There’s something about Thai food that just makes a person feel good.
Its cuisine manages to incorporate all of the five fundamental flavors — sweet, salty, sour, spicy, and bitter — with the perfect balance of staple ingredients so embedded in its typical recipes. Using light sauces and quick cook methods, Thai food relies on strong aromatics for the characteristic stimulating, ever-fresh quality of its dishes. It’s this quality that makes Thai food remind me of the spring season, and it’s why Thai food is on my mind (and my plate) lately.
Of all the take-out food that people get, Thai food must be one of the most popular, and this is owed to the fact that some people are downright afraid of cooking Thai food at home. It seems too foreign, too delicate a system for most folks to think they can master. But truthfully, Thai food can be pretty darn easy to master. It’s all about recognizing the key ingredients used in Thai food to give it that unique “Thai” flavor. Once you get the range of ingredients down, you can experiment with stir-fries, salads, and sauces using different combinations of the same ingredients. It’s quite fun, actually.
Here is a list of some basic ingredients broken down by food “group” to get you feeling pumped about cooking Thai at home. This list is by no means exhaustive — it’s merely a starter course to get you in the mood. And just think of all the money (and Styrofoam containers!) you will save at the end of your culinary successes…
Use any or all of these flavor components in your Thai dishes. Together they create that “Thai” quality you will recognize!
Chilies – these are responsible for the heat in Thai dishes. While there are authentic Thai chilies out there, feel free to use any of your liking, such as jalapeno or Serrano
Chile paste – made from various Thai chilies, this paste is often stirred into curries and other sauces to add a thick heat with a bit of sweetness or bitterness
Fish sauce – made from, you guessed it!, fish, this liquid is very potent, very pungent, and used in extreme moderation in almost all Thai dishes for a salty, fish-like taste (may be omitted for vegan dishes)
Lime juice – used in most Thai dishes, hot or cold, to add a bright, uplifting essence of sour flavor
Sugar (traditionally date or palm) – used to add the essence of sweetness to Thai dishes
Cilantro, Basil, Mint – all common herbs used to enhance the other flavors of Thai recipes
Ginger – often the fresh root is sliced and used as a bitter and spicy flavor
Lemongrass – may be omitted for most dishes, but you will recognize its characteristic lemony, grassy flavor from dishes like Thom Yum or other Thai soups
Tamarind paste or juice – made from the tamarind, this thick, pulpy fruit adds a sweet and almost sour flavor to Thai dishes. Very typical in Pad Thai, although it may be omitted and replaced with more lime and sugar
Kaffir lime leaves – also acceptable to omit, these add a strong lime flavor to most Thai dishes
Now use the above flavor additives with the below foods, and mix and match to make your own homemade Thai sensation creation!
Fish, especially catfish
Shellfish, especially shrimp or prawns
Meat, especially pork
Nuts, especially cashews and peanuts
Common types of dishes:
Stir-fry with rice
Fresh vegetable and fruit salad (such as green papaya and shrimp salad)
Vegetable and protein-filled spring rolls
Stir-fry with noodles (such as Pad Thai)