Flavors of Thailand: A Guide to Key Ingredients


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Do you want to be able to cook authentic Thai food at home? This guide to essential Thai ingredients explains some of the most common ingredients used in Thai cooking, such as soy sauce, coconut milk, curry paste, spices and fresh herbs.

Many ingredients used in Thai cooking are easy to find, but some require a trip to the international grocery store and we all know that can be daunting! This basic overview includes pictures of the essential Thai ingredients used to make some of the most common Thai dishes. Take this guide with you as a reference when visiting the international grocery store and you’ll be ready to cook authentic Thai favorites in your own kitchen!

Essential Thai Spice Sauces

Walk into any Asian/international grocery store and you’ll find hundreds of types and brands of soy sauce, but there are three that are common in Thai cooking. By purchasing these soy sauces that are made in Thailand (like the Healthy Boy Brand shown below), your home-cooked Thai food will taste just like what you’ve enjoyed at Thai restaurants.

soy sauce

Light Soy Sauce (or Thin Sauce)

This is the most common soy sauce used in Thai cooking. It is NOT the same as low sodium, but it has a light color and a more delicate taste than other brands of soy sauce (like Kikkoman soy sauce that is common in most grocery stores/Japanese restaurants).

Sweet Dark Soy Sauce

Thick, rich and with a slightly smoky flavor, this is a must in several beloved Thai dishes, including Pad See Ew and Thai Cashew Chicken. It’s also great drizzled over plain rice or chicken. Our Thai friends sometimes call it “kids sauce”, but kids are smart who love this – it’s delicious.

Dark Soy Sauce

This soy sauce is dark and thick like molasses. It has a much richer flavor than light soy sauce. It is good in marinades and a little goes a long way.

Fish Sauce (Nam Pla)

It’s notorious for its strong smell, but fish sauce adds great saltiness and umami flavor to Thai dishes. There’s no real substitute for its depth, so it’s worth embracing. If for some reason you don’t like fish sauce or if you don’t eat fish, you can use soy sauce or salt to replace the salt (but not the taste).

Oyster sauce

Oyster sauce is used in stir-fries and marinades. “A little amount goes a long way”. Try to find real oyster sauce, although Chinese “oyster flavor sauce” works in a pinch.

Thai (Bird’s Eye) Chili

Thai chili or bird’s eye chili is common – and very hot. “It will hit you like a slap in the nose”. They are best used fresh, but fresno or serrano chiles work well as substitutes.

Thai Basilica and Holy Basilica

Thai basil and holy, or hot, basil are both different from the “sweet” Genovese basil more common in Europe/USA. Holy basil is used in stir-fries to add an herbaceous and licorice-like flavor, and Thai basil, with its beautiful purple stems and buds, is commonly used in soups where it adds a sharper, bolder flavor.

Coconut milk

There is no Thai curry and no tom kha soup without coconut milk, which means you should have plenty of it at home and ready to use at any time. Suggested AROY-D coconut milk – in a carton, not a can.

Palm sugar

“Palm sugar is the best” It offers a caramelized sweetness similar to light brown sugar, with an earthy undertone. You’ll likely find it in small, hard “cakes” or blocks, which can be grated, melted and mixed into a dish. Avoid refined sugar.


The sour taste from tamarind is not as sharp as lime. “It’s more round and balanced,” says Syhabout. It is used in various soups, sauces and marinades, and Syhabout also fondly remembers his mother making homemade tamarind marmalade to spread on toast.

Sticky Rice

Sticky rice is an indispensable staple in most Thai meals, soaking up sauce and flavor and offering an easy delivery method.

Bamboo Cone Shaped Sticky Rice Holder

To make great sticky rice at home, “you have to have the right equipment for the right job,” says Syhabout . As opposed to a regular steamer, he suggests specially made woven bamboo cones, which are placed over a corresponding pan to steam the rice while the water never comes into direct contact. For best results, soak the rice in water for 24 hours and strain before steaming.

Wok and Metal Spatula

There is no perfect wok. Instead, choose the shape or size that enables you to get as much heat out as possible. However, Syhabout warns that you really need a gas stove to make the wok work. “If you have an electric stove, you’re pretty much done,” he says.

Mortar and Impact

Mortar and pestle are a must, used for everything from hand pounding curry pastes and sauces to making like tum (green papaya salad).


Hawker Fare: Stories & Recipes from a Refugee Chef’s Isan Thai & Lao Roots

From Chef James Syhabout of two-Michelin-star restaurant Commis, an Asian-American cookbook like no other – simple recipes for cooking homemade Thai and Lao dishes James Syhabout’s hugely popular restaurant Hawker Fare in San Francisco is the product of his unique family history and diverse career experience . Get the food from his heritage to work in Europe and become a classically trained chef.

Guide to Thai ingredients

In Thailand, there is a rich and varied food culture with flavors that are sweet, sour, salty and spicy. This combination of flavors gives Thai food its distinctive and enticing character. In order to cook authentic Thai food at home, it is important to have the right ingredients on hand. Here’s a guide to some of the most essential Thai ingredients that can be used to create amazing Thai dishes in your own kitchen.

Galangal – A Distinctive Taste from Thailand

One of the most characteristic ingredients in Thai cooking is galangal, a root similar to ginger but with a completely different flavor profile. Galangal gives a unique and distinct flavor to dishes such as curry pastes and soups. It is important to find real galangal to achieve the authentic Thai taste. If you can’t find fresh galangal, you can use frozen galangal as a substitute.

Makrut (kaffir) Lime – Aromatic addition to curry pastes

Makrut lime is used in Thai cooking for its leaves and peel. The fruit does not yield much juice, but the essential oils in the peel add a fantastic aroma to curry pastes and curry sauces. Makrut lime is an essential ingredient to add authentic Thai flavor to your dishes.

Fish Sauce – The Salty Backbone of Thai Cooking

Fish sauce is one of the most used condiments in Thai cooking and acts as salt. It also gives an umami taste to the dishes. It is important to choose a high quality fish sauce to achieve the best taste. There are different brands of fish sauce available, and it can be helpful to try different brands to find the one that suits your taste best.

Oyster Sauce – A Secret in Thai Wok Dishes

Oyster sauce is used in Thai cooking to add a rich and sweet flavor to stir-fries and marinades. A small amount of oyster sauce can go a long way in enhancing the flavor of your dishes. It’s important to use real oyster sauce to achieve the authentic Thai taste, but if you can’t find oyster sauce, you can use Chinese “oyster flavor sauce” as a substitute.

Thai Bird Eye Chili – A Sharp Taste Experience

Thai Bird Eye Chili is one of the hottest chili varieties and gives a sharp and strong flavor to Thai dishes. It is important to be careful when using this chili because it can be very hot. If you can’t find Thai Bird Eye Chili, you can use fresno or serrano chiles as substitutes.

Thai Basil and Holy Basil – Spicy Herbs for Authentic Taste

Thai basil and holy basil are used in Thai cooking to add a spicy and aromatic flavor to dishes. Thai basil has beautiful purple stems and buds and is often used in soups, while holy basil has a more anise-like flavor and is used in stir-fries to add an herbaceous flavor.

Palm sugar – A natural sweetness with earthy notes

Palm sugar is used in Thai cooking to add a natural and caramelized sweetness to the dishes. It has a woody and earthy undertone that gives a unique flavor to your Thai dishes. Palm sugar usually comes in the form of hard “cakes” or blocks that can be melted and used in cooking.

Coconut Milk – Creamy Base for Thai Curries

Coconut milk is an indispensable ingredient in Thai cooking and is used in curries and soups to give a creamy and rich taste. It is important to use real coconut milk to achieve the authentic Thai taste. Coconut milk is usually available in cans or cartons, and it’s good to choose a high-quality coconut milk for best results.

Tamarind – A Soft Acidity for Balanced Taste

Tamarind is used in Thai cooking to give a soft and balanced acidity to the dishes. It is used in soups, sauces and marinades and gives a unique flavor profile to your Thai dishes. Tamarind has a round and balanced flavor that is not as sharp as lime.

Sticky Rice – A Staple in Thai Meals

Sticky rice is an indispensable part of Thai meals and is used to soak up sauce and flavor. It gives a soft and sticky texture to your dishes and is an important part of Thai food culture.

Bamboo Cone Shaped Sticky Rice Holder – For Perfect Sticky Rice

To get perfect sticky rice at home, it is important to have the right equipment. A bamboo cone shaped sticky rice holder is the best tool for steaming the rice properly. By using such a holder, you can steam the rice without the water coming into direct contact with it, giving the best results. It is also important to soak the rice in water for 24 hours before steaming to achieve the perfect sticky consistency.

Wok and Metal Spatula – For Authentic Wok Dishes

A wok and a metal spatula are indispensable tools for cooking authentic wok dishes. A wok provides even heat distribution and a metal spatula is perfect for stirring the ingredients quickly and efficiently. It is important to have a gas stove to get the best results with a wok.

Mortar and Pestle – For Crushing and Mixing Spices

A mortar and pestle is a must for crushing and mixing spices and ingredients. It is used to make curry pastes and sauces as well as to make traditional Thai dishes such as tum tum (green papaya salad). A mortar and pestle gives an authentic flavor to your Thai dishes.

Thailand: The Cookbook

Thailand: The Cookbook – A Valuable Resource for Thai Recipes

The book “Thailand: The Cookbook” by Jean-Pierre Gabriel is a valuable resource for Thai recipes. The book contains over 500 recipes from all over the country and provides a comprehensive collection of authentic Thai dishes. With beautiful photographs and detailed instructions, this cookbook is an indispensable guide to cooking authentic Thai food at home.

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Final Thoughts

Being able to cook authentic Thai food at home can be a fun and enriching experience. By using the essential Thai ingredients described in this guide, you can create amazing flavors and experience the rich Thai food culture. Take the time to explore different recipes and adapt them to your own taste. With the right ingredients and techniques, you can become a master of Thai cooking in no time!

Frequently asked questions

What is the typical flavor profile of Thai food?

Thai food is characterized by a balanced flavor profile that includes saltiness, sourness, sweetness and spiciness. This combination of flavors gives Thai food its characteristic and enticing taste.

What are the most common spices and herbs in Thai cooking?

Thai cooking uses a wide variety of spices and herbs, but some of the most common are galangal, garlic, onion, coriander, lemongrass and lime leaves. These ingredients give a unique flavor to Thai dishes.

Where can I find Thai ingredients?

Thai ingredients can be found at Asian grocery stores or specialized international stores. Some ingredients may also be available at regular grocery stores in the international section. It is also possible to buy Thai ingredients online.

Can I use substitutes for some Thai ingredients?

Yes, there are some substitutes that can be used if you cannot find the Thai ingredients. For example, ginger can be used as a substitute for galangal and basil can be replaced with coriander leaves. However, it is important to remember that using substitution ingredients can affect the taste of the dishes.

Can I customize the taste of Thai dishes to my own preference?

Yes, Thai recipes can be adapted to your own taste preference. If you prefer a milder taste, you can reduce the amount of spices or use milder chilies. On the other hand, you can increase the amount of spices or use stronger chilies if you want a hotter taste.

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