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.
To prepare sam glur, thoroughly clean the cilantro root, paying special attention to where the stems meet just above the root, there will likely be a lot of soil hiding there. Chop the root and stems very finely. In a small pan, toast whole peppercorns on medium heat until they become aromatic; remove them from the heat to cool for 1 minute. Remove the skin from your garlic. In a mortar and pestle, pound the white peppercorns to a powder, next add the coriander root and garlic and continue to pound to a paste according to your recipe (fine or rough). Scoop it out and use! I have incorporated sam glur into my basic soup recipe, substituting it for the French mirepoix. I simply sauté the sam glur in oil until aromatic, then add in my stock to boil, and drop in the vegetables and seasoning for the soup. It's a fantastic flavor base!
Shrimp paste is a very common ingredient in Thai cuisine, it is normally found in curry pastes, as a salting agent and aromatic ingredient. While it's foundational in Central Thai curry pastes, it's used more generously in Southern Thai cuisine, with sometimes twice as much shrimp paste used in a Southern curry compared to a Central one. In addition to curry, shrimp paste is the star ingredient in one of Thailand's most well loved chili dips: nam prik kupi which is served with fresh vegetables and a wild herb omelette (see photo).
Shrimp paste is available on Amazon and at Asian grocery stores. Depending on the recipe, the substitution for shrimp paste would likely be fish sauce. For example, if you are making a curry paste from scratch and don't have shrimp paste, then omitting it and seasoning with extra fish sauce is likely your best option. However, when shrimp paste is the star of the show, like in shrimp paste fried rice, substituting is not possible.
The name Shrimp Paste is almost a misnomer, as the product is made from krill (that's right, the stuff whales eat!) rather than actual shrimp. The krill is salted and fermented, which makes it a funky, fishy product that provides a great deal of complex aroma and flavor. For a comprehensive overview of shrimp paste and how it is made, check out the Migrationology article on Shrimp Paste where they visit a producer to see how the product is made and cook some recipes that celebrate this fishy paste!
It is hard to overstate how important fish sauce is to Thai cuisine. It is THE salt of the nation. It's used to add saltiness and aroma to all dishes apart from desserts, but it is used in some sweet applications!
From Science Direct: "Fish sauce is manufactured through fermentation process for 3–12 months, in which fish and salt are previously mixed thoroughly at a ratio of 1:3. After 4–6-month period, a liquid containing fish extract is obtained in fermentation tanks. That liquid is actually fish sauce."
Fish sauce is used raw in salad dressings and in dips. When seasoning your curries, add in the fish sauce a little at a time, and allow it to boil for a few seconds to cook and reduce it's fishy aroma before tasting to further adjust.
There are many options available on the market, but it's always smart to stick with a Thai brand for Thai recipes. However, Vietnamese brands (like 3 Crabs Brand) are completely acceptable if that is what you have. Thai brands include: Lucky Brand, Golden Boy Brand, and Megachef. These brands are available at Asian grocery stores and on Amazon.com. After opening a bottle of fish sauce, it should be refrigerated. It can stay in the fridge for a year or more. However, those who are frequent users of fish sauce can store it out of the fridge, as they cycle through it quite quickly.
+ Thai Soy Sauce
Soy sauce is used in Chinese Thai recipes, of which there are many! Stir fry dishes like phad ka prao, phad see ew and phad ke mao (basically all of the phad dishes) are Chinese influenced Thai dishes. However, it's important to get Thai soy sauce if you can, because it is quite light and therefore distinctly different from soy sauces of other origins. The Healthy Boy brand is widely available and made in Thailand.
Palm sugar is the main source of sweet in Thai cuisine. It is made from the sap of coconut palm flowers. The palm flowers are sliced open and buckets are hung at the top of the plant to collect the draining sap. Then the buckets are brought down for the sap to be boiled and reduced to a thick syrup or paste. Some palm sugars are evaporated to such an extent that they are quite hard, and need to be chopped for use. Chef's advise that these harder varieties often contain a great deal of white sugar, as they are also quite light in color.
When using palm sugar in a recipe it's important to remember that it is slower to melt and incorporate compared to white sugar. So when adding it to a dish like a curry, give it a minute to fully incorporate before tasting and further adjusting.
In Thailand (and on Amazon) it is possible to buy softer palm sugar, sold in pint containers or plastic bags, that can be easily scooped for use. These are more likely to be pure palm sugar than the hard versions. The soft palm sugar is stored in the fridge while the drier version can live in the cupboard.
Fresh herbs and Thai limes
Fresh herbs are ubiquitous in Thai recipes, especially in Thai salads. Luckily for most of us living outside of Thailand, many of the most popular fresh herbs used in Thai cuisine are easily available at supermarkets and farmers' markets. Cilantro, Thai basil (Genova basil can be used in a pinch!) sweet mint and dill are very common in Thai cuisine and found at most grocery stores in the US. Some herbs that are trickier to find but common place in Thailand are: sawtooth coriander (aka culantro), lemon basil, holy basil and white pepper leaves. I've had luck finding holy basil and lemon basil at farmers' markets in California and I've found white pepper leaves and sawtooth coriander at 99 Ranch supermarket. There are, of course, many many more wild herbs used in Thai cuisine, however, these are the few that we have a chance to find in our local stores in the West.