13 Key Ingredients in Thai Cooking

August 14, 2008

Turmeric
Related to ginger, it gives food a golden color and aslightly pungent flavor. In Thai cuisine, turmeric root is gratedor pounded to release its color and aroma. Since raw turmeric isnot widely available in the United States, we've used the groundvariety.

Bird chiles
Although bird chiles are often identified with Thai cooking,they're actually from South America and have been embraced by Thaicooks only recently. Bird, or chiltepín, chiles are small, redor green, and very hot. Thai chiles, which look similar but are abit larger, are just as hot and can be used in the same capacity.In the accompanying recipes, we call for milder serranos ratherthan Thai chiles as
a substitute, though, because they're easier to find. Ingeneral, two bird chiles yield one teaspoon minced.



Garlic

Most recipes incorporate garlic, a seasoning familiar to Thaicooking since ancient times.

Fresh mint
Mint is used often in combination with cilantro to flavor andgarnish salads. Thais tear mint by hand instead of slicing it. Oncebruised, the leaves release a potent and refreshing aroma.

Shallots
Thais love shallots for their mildly peppery taste and earthyscent. Thinly sliced fresh shallots are added to salads; mincedshallots (which exude a liquid that helps puree other ingredientswhen pounded) are used for seasoning pastes.

Coriander
Thais use every part of this aromatic herb for seasoning. Theroot is pounded with other ingredients into seasoning pastes; theseeds are ground and used to impart their grassy, peppery flavor tosoups and curries. The stems and leaves, known as cilantro, areused as garnishes and in stir-fries, soups, and stews. Whilecoriander root is important for Thai seasoning, it's not readilyavailable, so we've substituted cilantro stems instead.

Thai white peppercorn
An indigenous spice, Thai white peppercorn was used to addheat long before Westerners introduced chiles. You can use whitepeppercorn, commonly available in supermarkets, in place of thespicier Thai variety.

Kaffir lime leaves
Along with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf is closely identifiedwith Thai cooking for its distinct citrusy aroma. Fresh leaves arehard to come by, but you can purchase them frozen in small bags atmost Asian markets. If you can't find them, substitute limezest.

Lemongrass
Thai cooking has brought fame to this tart herb. Its whitebulb is pulverized for seasoning pastes or added to perfume soupsand stews, while the tender green stalk is thinly sliced forsalads. Steeped in hot water, lemongrass also makes a refreshingtea. Look for it in the produce section of your supermarket or inAsian markets.

Galangal
Also called Laos ginger, galangal is that distinctive Thaiflavor most Americans can't identify. We found galangal, which youcan buy in Asian markets, to be stronger, more astringent, andspicier than ginger, but you can substitute the latter.

Ginger
The Chinese introduced this aromatic and pungent rhizome tothe Thais. Its unmistakable peppery flavor adds a layer ofspiciness.

Thai fish sauce
Today, this ingredient is a must in Thai cooking, but likechiles, fish sauce is a latecomer to the cuisine. This condimenthas gained favor over the use of fermented fish in many parts ofThailand and in the United States, because of its versatility andless intense taste and scent. It's still plenty potent,though--just a small spoonful makes a world of difference in Thaidishes.

Thai basil
Thais use many varieties of basil, which taste more likelicorice than the Italian kind. To retain Thai basil's freshflavor, add it to stir-fries, soups, or stews at the lastminute.

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