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The Thai Pantry

13 Key Ingredients in Thai Cooking

Related to ginger, it gives food a golden color and a slightly pungent flavor. In Thai cuisine, turmeric root is grated or pounded to release its color and aroma. Since raw turmeric is not widely available in the United States, we've used the ground variety.

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


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

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

Thais love shallots for their mildly peppery taste and earthy scent. Thinly sliced fresh shallots are added to salads; minced shallots (which exude a liquid that helps puree other ingredients when pounded) are used for seasoning pastes.

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

Thai white peppercorn
An indigenous spice, Thai white peppercorn was used to add heat long before Westerners introduced chiles. You can use white peppercorn, commonly available in supermarkets, in place of the spicier Thai variety.

Kaffir lime leaves
Along with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf is closely identified with Thai cooking for its distinct citrusy aroma. Fresh leaves are hard to come by, but you can purchase them frozen in small bags at most Asian markets. If you can't find them, substitute lime zest.

Thai cooking has brought fame to this tart herb. Its white bulb is pulverized for seasoning pastes or added to perfume soups and stews, while the tender green stalk is thinly sliced for salads. Steeped in hot water, lemongrass also makes a refreshing tea. Look for it in the produce section of your supermarket or in Asian markets.

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

The Chinese introduced this aromatic and pungent rhizome to the Thais. Its unmistakable peppery flavor adds a layer of spiciness.

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

Thai basil
Thais use many varieties of basil, which taste more like licorice than the Italian kind. To retain Thai basil's fresh flavor, add it to stir-fries, soups, or stews at the last minute.