. All of these herbs and plenty more are easy to come by in even the smallest of local neighbourhood fresh markets in Bangkok and around Thailand – don’t underestimate how much the market herb vendor has tucked away in the far reaches of his or her stall, so be sure to ask for what you’re looking for if you don't see it – but inevitably some will be difficult or impossible to find abroad, even in specialist Thai grocery stores, which is when substitutions come into play.
Unless you’re lucky enough to have them growing on your kitchen windowsill, buy them as you need them and use them quickly, as they don’t last long. To keep them fresh, lay them flat on a large plate and lay a soaked and wrung-out tea towel over the top; frequently wet and wring out the tea towel again, ensuring that it remains moist until you get around to using the herbs. The all-too-frequently discarded roots of herbs like coriander can be invaluable (and not always easy to come by overseas) so, if you’re not going to use them, wash them and freeze in a zip-lock bag until you come across a recipe that needs them – you’ll be thankful you did.
A less widely recognised Thai ingredient than many others, you’ll nevertheless find tamarind in a number of universally popular Thai dishes such as pad thai, as well as in others more likely on the radar of dedicated like Thai foodies, like gaeng som. This sweet-and-sour fruit comes in the form of blocks of stringy pulp that you can pick up at any fresh market in Thailand. Add the tamarind pulp (just a portion of the block will suffice for most recipes) to a small dish of room-temperature water, and wring out the flesh until it infuses the water and turns it a deep brown colour. Discard the flesh and you’re left with tamarind water to use in a variety of Thai recipes. If you can’t find fresh ‘wet tamarind’ pulp overseas, you can use the more easily obtainable canned or jarred ready-made version in place of the home-prepared liquid.
Palm sugar is traditionally used to add a hint of sweetness to Thai dishes, and makes its way into everything from somtum papaya salad to countless desserts and sweet snacks. It also brings caramel hues to sauces that accompany numerous Thai dishes. At fresh markets in Bangkok and elsewhere around Thailand, you’ll find both hard mounds of palm sugar that need to be shaved off before adding to dishes, as well as soft mounds of the stuff, which is arguably easier to work with and can simply be added to your dish with a spoon. Palm sugar is generally easy enough to find overseas – although, depending on the ambient temperature where you are, you may find the consistency to be much firmer – but, if you’re struggling, regular granulated white sugar can be substituted in most dishes if necessary.
To learn more about the core ingredients and for a chance to buy them for yourself, why not take a cooking class with us at Bangkok's famous Pak Klong Talat Flower Market?
What are the essential ingredients in your Thai kitchen? Let us know in the comments!
Garlic photo by Chris Wotton; Thai basil photo by missbossy