With its famous flavor profile of sweet, salty, sour and spicy, Thai food can come across as complicated to enjoy at home, but in reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. While it’s true that you’ll need to go out of your way to procure some of the staples of Thai cuisine, your tastebuds will experience the payoff in spades. From Thai chiles to galangal, get to know some of the holy grail ingredients of Thai cooking.
Thai basil: Unlike the sweet Genovese basil you tend to see in conventional grocery stores, Thai basil has purple stems and buds and a sharper, bolder flavor. Its slightly licorice-like flavor adds dimension to stir-fries and other dishes.
Lemongrass: Lemongrass has pale yellow-green stalks and long, flat leaves, resembling a chartreuse-hued green onion. Its citrusy flavor and fragrance are essential to Thai cuisine. To use lemongrass, remove the outer layers from the salt and trim the green leaves away to reveal the ivory-colored midsection. Slice or dice this part of the plant to include in curry pastes, soup broths, or salads.
Galangal: A relative of ginger, galangal is used most commonly to add bright flavor to soups and curry pastes. The most common variety has a smooth, pale and creamy with dark striations, and it must be peeled before using. If fresh galangal is not available, you can also look for frozen, or in glass jars with slices preserved in brine.
Mint: Like Thai basil, mint is a staple herb in Thai cuisine, adding zip and brightness to soups and salads.
Thai chiles: These small, skinny chiles, which are sometimes known as Thai bird chiles, are quite hot. They can be found in both ripe (red) and unripe (green) versions, each of which imparts a slightly different flavor.
Kaffir lime leaves: Kaffir lime trees are a tropical plant that grow throughout Southeast Asia. They’re prized for their shiny, full green leaves, which impart a citrusy, floral fragrance when infused in stocks and sauces.
Green papaya: Green, or unripe, papaya has a crunchy texture and mild flavor that lends itself to salads and slaws, such as Thailand’s well-known som tum, or green papaya salad.
Coconut milk: Coconut milk is the star of many southern Thai curries, where it helps to balance heat with creamy sweetness. It’s also in favorites like tom kha tai (coconut chicken soup) and sticky rice with mango.
Sticky rice: In Northern Thailand, glutinous rice is the staple food of many meals; it’s eaten by hand and used as a vehicle for enjoying other dishes, like ground meat salads. To make sticky rice, the Thai use a steamer made of specially-woven bamboo cones.
Fish sauce: Nam pla, Thailand’s version of fish sauce, is a golden-hued liquid made from fish that’s been salted and fermented. While it might smell overpowering on its own, it’s often used but undetectable in Thai salads, soups and curries, where it adds salt and a boost of umami.
Tamarind: Tamarind adds a mild sour note to soups, sauces, and marinades. You can buy tamarind pods (technically, a legume) fresh, but they’re also sold in easy-to-use pulp form (which has already been de-seeded). You can also purchase tamarind paste. Use it to add acidity to dipping sauces, grilling marinades and one of Thailand’s most famous dishes, pad Thai.