Not so long ago, the only Thai food most Americans knew was a plate of overly sweet and soggy pad thai—and plenty of us knew even less. It's hard to imagine now, but I passed the first two decades of my life without ever tasting Thai food. I grew up ignorant of the smoke-infused satisfaction of grilled chicken and dipping sauce spiked with sour tamarind and hot chili, or the coconut milk–smoothed burn of an aromatic green curry.
All that changed with a trip to New York City in my late teens. I've long since forgotten the name of the Thai restaurant that my older sister dragged me to for dinner one night. But I remember well the pop of bitter pea eggplants in a "jungle curry" funky with fish sauce; the surprising depth of flavor that fish sauce lent to a limey green-papaya salad; the seductive tangle of silky pad thai spilling from a rolled omelette. When I returned home, I picked up a copy of the classic Thai Home-Cooking From Kamolmal's Kitchen and worked my way through it, stir-frying shrimp paste for batches of nam phrik phao and grilling chicken on a tiny hibachi balanced on my fire escape. And, when my husband's job took us to Bangkok a decade and a half later, I was thrilled to have an opportunity to delve more deeply into Thailand's cuisine.
Regional Cuisines of Thailand
One of the first things I learned when we moved to Thailand was that the cuisine I was so eager to explore is actually several distinct cuisines. The classic description of Thai food—often depicted as a balancing act of hot, sour, salty, and sweet flavors—may not be entirely inaccurate, but it certainly comes short of capturing the diversity of the country's four major regional cuisines. Let's take a look.
- Southern Thailand: Seafood plays a big role in the signature dishes of this peninsular region. The food is known for fiery, bordering-on-funky flavors—plenty of hot chilies, dried-fish products, heaps of fresh herbs, earthy turmeric, and budu, a thicker, darker, more pungent version of standard fish sauce. Coconut curries and rich sweets are similarly prevalent, thanks to an abundance of coconut and sugar palms.
- Central Thailand: Like the south, this region makes good use of palm sugar and coconut—foods tend to be on the sweeter side, and curries are thick and lush with coconut milk. It is in the foods of this region, and in Bangkok especially, that we often see a clear Chinese influence. Stir-fries and noodle dishes abound, as does the use of condiments like soy sauce, fermented bean paste, and oyster sauce.
- Northeastern Thailand (Isan): Cooks in this landlocked region rely as often on freshwater fish–based condiments, like pla ra (fish paste, also known as pla daek) and pickled paddy crabs, as they do on the fish sauce most foreigners associate with the nation's cuisine. Isan cooks are masters of the barbecue—kai yang, the best grilled chicken in Thailand, is found here. The food is light and fresh, with no coconut milk dishes to speak of but lots of bright yam (salads) starring pomelo, preserved bamboo shoots, green mango, and the green-papaya salad that's become so popular on American shores.
- Northern Thailand: This jungly area is a forager's dream. Local diets are heavy on wild herbs, greens, and mushrooms. Northern Thais adore pork (crispy cracklings are sold in bulk at markets) and offal in dishes like lap mueang mu, a spicy pork offal salad seasoned with blood. Cultural connections to neighboring Burma and China's Yunnan province are reflected in the warm dried spices, like coriander and cardamom, that season dishes like khao soi (a sunset-hued curry soup packed with yellow noodles and topped with more noodles, deep-fried). Nam phrik, the ubiquitous Thai chili-based dips, are at their best and most varied in the north, and bitterness—from herbs like Vietnamese mint and cashew leaves, vegetables like pea eggplant, and bile (collected from cow stomachs)—is central to the region's distinctive flavor profile.
There's no reason to be intimidated by all this variety, though. With the right recipes, Thai cuisine is no more difficult to master than any other. And, thanks to mail-order outfits like Amazon, increasingly well-stocked supermarket "international sections," and the proliferation of Asian groceries, Thai ingredients are more accessible than ever. Andy Ricker, owner of Pok Pok restaurants in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and Portland, Oregon, and author of the eponymous cookbook (along with another, forthcoming, on Thai drinking food), advises: "Start simple! Choose a dish, perhaps a simple yam. If you can make a decent yam, you can move on to another. Then try a kaeng [curry], and build up your repertoire slowly."
To get you started, I asked a team of experts to help us assemble a list of ingredients to stock a basic Thai pantry. Purchase these items in a single shopping trip and you'll be all set to cook a wide variety of classic (and a few esoteric) Thai dishes at home, from scratch.
Heat is so central to Thai cuisine that vendors at the country's markets typically display several—sometimes up to a dozen—varieties of fresh and dried chilies at any given time. It's easy to keep the latter on hand, and, while you can squeak by without fresh chilies, "you would only be seeing a few colors of the rainbow," notes Ricker. Depending on the variety, fresh chilies add sweetness, a tingle, or a surge of heat to salads, soups, curries, and many stir-fried dishes. Chopped fresh chilies in fish sauce are also one of the four basic khrueang prung, the condiments that diners add at the table to adjust noodle dishes or fried rice to their own palate. (The other three are mild green chilies in vinegar, dried red chili flakes, and sugar.)
The good news is that if your local grocery isn't stocking tiny but blazingly hot green or red phrik khi nu (bird's eye chilies), or longer, milder phrik daeng (red chilies), there are acceptable stand-ins—green serranos for the former, and fresh red cayenne peppers, sometimes sold at summer farmers markets, for the latter. Don't be tempted by uber-spicy varieties like habaneros, though; their intensity will ride roughshod over the flavors of the other ingredients in a curry paste.
When it comes to dried red chilies, medium-hot phrik chi fa—long, thin peppers called "skyward-pointing chilies" for their tapering, curved tips—are the variety most commonly pounded into curry paste (substitute guajillo, California, or pasilla chilies if need be). The hotter, thin, pinky-sized phrik haeng, on the other hand, are added in smaller quantities to nam phrik ta daeng ("red eye" chili dip made with smoked fish) and curry pastes, and tossed whole into stir-fries (sub chiles japones, chiles de árbol, or smaller dried Korean chilies). You'll also want dried and roasted chili flakes on hand for the table so diners can season noodle dishes to taste. Look for small bags in Thai groceries, or make your own by gently toasting (not burning) whole phrik haeng in a wok or skillet and pulverizing them in a spice grinder.
Preserved Seafood Products
If your pantry has room for only one piscine product, make it nam pla (fish sauce). It's "everywhere, [in] every kitchen," says Nancie McDermott, who, after three years teaching in Isan, wrote Quick & Easy Thai and teaches a Craftsy class on everyday Thai cooking. The bourbon-hued liquid is bottled runoff from the slow, sunshine-induced fermentation of barrel-packed anchovies layered with salt. Nam pla (literally "fish water") adds savoriness to Thai salads, curries, soups, stir-fries, and marinades, just as soy sauce does for Chinese and Japanese dishes, and salted or oil-preserved anchovies do for some Western preparations. Mixed with chopped fresh chilies, it becomes an essential condiment; add garlic, lime juice, and sugar and you've got nam jim tha-le, the ubiquitous hot-sour-salty-sweet sauce accompaniment to grilled fish. McDermott describes fish sauce as "one of the great inventions of the culinary universe" because it is as suited to Western kitchens as it is to Thai ones: Use it to add meaty depth to ragù Bolognese, chili, and slow-cooked tomato sauce; add it to barbecue sauces and marinades; use it instead of Worcestershire sauce (which, by the way, also contains anchovies) in a Bloody Mary.
But fish sauce is just the tip of the iceberg—a wide range of fermented seafood products are central to the Thai kitchen. Take pla ra, the chunky, malodorous preserved-fish condiment beloved of cooks in the country's north and northeast. It may be "pretty aggressive," as Ricker puts it, but used properly, it's an excellent flavor booster. Made by layering large chunks of fish with salt and rice bran in barrels and leaving the lot to ferment for up to two years, pla ra makes its way into a number of signature preparations. Wrap pla ra in a banana leaf or tinfoil and grill or broil before adding it to nam phrik (dips); boil it with aromatics and strain for a sauce to flavor green-papaya or other Isan-style salads; or spoon it directly into a pot of bubbling soup or curry. When purchasing, look for whole "pickled" or "preserved" gourami fish. Though jarred pla ra can't match the freshness of what's sold in bulk in Thai wet markets, Ricker deems the Pantai Norasingh brand "passably good."
If you're a fan of funk, you'll also like kapi (shrimp paste), a pinkish-brown grainy concoction that's made by fermenting small shrimp with salt in the sun, grinding the result, and sunning it again before packaging. The paste, which comes in solid blocks or round plastic containers with twist-off lids, is certainly pungent—be forewarned that it releases a ferocious blast of ammonia on contact with heat. So open every window in your kitchen before frying it in oil (the first step to nam phrik phao, a sweet-hot base for curries) or placing it under the broiler to make the fiery dip for fresh and cooked vegetables called nam phrik kapi. Not sure you can handle the intensity? Khao khluk kapi—shrimp paste fried rice eaten with Chinese sausage, sweet pork, sour guava or green mango, slivered omelette, and other savory-sweet tidbits—is a good gateway. Shrimp paste keeps well in the refrigerator (contain its stench by sealing well in a plastic bag), though it may dry out over time.
Chewy kung haeng (dried shrimp) are mixed into curry pastes or pounded in a mortar for green-papaya salad, to which they add a pungent-salty umami blast. The best dried shrimp are just that—whole small shrimp dried in the sun, with no added preservatives and no salt other than what the ocean supplies—look for larger (thumbnail-sized), pale-coral-colored specimens with no powdery white coating. You can sometimes find dried shrimp among Mexican ingredients in the international sections of grocery stores.
Nam Tan Pip and Nam Tan Ma-phrao (Palm Sugar)
Made by boiling down sap collected from the cut stalks of immature flowers of the sugar, palmyra, or coconut palm, palm sugar was historically used in the south and center of Thailand, where palm trees are abundant. (In Isan and the north, cooks traditionally relied on brown cane sugar, nam tan oi, to sweeten dishes.) Less sweet and more complex in flavor than white cane sugar, palm sugar delivers hints of tartness, smoke, caramel, or butterscotch, depending on where and how it's produced. It keeps for a long time at room temperature, so it's easy to keep on hand for use in Isan-style pounded salads, curries, and especially desserts. (It's also great in coffee and makes a mean pan of blondies.)
Palm sugar comes in three forms. You may spot cellophane-wrapped, golden-yellow-to-medium-dark-brown cakes or mounds, which must be broken into pieces and shaved with a cleaver or knife; individual tablespoon-sized blocks that are packaged in tubs; or the softer version, with a texture akin to honey butter (but denser), packaged in jars and plastic tubs. Indian palm jaggery and other Southeast Asian palm sugars, like Malaysian gula melaka or Indonesian gula jawa, can be substituted in a pinch, but if your substitute is dark brown—an indicator of more intense flavor—consider replacing a quarter to half of the brown sugar with refined white sugar, which will keep things sweet while diluting any out-of-place flavors.
Ka-thi (Coconut Milk and Coconut Cream)
In a perfect world, every cook of Thai food would be blessed with easy access to coconuts, and the time and wherewithal to grate and press them for homemade coconut cream and milk. Failing perfection, we have UHT coconut milk and coconut cream in Tetra Paks, which, while nowhere near as sublime as the fresh stuff, won't taste as, well, canned as canned versions.
For recipes that call for coconut cream, you can use the fatty plug that rests atop packages labeled "coconut milk," or buy packs of unsweetened coconut cream, which is not to be confused with "cream of coconut," a sweetened concoction best reserved for old-school piña coladas. Leela Punyaratabandhu, blogger at SheSimmers and author of Simple Thai Food and a forthcoming book on traditional Thai food, offers three shopping guidelines: Avoid coconut milk meant for drinking as a dairy alternative, which is too low in fat and lacks coconut scent; eschew creams and milks whose ingredient lists include gums, emulsifiers, or thickeners; and pass up low-fat or fat-free coconut milks, unless you're making a liquid dessert and are willing to go lighter on flavor.
Makham Piak (Tamarind Pulp)
If you've tried the Mexican beverage agua de tamarindo, you're familiar with the potent sweet-sour flavor of tamarind. The tacky reddish-brown fruit grows around seeds in hard, thin-shelled pods. When added in liquid form to savory dishes, like the classic pad thai and the soupy, sour fish and vegetable curry, kaeng som, tamarind provides bright, sweet, and tart notes with a fruitier depth than those offered by plain sugar and lime.
Though you can buy pasteurized tamarind liquid in cans and plastic jars, it doesn't deliver the lively complexity of the kind you can easily make yourself with Thai makham piak, cellophane-wrapped blocks of moist tamarind pulp containing seeds. (Avoid tamarind pulp from Indonesia for Thai recipes; it often contains salt.)
To make tamarind liquid, break a block into four or more pieces, place them in a bowl, and cover them with hot water. Use a spoon or spatula to separate the pulp into smaller bits and mash it a bit against the sides of your bowl. After it's cooled to room temperature, place a sieve over another bowl and pour in the mixture. Use the back of a spoon to rub it through the sieve, and a knife or spatula to scrape the tamarind flesh from the sieve's bottom. Homemade tamarind liquid will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks; you can also freeze it. Tamarind liquid has loads of uses beyond the Thai kitchen: Add a little sugar and more water to make that agua de tamarindo, add it to cocktails, or try it in place of lemon in a salad dressing. (Beware: Consumed in excess, tamarind becomes an effective laxative.)
Si Io: Khao, Dam Wan, and Dam (Soy Sauces: Light, Dark Sweet, and Dark)
The extent of Chinese influence in Thai cooking is most visible in the ubiquity of soy sauces in the Thai kitchen. But do you really need to stock si io khao ("white" or light soy sauce), si io dam wan ("black and sweet" soy sauce), AND si io dam ("black" or dark soy sauce)? Most Thai cooks would say yes, while also admitting that you'll use the first two most often—light soy sauce in Chinese-style stir-fries, and dark sweet for mixing with fresh chilies as a dipping sauce for khao man kai (poached chicken with garlicky, chicken stock–boiled rice)—and could maybe, just maybe, squeak by without dark soy sauce. (Or, McDermott suggests, keep the two savory soy sauces on hand and use a combination of si io dam and molasses in a two-to-one ratio as a substitute for dark sweet soy sauce.)
Punyaratabandhu advises sticking to Thai brands of soy sauce. Really? Well, yes. I cut my teeth on Chinese food in China long before I moved to Thailand, and, like the blogger and cookbook author, I find Japanese, Chinese, and Korean soy sauces and Indonesian and Malaysian kecap manis (dark sweet soy sauce, essentially) unsuited to the Thai palate. Maybe it's because Thai soy sauces are a bit sweeter, East Asian sauces slightly saltier—but Japanese Kikkoman soy sauce tastes about as "wrong" in a Thai stir-fry as a Thai soy sauce does with nigiri or maki.
Jarred Sauces and Pastes
Chances are, you already have a bottle of Sriracha in your fridge—the Thai dipping sauce has become more or less omnipresent in recent years. The best Sriracha (yes, there's more than one brand) delivers a bright fruitiness, potent heat balanced with a touch of sweet, and no musty powdered-garlic flavor. Bangkok native and chef-owner of San Francisco's Kin Khao, Pim Techamanuvit, insists on Thai-made Sriracha, and Ricker recommends Shark brand, but you can read up on the pros and cons of specific brands in our taste test write-up. The main takeaway? When using Sriracha sauce in a Thai recipe, you'll want to make sure you use a Thai-style product—not the admittedly delicious and popular American-made Huy Fong (you may know it as the "rooster sauce"), which will yield significantly different results.
Sriracha may be a favorite on Western shores, but to round out a full Thai pantry, your fridge should hold a few other bottles, too. Start with nam jim kai, or sweet chili sauce, a jammy, sweet-hot, crimson concoction that's traditionally served with thot man pla (deep-fried fish cakes) and grilled chicken. (In my house, it's also smeared on corn biscuits and, sometimes, Danish blue cheese sandwiches.) You can buy your chili sauce at a store, but we recommend making your own and storing it in a sealed container in the fridge—it's easy to make, lasts indefinitely, and tastes far superior. Then there's nam man hoi, or oyster sauce, a briny and viscous coffee-hued condiment originally made by boiling oysters with water until their juices reduced and caramelized. These days, oyster sauce ingredients may include caramel, sugar, cornstarch, and oyster extract, but they still lend umami-packed shellfish flavor and a nice gloss to sauces. The sauce is essential for comfortingly familiar Chinese-Thai dishes like nuea phat nam man hoi (sliced beef stir-fried with Chinese broccoli).
Opinions differ as to the merits of jarred curry (red, green, et cetera) and other jarred products, like the shrimp paste–y chili bomb nam phrik phao. Expending the time and effort to make your own, Ricker admits, "can be a pain. But so is going for a three-mile run...and you can make a great curry paste in less time than it takes to do a three-mile run." Using a food processor is perfectly acceptable, but you'll get a finer texture and more aroma if you use a mortar and pestle, he says—and, based on our tests, we agree.
Punyaratabandhu and McDermott, on the other hand, are proponents of jarred pastes. "Fresh pastes from scratch are best—no one will argue against that. But I would rather have a bowl of green curry made from store-bought green curry paste than a homemade one made with nontraditional ingredients like ginger, lemon, and cilantro leaves [in lieu of galangal, lemongrass, and coriander seeds]," says Punyaratabandhu. And, she points out, using a good jarred curry paste helps those new to Thai food know what each curry paste tastes like, so that "moving on to making pastes from scratch will be easy in terms of taste goals." McDermott seeks out Maesri-brand pastes packed in small, four-ounce cans, preferring the brighter flavor of freshly opened paste to that of the leftover paste you'll inevitably be stuck with if you choose larger-format products packed in jars or plastic tubs. Punyaratabandhu hesitates to recommend a single brand across the board, but advises choosing a paste made in Thailand over any made in the US, some of which "are pretty bad, actually."
Keen cooks might rush to fill their Thai pantries with a dozen or more aromatics, but if you're just starting out, you can get by with less. Along with fish sauce, limes, chilies, and herbs, kra-thiam (garlic) and hom daeng (red shallots) are "the quintessential components of everyday Thai cooking," says McDermott. Kha (galangal)—a thick, knobby rhizome—puts the kha in tom kha kai (coconut milk soup with chicken, lemongrass, and lime leaves). It's sometimes confused with ginger; don't make that mistake, because galangal's earthy, citrusy-piney perfume is quite different from ginger's tingly heat.
Ta-khrai, or lemongrass, smells like its namesake fruit, but flavor-wise, it's softer, sweeter, without the sharp acidic edge. You probably know lemongrass from its starring role in tom yam kung; it also flavors curry pastes. When purchasing lemongrass, seek out stalks with intact root ends, which will deliver more flavor. The "softened" lime equivalent to lemongrass are fabulously fragrant makrut lime leaves. (You may also find them labeled "kaffir lime leaves," a term we no longer employ due to its offensive connotations.) Distinctly earthy (some would say "musty") and slightly bitter, khamin (turmeric root) adds a hint of astringency and pepperiness, along with a beautiful tangerine hue, to Southern and Northern Thai curries. It also stains anything it touches, including cutting boards, so proceed with caution. Wrinkly makrut limes—only the zest is added to dishes; in Thailand, the juice is used as a hair tonic—and the highly aromatic lesser ginger, also known as lesser galangal, Chinese keys, and fingerroot, are "second-tier" aromatics: nice to have on hand, but not absolutely necessary. The latter, which tastes like a heightened version of galangal crossed with ginger—lightly citrusy, with a hint of pepper—is often used to ameliorate any muddy or gamy notes in dishes containing freshwater fish or game meat, says Punyaratabandhu.
The good news, if you don't live near a Thai market, is that fresh galangal and turmeric have been spotted at Whole Foods, and all of the ingredients above can now be ordered fresh for delivery by mail. The bad news is that only galangal, turmeric (sliced), and lime leaves are freezer-friendly, though frozen lemongrass will work just for a pounded paste as long as you're not planning to slice or fry it. If you're ordering fresh ingredients, Punyaratabandhu recommends timing their arrival to a couple of free hours that you can devote to pounding or processing them into curry pastes, which freeze very well.
While not all Thai food incorporates fresh herbs, they are an irreplaceable part of many dishes. You'll use cilantro and Thai basil most often; when shopping for the former, look for stems with attached roots, which taste a bit like sharp, slightly bitter celeriac and are an essential ingredient in many pastes (stems will sub in a pinch, says Punyaratabandhu). Thai basil goes into the familiar red and green curries, and can stand in for anise-y holy basil, a rarer find in the US, in the phat ka-phrao (ground meat stir-fried with basil) pantheon. Whipping up a traditional Thai curry is an easy weeknight project, points out Punyaratabandhu, as long as you've got fresh Thai basil and meat or chicken in the fridge, plus boxed or canned coconut milk and store-bought curry paste in the cupboard. If you want to move beyond the basics, add fresh mint to your stash, for limey Isan-style grilled beef or crisp pork rind salads. I keep herbs fresh by standing them upright in an inch of water in a sealed deli container or Mason jar.
Dried spice musts for the Thai pantry are, in addition to dried chilies, white peppercorns and coriander seeds. White peppercorns, like black ones, are the fruit of the pepper plant, but they've been stripped of the outer layer that turns black when the fruit is dried in the sun after picking. Unlike black peppercorns, which tend to have fruitier aromas, white peppercorns are more pungent, nuanced, and funky. The flavor of coriander seeds is hard to pin down; their citrusy, floral, pleasantly musty qualities come through most when they are ground. (Coriander seeds possess none of fresh cilantro's grassiness, and the two cannot substitute for each other.) Add nutty, faintly bitter cumin seeds, anise-y fennel seeds, and ground turmeric, says Punyaratabandhu, "and the making of curry pastes from scratch will be easier." If Northern Thai dishes like lap mueang mu (richly spiced pork lap with offal) are on your radar, add smoky, menthol-fragrant chako (black cardamom), cinnamon, long pepper (hot like black pepper, but with noticeable flavors of warm spices like nutmeg and cinnamon), and ma-khwaen, or black prickly ash; these possess a milder version of the tongue-numbing properties, but a little more citrusy aroma, than their cousin the Sichuan peppercorn. Intoxicatingly fragrant star anise will be useful if you want to take on Chinese-style braises, and don't forget spice blends: Punyaratabandhu reaches most often for Chinese five-spice and curry powder.
Put simply, the Thai are rice people. If you stock only one type of rice, make it long-grain—Thai or not, jasmine or not. Glutinous or sticky rice, which must be presoaked and is steamed in a basket suspended over a metal pot of water (I use a cheesecloth-draped Chinese bamboo steamer basket instead), is an essential part of Northern Thai and Isan meals. If sticky rice is on the table, utensils are not; instead of using fork and spoon, diners press and mold the rice between the palm and fingers of one hand to form a mini puck with which to dip up nam phrik and soupy curries. Since glutinous rice requires more time to make than long-grain, consider steaming extra, packing leftovers in plastic bags, and microwaving to reheat (as many urban northern Thais do). McDermott repurposes leftover sticky rice as shallow-fried patties, which turn out crispy on the outside and soft-creamy in the middle.
While fresh kuai tiao (rice noodles) make a lovely noodle soup or sweet, soy-saucy phat si io, Thai street food vendors and restaurant and home cooks make do quite nicely with dried noodles of all shapes and sizes. For stir-fried noodle dishes, like phat khi mao (with loads of chilies and Thai basil) and rat na (smothered in sliced chicken or other meat and phak khana—Chinese broccoli—in a glossy gravy), you'll need floppy, wide rice noodles. Add thinner rice sticks and stringy rice vermicelli to your pantry, and pad thai and rice noodle soups are within reach as well. For something chewier and more elastic, try Chinese glass noodles made from mung bean flour. All dried noodles will need to be soaked to some extent, though exact soaking times will depend on the dish in which they're appearing.
Flours and Starches
The flours and starches most commonly used as thickeners in Thai cooking are rice flour, glutinous rice flour, and tapioca starch. Though almost identical in appearance (think talcum powder), "each does different things, and they aren't interchangeable at all," says Punyaratabandhu. Rice flour is ground from long-grain rice, while glutinous rice flour is ground from sticky rice (despite its sometime moniker of "sweet" rice flour, it is not sweet like sugar). The latter contains more amylopectin and, as a result, has more thickening power. Tapioca is the flour most often used in dishes of Chinese origin, with glossy, gravy-like sauces. So, how to know when to use which flour or starch? Read the recipe closely. Punyaratabandhu's rule of thumb: When a Thai recipe calls for "rice flour," it's referring to the non-glutinous variety.