Herbs and Spices in Thai Cuisine

spicebThe special combination of herbs and spices used in preparing Thai dishes is what gives Thai food its very distinctive character. There are about 20 main herbs and spices which form the basis for Thai cooking.

Most Thai cooks don’t use food processors, ovens, micro sieves or other fancy devices. Most don’t even use measuring spoons but tend to cook like our grandmothers — they just know.

In addition, Thai cooking can be very involved. Many times the amounts of ingredients used are minuscule and you wonder why even bother. However, to the trained palate, it only takes one taste to realize that something is missing.

Chilies พริก (prik) (Capsicum sp.)

More than 10 types of chilies are used in Thai cooking. They vary in size and color, but all are used for spicy flavoring and decoration. They are the main ingredient of chili paste. Though not native to Thailand, the Thais have taken to chilis in spades. There are certain types of chilis for certain dishes and ONLY those chilis may be used.

Cardamom ลูกกระวาน (look krawan) (Amomum krervanh Pierre)
Small off-white capsules from a plant native to India, which contain black seeds. The seeds give off a cool, refreshing aroma and are used as a garnish for Indian foods and as parts of curries and curry pastes.

Shallot หอมแดง (hom daeng) (Allium cepa var. aggregatum)
Small red onions which are used in nearly every Thai dish. A special flavor, to be sure, and so special that even some Thais prefer to do without these in their food. Thinly sliced shallots are often mixed with sliced cucumber, chilis, sugar and vinegar as a condiment sauce for saté or murtabak.

Siamese ginger ข่า (khaa) (Alpinia galangakhaa)

These roots are larger than the common ginger, and Siamese ginger is always used to make curry pastes used in Thai food. It is also added to soup either in chunks or thin slices.

Common ginger ขิง (khing) (Zingiber officinale))

Its roots are picked for adding to foods and for making drinks. Young ginger is used as a condiment with fowl and beef dishes and in Tom Yom.

Sweet basil โหระพา (horapa) (Ocimum basilicum)

A sweet basil similar to the kind used in Italian pasta and various European tomato dishes. Used as a vegetable and for flavoring.

Holy Basil กะเพรา (kaprao) (Ocimum tenuiflorum)

A sweet basil different from horapa in that the aroma and flavor is released only in cooking. Used in hot and spicy fried dishes. The most common dish is ผัดกะเพรา (Pat Kaprao) which is pork, chicken or beef stir fried with kaprao.

Lemon grass ตะไคร้ (takrai) (Cymbopogon nardus)

This plant looks like coarse grass and has a lemony scent. The lower part of the stalk is used for flavoring mainly, but also used as an ingredient in curry paste and certain dishes–the most famous is Tom Yom. Also planted to repel insects.

Turmeric ขมิ้น (khamin) (Curcuma longa)

Bright orange roots which are used for the coloring in yellow curries. White turmeric is used as a raw vegetable and resembles ginger. Most often found in Southern Thai or Muslim curries and Northern Thai curries.

Lime มะนาว (manao)

The common lime is native to China and Southeast Asia. The lime juice is used in Thai food, mainly for soup and desserts. The peel is used as a flavoring.

Cinnamon อบเชย (ob chuey) (Cinnamomum cassia)

From the bark of a tree, the type of cinnamon used in Thailand is of only one kind, that from the Cassia tree. It is used in meat dishes, curries and desserts.

Spring onions ต้นหอม (ton hom) (Allium cepa var. cepa)

Your standard long-stemmed scallion or green onion, green and white and used in Thai food as a garnish for fried rice, salads and vegetables.

Kaffir lime มะกรูด (makroot) (Citrus hystrix)

A knobby dark green fruit the size of a large lime. The juice, peel, and leaves are used in curry paste and cooking as flavoring. Similar to lemon, lemon peel and lemon verbena. If possible, should be added at the end, or after, cooking to retain flavor as the oil is volatile and dissipates quickly.

Pepper พริกไทย (prick thai) (Piper nigrum)

Black, white and green peppercorn types. Black is milder and more aromatic than white. Whole green peppercorns have a special taste all their own and are often used as an edible garnish in อาหารป่า (AhanBa) or forest food. Used in flavoring.

Cloves กานพลู (kaan phloo) (Syzygium aromaticum)

Dried flower buds of an evergreen tree, cloves are common to western dishes, but in Thai cooking are used only for the musaman curry paste. The leaves are also used with betel nut.

Lemon scented basil แมงลัก (maenglak) (Ocimum × citriodorum)

A kind of sweet basil with a somewhat peppery taste and strong lemon scent. Used as a vegetable and flavoring in some curries. Must be used in Khanom Chin Nam Ya.

Mint สะระแหน่ (saranae)

Used in Thai cooking as a vegetable and a flavoring in hot salad and Essan food. Often served on a side dish with other weeds for eating with lap and other dishes.

Mono-sodium glutamate (MSG)

Though not a herb or spice, MSG is often used in large amounts in Thai frying. Those sensitive to MSG such be aware of this.

Chinese 5-Spice ผงพะโล้ (Phong phalo)

Used in making Thai/Chinese dishes like KhiePhalo or MuPhalo.

Nutmeg ลูกจันทน์เทศ (look chantet) (Myristica fragrans)

A nut enclosed in a very hard brown or orange shell. The nut is crushed and used in making musaman curry paste.

Cumin ยี่หร่า (Yiraa) (Cuminum cyminum)

Seeds that look like caraway and fennel, but taste quite different. Only cumin is used in Thai cooking. Also used in making curry paste.

Fish Sauce น้ำปลา (Nam Pla)

While not a spice, a bottle of the ubiquitous nam pla is found on every table. Made from fermented fish, nam pla is used instead of salt. It can also be used in place of anchovy paste for the Unami effect. Use sparingly; a teaspoon goes a long way. I use a little nam pla in my pizza and tomato sauce but don’t tell anyone.

Pandanus leaf ใบเดย (bitoey) (Pandanus amaryllifolius)

Long and narrow green leaves of the herbaceous plant. Used in Thai desserts as a flavoring and coloring (green). Sometimes used as a wrap when deep-frying or grilling to add a special flavor.

Cassia tree ขี้เหล็ก (khilek) (Senna siamea)

Though mistaken for a Cassia sp. the khilek is a legume not in the Cassia family. It is a tall evergreen tree with beautiful yellow flowers. The new pods and flowers are used in Thai cooking, namely Kaeng Khilek. The wood from the tree is also highly valued for furniture.

Garlic กระเทียม (kratiam) (Allium sativum)

Thai foods contain almost as much garlic as chilis. Whole cloves, smashed garlic, chopped garlic, and fried garlic are used in almost every Thai dish and used in making curry paste.

Coriander/cilantro ผักชี (Phak chi) (Coriandrum sativum)

The leaves and root are used very often in Thai cooking and the leaves as a garnish on many dishes.
The root is also used in making curry pastes and leaves and root are essential in making Tom Yam. The dried seeds are
seldom used in Thai cooking except perhaps, in Indian derived curries.

Vegetable oil น้ำมันพืช (nam man phut)

Vegetable oils are used in frying and curries. Thailand produces and exports palm oil and this is the oil most used in Thai cooking. Rice bran oil is also sometimes used. Oils such as corn oil, peanut oil, safflower oil are available in Thailand as imports but are expensive so seldom used in Thai cooking.

Curry powder ผงกะหรี่ (Phong kari)

Curry powder is not that common in most Thai curries. It is used in Indian derived curries though, such as crab curry, Masuman, or Khao Soi.

Sesame seed งา ((Nga) (Sesamum indicum))

Both white and black sesame seeds are used in the making of Thai sweets or as a garnish on some Thai dishes. Sesame oil is seldom used.