Thai Ingredients Glossary
:: Spices & Herbs
Cardamon pods have a delightful aroma and are around one centimeter in diameter. They are a white yellowish color. Because of its good fragrance, they are used in a variety of sweet and savoury Thai dishes, especially in curries like Kaeng Kari, Matsaman or Phanaeng.
Two names are commonly used to refer to this herb. The scientific name is coriander, but in America most people call it cilantro. Coriander is part of the parsley family. It has a strong aroma. All parts of coriander can be used in cooking. The leaves and stems are often used in garnishing dishes like fried rice and soup. It is sometimes eaten fresh with Sakoo (steamed tapioca balls filled with minced pork). Coriander turns dark easily and wilts quickly. To keep it fresh longer, pat dry, put in a plastic bag, and keep it in a refrigerator.
Another name for these are cilantro roots. The roots are often used with garlic to enhance the aroma of a dish. It is also one of the ingredients in curry pastes and other pastes. It is easy to find roots in Thailand, but not in America. If you are lucky, you may find coriander with the roots attached at Asian grocery stores. If you do come across them and want to keep them for future use, consider buying a fairly large amount if they were hard to find. There are at least two ways, that I know of, to store coriander roots.
The first option is to freeze them. Cut the root with about 1 inch of the stem on. Wash them very well since roots may contain parasites. Pat dry, put in a freezer bag and freeze them. To use, defrost in a fridge overnight. It will be comparable to the fresh version.
The second option is to dry them. Cut the root with about 1/2 inch of the stem on. Wash them very well since roots may contain parasites. Pat dry and let it air dry under the sun or by the window until it dries. This part may take 1-3 days depending on the sun. Once dry, pound them in a mortar or grind them up in a food processor. Keep in a jar. The aroma is as good as the fresh version.
If you do use fresh roots, remember to wash them very well.
Coriander seeds are also known as the dry fruits of corianders. The seeds have a lemony citrus flavor when crushed. Some also describe the flavor as nutty, warm, spicy, and orange-flavored. It is one of the key ingredients in Kung Ob Wun Sen.
Curry powder is from India. Most recipes and producers of curry powder usually include coriander, turmeric, cumin, and fenugreek in their blends. It is widely used in many dishes from curries, stir-fried, deep-fried or rice dishes.
Fresh galangal (also called galanga) has an ivory or very pale yellow color and its growing tips are tinged with pink, similar to young ginger. It is denser and firmer than common ginger. The taste is quite different from ginger; its hotter and sharper bite combines with a tangy flavor. In Thai cooking, galangal is used in seafood salads and soups. It is also used in making chili and curry pastes.
If you are not able to find fresh galangal, look for frozen roots imported from Thailand. These roots may have an orangish brown color, because they are not exactly the same variety, but they are the next best thing to fresh.
Garlic is widely used in Thailand, almost in every dish. Thai garlic has much smaller cloves and thinner skin than garlic found in the US. Not only the size is different - Thai garlic also has a stronger aroma and flavor. That said, any garlic in your local stores can be used in Thai cooking.
Garlic is known for its health benefits. In Thailand, we believe that garlic can help prevent the common cold and flu, reduce blood pressure and cholesterol, reduce gas in the stomach or a bloated feeling, as well as relieve pain from a toothache.
Kaffir Lime Leaf
Kaffir lime leaves are important to many Thai dishes, from soups and salads to curries and stir-fried dishes.
In soupy dishes, add the leaves whole or torn into smaller pieces, using them as one would bay leaves to flavor stew. For dishes in which they are a component to be eaten, such as salads, stir-fried dishes and dry curries, cut them in very fine needle-like slivers, so they can be more evenly distributed. The slivers also provide a pleasing presentation.
Fingerroot is named for its hand and finger-like appearance. It is also known as Lesser Ginger and Lesser Galangal. In Thailand, there are 3 kinds of Kra Chai: Kra Chai Lueng, Kra Chai Daeng and Kra Chai Dum. Lueng, Daeng and Dum mean Yellow, Red and Black, respectively. These colors refer to the color of root and leaf. Although Kra Chai Lueng and Daeng are in the same plant family, they differ in terms of their essential oil. Kra Chai Dum is in the same family as ginger. In Thailand, Kra Chai is used as a medicinal herb as well as for cooking.
Fingerroot has an agreeably sharp, tart and spicy flavor. In folk medicine, fingerroot is used to treat bacteria in the intestine, excess gas, bloating, urinary problems, dysentery, inflammations around the mouth, as well as to address appetite and body strength. As an example of the many remedies that use finggerroot, a remedy to cure hemorrhoids and diarrhea involves boiling fingerroot with tamarind, adding a little salt, and drinking a glass before bed time. Please do not try this without consulting your physician.
Besides use as a medical herb, fingerroot is very commonly used in Thai cooking. Most often, Kra Chai Lueng (Yellow fingerroot) is used in cooking. It is one of the ingredients in Khanom Jeen Num Ya, Kaeng Liang and curry paste. In addition, it is used in the following dishes to help eliminate smells associated with fish or meat: Pad Ped Pla Duk (stir-fried crispy catfish in spicy sauce) and Kaeng Ped Nuew. Kra Chaa Dum (Black Kra Chai) is used to make wine. Black Kra Chai wine has been around over 10 years and is considered a refreshing and revitalizing drink.
In Asian grocery stores around the US, one will not likely find fresh fingerroot, but might find it frozen or pickled. Frozen would yield a better result than pickled, as it is closer to the fresh fingerroot.
Holy Basil or Hot Basil
Holy basil is also known as Sacred basil or Hot basil. There are two types of holy basil: white holy basil and red holy basil. Thais prefer red holy basil because it has a more exuberant flavor and fragrance than white holy basil, although both types have a peppery taste. The red holy basil has dark green leaves with purple reddish stems. The white holy basil, on the other hand, has lighter green leaves and almost white stems. Many have confused holy basil with Thai sweet basil (bai ho ra pha). Both types of holy basil are jagged around the edges of the leaves and they are smaller than Thai sweet basil.
It is not common to eat raw holy basil. This is because the flavor and fragrance are fully released while cooking. Holy basil is commonly used in stir-fried dishes like Pad Kra Phrao. In these stir-fried dishes, Thais add generous amounts of holy basil to a dish.
Holy basil is harder to store than Thai sweet basil. Holy basil is fragile and easily turns dark, wilts and loses its aroma. So, it is recommended to use it within 2-3 days after purchase. To prolong it from turning dark and wilting, remove leaves from stems, and pat dry with paper towels before placing in a plastic bag. Close up the plastic bag with a tiny bit of air in it (not totally air tight) and keep it in a refrigerator.
Lemon grass comes in long, slender stalks about a foot long. choose thick, light green stalks that feel firm all over and that are not dried out or wilted. Lemon grass is frequently used to flavor soups, salads and curries - for each of these, lemon grass is used differently.
For soups and simmered dishes, cut the trimmed stalk at a very sharp angle into inch-long pieces, exposing its fragrances. Smash with the flat blade of a cleaver or heavy knife to release the aromatic oils before adding to these dishes.
For salads, cut with a sharp knife into very thin rounds, breaking up the fibers that run along the stalk. When slicing, if the outer layer seems fibrous, peel it off and then continue slicing. Such thinly sliced rounds of the inner stalk can be easily chewed with other salad ingredients for a refreshing burst of lemony herb flavor.
For curries, cut the stalk into thin rounds before pounding the lemon grass in a stone mortar to reduce to paste.
Thai mint leaves are thin, round and slightly wavy. The stem tends to be dark red. It is easy to grow and Thais commonly plant it in pots kept alongside the kitchen, where it can always be easily gathered. It is commonly used in Yum, Laab or Pla dishes.
There are two main shallot types in Thailand: one with purple-reddish skin and one with light yellow skin. The purple-reddish shallots have a stronger aroma and flavor than the light yellow shallots. However, the light yellow shallot has a sweeter taste. Shallots are widely used in Thai cooking. Finely sliced fresh or deep-fried shallots are used as a condiment or for garnishing.
The shallot is a relative of the onion. It has a similar taste to onions but has a sweeter and milder flavor. Shallots tend to be more expensive than onions.
There are many health benefits ranging from reducing fever, reducing gas in the stomach, to reducing the chance of developing cancer, heart disease and diabetes. In some studies, shallots are found to be an excellent source for helping the liver to eliminate toxins from the body.
(Sweet) Thai Basil
Thai basil has deep green leaves, purplish flower buds and stems. It is added by the big handfuls in whole leaves to green and red curries and spicy stir-fried dishes especially seafood dishes like Pad Hoi Luy. They are even served on a plate of herbs to accompany a meal.
Turmeric is a small member of the ginger family with brown rhizomes. Inside the flesh is lots of bright orange color. It is used to make Turmeric powder which is widely used as one of the ingredients in making curry powder. Turmeric has also been sought as a medicinal herb in Thailand. For instance, the dried root is ground and rubbed on the skin to treat skin diseases; mixed with coconut oil, it speeds the healing of wounds and minimizes scarring.
Whole White Peppercorns are derived from the polished black peppercorn, but they are not bleached, unlike the Western method of preparation. The result is more speckled but also more flavorful. Grind with a mortar and pestle or smash with the side of a cleaver to spice up meats and vegetarian dishes.
White Pepper Powder
White Ground Pepper (prik thai) is a staple ingredient in Thai cooking. NguanSoon No.1 Hand brand is the best known brand of white pepper in Thailand. In Bangkok, white peppercorns are ground fresh daily in the front of the NguanSoon store.