Thailand’s kitchen has all the raw ingredients that one may find in any other kitchen around the world. However, these individual ingredients like the common herbs and spices are carefully mixed to produce a unique Thai taste. The proper combination of these ingredients is considered an art and involves time, skill and delicate adjustment. The special combination is what gives Thai food its very distinctive character. It is also interesting to note that the 20-30 main herbs and spices which form the basis for Thai cooking are often used in approximation.
In fact, most Thai cooks don’t use food processors, oven, measuring cups spoons and all those weighting devices. Most local cooks when asked about how much or how many of this or that ingredient to add, they’d just say. “I just know.” Many times, the amounts they use are no minimal that you wonder if they have any effect at all.
However, to a trained palate, it oly takes one taste to know what is missing. Some of the essential herbs and spices in Thai cooking are coriander (phak chee), Thai holy basil (bai ka prao), kaffir lime leaf (bai ma krood), lemongrass (ta krai), bird chilli (prik khee noo suan), lime (ma nao), galangal (khaa), ginger (khing), turmeric (kra chai), saw-leaf herb (phak chee farang), shallot (hua hom daeng), garlic (kra tiem), spring onion (ton hom) among others Coriander or phak chee leaves are used often as garnish. It stems and roots are used as seasoning I many Thai dishes, while its seed is used to spice up the Thai curry.
No Thai kitchen would be complete without a good supply of fresh basil. Thais make use of several types of basil in their cooking. The holy basil (bai ka prao) being the ost common one. These intensely aromatic dark green leaves with purplish flower is commonly used in stir-fried chicken, beef, pork or seafood or added into the curry. Kaffir lime leaf or bai ma krood, has freshly green and glossy color and its shape resemble a figure eight. These leaves can be finely shredded and added to salads or tom and added to curries and soups like tom yum.
Lemongrass or ta krai, for some dishes, is chopped and pounded, other times it is simply cut into long pieces and “bruised” (bent and kneaded or even lightly cut in several places) to release the scent and flavor for soups and curries. Indispensable in tom yum, and often mixed with onion, chilli and coriander then topped on sardines. The smallest of the chilies, called bird chili or phrik khee noo suan, is the hottest.
Whether ground fresh, dried, chopped, whole or mashed, these spicy chilies are in almost Thai dishes. You often have to warn our cook not to put too much in your dish if you don’t have the tongue for this fiery thing as Thai dishes are normally spicy. Galangal or khaa is a relative of ginger (khing), as is fresh turmeric (kra chai). It is used like ginger root in cooking, but is is different in flavor, tasting slightly medicinal. It is sometimes referred to as “aromatic giner.” Thai cooks often use it to help eliminate any unwanted fishy smells from shellfish and other seafood dishes.
Saw-leaf herb or phak chee farang also known as the saw tooth herb, taking the name from the appearance of its long, slender and serrated leaves has a similar but rather more pungent flavor than the coriander leaf. Most commonly used in meat or fish soups as stews. Among other numerous Thai herbs and spices commonly found in Thai dishes are spring onion (ton hom), pandan leaf (bai toey), pepper (prik Thai), mint (bai saranae), Chinese chives (kui chai), garlic (kra tiem), bay leaf (bai krawan), cardamom (look kra wan), criton (som za), cumin (yi ra), tamarind (makham piek) and shallot (hua hom daeng).