The thing that makes Thai cooking so unique and flavorful is the mix of amazing ingredients. I know it can be difficult to find the appropriate ingredients in the states and in some cases substitutes are okay. However, finding the right ingredients is well worth it! If you have any Asian markets in the area then take yourself on a field trip. Find out what stuff on this list below you have access to and which you don’t. Anything you don’t have access to, look online. You can often order it from places like Amazon or my favorite Thai supply website, ImportFood. If you take the time to prepare, you will be highly rewarded in the final product of your tasty concoctions.
Below you will find a list of the basic Thai ingredients that are used in most Thai cuisine. Having all of this on hand would be best, but you can also pick and choose as you go through the recipes.
If you come across an ingredient for a recipe that I don’t have on this list, let me know. I’ll try and help you out with where to find it or what to substitute it with.
Coconut Milk – This is used in many dishes to add a savory flavor and to tone down the level of spice. You can use canned coconut milk from the store, just be sure to pay attention to whether the recipe calls for pure coconut milk or milk that is cut with water (some soups require this).
Fish Sauce – This is a staple in Thai cooking. It doesn’t sound great and definitely doesn’t taste great on it’s own, but it adds an amazing amount of savory flavor when used in cooking. You can find this in any Asian food market and often at normal grocery stores. I’ve heard that fish sauces packaged in glass last longer (as opposed to plastic). For cooking, you can use a lower grade version (there is a spectrum but the lower end is just fine).
Oyster Sauce – This sauce is made from concentrated oysters and is thick, brown, and salty. It’s often used in stir-fries. If you prefer, you can substitute with mushroom sauce.
Palm Oil – This is used for all frying and light cooking. Palm oil is not as readily available in the states. You can substitute for a light canola, sunflower, or peanut oil.
Herbs & Spices, Etc.
Bamboo Shoots – You can buy these canned in most supermarkets. Fresh are sometimes available as well. Be sure to read the cooking instructions on the container. Fresh bamboo shoots need to be peeled and the insides boiled for thirty minutes. Canned need to be boiled for about ten.
Basil and Holy Basil – There is a difference! Basil refers to Thai sweet basil. Holy basil has a spicy taste to it that is very unique. This basil can be very difficult to find in the states. Check out my blog post on Basil Basics for more information.
Cardamom – This seed is widely used to give Thai food it’s unique flavor. You can use powdered cardamom if that’s all that is available, but if you can grind your own, that’s best.
Chilies – Obviously, this is a huge part of Thai cooking and is what gives the cuisine it’s heat!
Here’s a note from asiarecipe.com: “Many different varieties of chillies are used in Thailand but the most common is 7.5-10 cm (3-4 inches) long and can be red, green or yellow when fresh. Dried, it is red. Another popular chilli in Thai cooking is tiny, green and extremely fiery. The seeds are the hottest part of the chilli so if you want to keep the flavour, with out the heat, slit open the chillies and discard the seeds. Dried chillies should be soaked in hot water for 10 minutes before grinding.”
Chili Paste – This is also wildly used in recipes for soups and other dishes. It can be purchased in Asian food markets.
Cinnamon – This one is easy!
Coriander – All parts of coriander are used from the leaves to the roots. Be sure to pay attention to what portion the recipe is asking for! Obviously the fresher the better with this ingredient.
Cumin – This can be used in the powdered form that you most often find in the grocery store, but the cumin seeds hold flavor better so if you can find the seeds and grind them yourself, you’re in for a bit better taste. There really isn’t too much difference though.
Galangal – This ingredient is part of the ginger family and has a very distinct flavor. It is difficult to find in the states though many Asian markets will have it. You can also find it in powdered form.
Garlic – Same thing goes as with shallots. Garlic in Thailand is much smaller so use half of what the recipe calls for (if the recipe is from Thailand).
Ginger – This ingredient is used in many different forms – crushed, grated, etc. Fresh is obviously better (as with all ingredients) but powdered is also available and works as a substitute.
Kaffir Lime Leaves – Do not get these confused with regular lime leaves. These have a very distinct flavor and are the soul reason that some Thai dishes are as delicious as they are. Unfortunately, in the states Kaffir limes are not USDA approved for growing so you cannot find them. You can, however, find just the leaves in Asian markets. They might be hard to find but they are worth the search. If you absolutely cannot find them you can substitute lime zest from normal limes but just know you won’t get the flavor you are looking for.
Lemongrass – A tall scallion-like herb, this is widely used in Thai cooking. Fresh lemongrass is obviously best but you can also find it dried and in powder form. One piece of advice I learned from my cooking teacher is never to use powdered lemongrass seasoning in your soups, only in pastes and other dishes. It doesn’t give you the right taste.
Note from http://www.templeofthai.com: “If using dried lemongrass stalks, use 2-3 pieces more than the recipe calls for. Soak in hot water for an hour. Powdered lemon grass is also available (visit our online grocery). Two tablespoons powdered spice is approximately equivalent to one fresh stalk. Be careful though because dry lemongrass contains salt. Adjust seasoning accordingly. For soups, try substituting fresh lemon peel if you are in a pinch for fresh stalks.”
Mint – Fresh mint leaves are used in many different Thai dishes. Sweet basil can be a substitute.
Palm Sugar – Palm sugar is one ingredient that truly affects the authentic taste of Thai cooking. If you can get your hands on palm sugar, your dishes are going to taste a million times better. You can buy this at most Asian markets such as Viet Wah and Uwajimaya (Seattle/Pacific NW area). You can actually order it on Amazon as well. If you can’t get your hands on it, you can substitute for light brown sugar or granulated white sugar. Be sure to add an additional 20% to the amount called for.
Shallots – Regular every day shallots that you should be able to find at any grocery. Take note though, shallots in Thailand are much smaller so if you are using a recipe from Thailand (the ones I most most likely will be), use half as much as the recipe calls for (ie. 1 full shallot would be 1/2 of a shallot purchased in the states).
Shrimp Paste – This pungent paste is made from dried shrimp and salt. It is added to made curry pastes. It can be substituted with anchovy or soybean paste.
Tamarind – This is a fruit often used as a form of seasoning in Thai cooking. In the states you can often find it dried or in the form of a paste with the seeds removed. This one might be difficult to find. I’ll do some research!