For our money, no cuisine out there manages to hit on all the flavors – sweet, salty, sour, umami, (and yes, sometimes spicy!) like Thai food. From universally loved noodle dishes like Pad Thai, to more adventurous ones like deep fried whole fish with chili sauce or fiery minced meat dips, there’s a kaleidoscope of flavors to explore beyond what’s offered at the average takeout spot. Cooking Thai food at home can seem intimidating to many cooks, but you’d be surprised how many dishes are built on the same foundational ingredients and simple techniques. Shopping ahead of time for some key pantry items will ensure you can create those intense flavors you expect from a restaurant at home, and the rest is simple – just add vegetables, rice or rice noodles, and the protein of your choice to your weekly shopping list and you can be cooking authentic-tasting Thai food in no time.
(image via indie culinary)
Thai curries can be laborious to make from scratch, as they often contain garlic, chilies, galangal, lemongrass, and dried shrimp. Luckily, some great-quality pre-made curry pastes can be purchased in your local Asian market or online, like these ones from Mae Ploy. They come in a rainbow of curries, like red, yellow, green, and panang. If you’re looking for a seafood-free version, these vegan pastes by Maesri are your best bet. A little goes a long way, and they keep well, so we recommend buying them all and finding your favorite!
(image via street smart kitchen)
Thai cooks rely on an arsenal of sauces for the umami flavors they add to stir-fries and noodle dishes. We couldn’t choose just one sauce to recommend, so we’re suggesting two: oyster sauce, and fish sauce. These sauces are versatile and widely available, but don’t judge them by their smell straight from the bottle! They’re both used in small amounts, and don’t taste overtly fishy in the finished dish – especially if you buy from brands with high quality standards, like Red Boat and Lee Kum Kee. If you’ve just been cooking with soy sauce up until now and feel like your stir-fries or curries are missing depth of flavor, these are the two sauces that you need in your kitchen. Interested in diving in deeper? Street Smart Kitchen has a great guide to Asian sauces.
(image via inquiring chef)
Lime juice is liberally used in many Thai dishes, but it’s not the only sour component you’ll find in the Thai pantry. Tamarind, the pulp of a tropical tree pod is both fruity and really tangy – and it’s used in savory dishes, desserts, and even drinks! You may have seen the large brown pods for sale in Mexican or Asian grocery stores, but if not, you can buy a shelf stable concentrate with no compromise in flavor. We like this one from our friends at The Spice House. but if you’re feeling intrepid, you can make your own using this guide from Inquiring Chef.
(image via inquiring chef)
Bird’s Eye Chilies
If you’ve ever ordered Thai takeout, you’re familiar with the follow up question “how spicy?” Contrary to popular belief here in the states, some Thai dishes are meant to be enjoyed spicy while others are completely mild, and you’d never order using the star rating for spice at a restaurant in Thailand. Whether you’re spice fanatical or fearful, one of the best parts about cooking Thai at home is that you can control the heat. Thai Bird’s Eye Chilies are easy to find dry or in paste form, and as a pepper that rates 50,000 – 100,000 on the Scoville scale, a little goes a long way. Serve Nam Prik Pao table-side so everyone can add as much (or as little) as they like, or if not, there’s always Sriracha.
(image via the kitchn)
There’s nothing like fresh milk straight from the coconut, but we know that’s not realistic for most of us living outside of the tropics! Great coconut milk is essential for making Thai curries, and luckily, it’s now widely available at most stores. However, there’s a lot of varieties and formats out there, and it can get confusing fast. We’ll make it easy: look for full fat, unsweetened coconut milk, in a box (or tetra pak) if you can find it. We love the Aroy-D brand, straight from Thailand.
Kaffir Lime Leaves
Lastly, there’s lime leaves. Like we’ve mentioned previously, lime juice is often added as a final squeeze of freshness in many dishes, but Thai cooks don’t just stop at the fruit! The leaves are incredibly fragrant, and if you’ve ever enjoyed a comforting bowl of Tom Kha Gai soup, you know how distinctive the flavor they add is. As with Kaffir limes, their leaves are not easy to find fresh – look for them frozen, and next time your curry needs a dose of fresh, zesty aroma, snip in a leaf, thinly sliced.