Updated: Sep 7, 2021
If you're interested in learning to cook Thai cuisine, likely one of the first questions to pop into your head is: what ingredients do I need to cook Thai food at home? Well, you've come to the right place! I've made a list of the top 10 ingredients to buy to start cooking Thai recipes at home.
List of Common Thai Ingredients
Galangal is a highly aromatic rhizome that looks a little like young ginger, however ginger is never a substitute for galangal. Its aroma and flavor profile are cooling and woodsy and highly unique. There really is no replacement for galangal as an ingredient, so it is best to purchase it when you find it. It can be found at farmers' markets and Asian / Southeast Asian markets in the US. Luckily, it retains most of its aroma when frozen. So if you're living outside of Thailand and want to keep a complete Thai pantry, you can buy galangal in large quantities, wash and slice and freeze it for longer term storage. It should stay in good quality for 3-6 months in the freezer. When preparing galangal, scrape off the skin with the edge of a spoon and cut off the pink shoots. Typically galangal is used to infuse its aroma into a broth, and is eaten when pounded into Thai curries.
Like galangal, lemongrass is essential in Thai curries and soup recipes. Its aroma profile is very lemony, and it adds an intense freshness to a dish. It's used both directly in a dish and in an infusion for broths or teas. While it is quite fibrous and almost woody, lemongrass can be eaten when sliced very thinly or pounded into a curry paste. In the prawn salad Pla Goong, the fresh raw lemongrass is so plentiful it's nearly used as a salad leaf.
To prepare lemongrass, remove the dry outer leaves until you reach nice and clean center (see photo). As you peel back the tougher outer leaves, there will be a white film on the inner leaves, this is normal and can be rinsed off. For soup stock, use a pestle to bruise the whole lemongrass on a cutting board. For curries, slice the lemongrass into thin rounds before pounding to a paste in the mortar and pestle or dropping in a high speed blender. For salads, slice the lemongrass as thinly as possible.
In most cases, there won't be a substitute for lemongrass in a recipe, however, adding lime or lemon juice or lemon peel could be helpful in some recipes like soups. Lemongrass is easily found in Asian markets and farmers' markets, and is sometimes found at gourmet Western markets like Andronico's and WholeFoods, however, the freshest product will be available at Asian cuisine focused stores. Lemongrass freezes well. Simply trim and wash and store them in freezer safe bags for 3-6 months.
Makrut Limes and Leaves (also called kaffir limes)
Makrut is a variety of lime with particularly aromatic leaf and zest to the fruit. The fruit juice is not often used in Thai cuisine, more often the zest is pounded into curries. The leaves are boiled in curries and soups to elevate the aroma, or sliced very thinly to add to salads, sausages, and dumpling fillings. Before adding lime leaves to a curry or soup, wash the leaf thoroughly and bruise the leaves in your hand only just before dropping them into the boiling liquid for 1 minute. There is no substitute for makrut leaves or zest. The dried leaves can be purchased on Amazon, which are lovely added to a soup or curry. Fresh leaves freeze very well. Simply clean, dry and drop them in a freezer bag, they'll last for 3-6 month.
Thai Chilies (bird's eye chilies)
Chilies are very important in Thai cuisine. They are a foundational ingredient to curry paste and are added to nearly any dish to add a bit of heat and aroma. There are two Thai chilies to know, the small bird's eye chili and the standard bird's eye chili. A general rule of thumb with chilies is the smaller chilies are normally much spicier than their larger counterparts. The photo shows a green standard bird's eye chili, it's roughly the length of a woman's ring finger. For reference, a small bird's eye would be about 1/3 the size of the standard variety. These chilies are easy to find at farmers' markets and Asian specialty stores and may be called just "Thai chili."
As southern Thai curries are spicier, they use a combination of small bird eye chilies and standard varieties (dried). Green curry calls for small and standard green bird eye chilies (fresh), while red curry called for large red chilies (dried), which are not normally spicy at all, and simply add aroma and color to the curry.
Shallot is used in Thai cuisine as we use large onions in the west. Thai shallots are much smaller Than western shallots, resembling a red pearl onion. They are said to be stronger in flavor and aroma compared to their Western counterparts. Shallots are used liberally in salads, curry pastes, dressings and dipping sauce and soup. Red onion or western shallots can be used as substitutes when cooking Thai recipes in the West. In Thailand, shallots are always sliced lengthwise from root to tip, never horizontally! (My Chef instructors felt strongly about that!)
Sam Glur / 3 Friends - Coriander root, garlic, white peppercorn
Sam glur in Thai translates to 3 friends, a trio of ingredients thought to work so beautifully together that they should always be together - like very close friends. Sam glur is the most basic and foundational Thai flavor base, it is referred to as the Thai mirepoix. It's used in curry pastes, dumpling fillings, soups and stir fries.
White pepper and garlic are familiar ingredients to a western cook, but cooking with coriander root is likely a new concept. Coriander or cilantro, is a common ingredient in Thai cuisine. In Thailand, cilantro is always sold with the roots attached, because the roots are so important to the cuisine. Outside of Thailand it can be difficult to find cilantro roots, so using the stems is good substitute.