Thai cuisine is incredibly diverse, each region with its own unique dishes and ingredients. It can seem complicated and many people rely on pre-made pastes to recreate the flavours, but nothing beats the real thing, made from scratch with fresh produce. Thai ingredients are punchy, fiery and intense and the key to cooking Thai food is to bring these competing elements together to produce a harmonious balance.
We talked to Chef Noom from Soul Food Thai and she shared her top six essential ingredients to create a proper Thai meal.
Most Asian dishes begin with garlic cooked in oil, which adds fragrance to the oil before other ingredients are added. From curry pastes to papaya salad, garlic is essential to recreating authentic Thai food.
Shallot can be sliced thinly and tossed with salad or ground in a mortar and pestle with herbs and chilies to make a curry paste.
Lemongrass is the most popular herb used in Thai cooking, it has a subtle lemony, citrusy flavour and fragrance. Peel away the tough outer layers and crush or chop the stalk to release its full flavour before using. It can be overpowering if overused but can be infused into curries and sauces or I like to slice the stalks thinly and rub them all over chicken before grilling.
Kaffir lime leaves impart an intense floral and citrus flavour and are used in almost all Thai curries. I love to put them in soup because they give it an enticing aroma. You’ll never get the same fragrance using shelf-stable pastes.
Galangal is similar to ginger and is often substituted for its more commonly available cousin but it adds a totally different flavour. It is an aromatic rhizome (a horizontal-growing plant that forms new roots and shoots) that tastes like a more citrusy ginger. My family grows galangal in our back garden because it’s beautiful to look at and it smells good too.
Fish sauce is the backbone of Thai cuisine, it’s fermented, salty and funky-smelling but when cooked and combined with other robust Thai ingredients, it adds a deep umami flavour to Thai dishes.