Several varieties of chillies are used in Thai cooking. Of the fresh chilles, there are the red ones (ripe chillies), the green ones (unripe chillies) and the bird’s eye chillies (small chillies that are extremely spicy). The dried variety is made from drying red chillies. Soak dried chillies in warm water for at least 20 minutes to soften before use. Adjust the number and/or amount of fresh or dried chillies added to a dish to suit your preference. The general rule of thumb is that the smaller chilli, the spicier it is. Deseeding chillies, whether fresh or dried, will also help make dishes less spicy. Wear gloves when cutting or slicing fresh chillies, as direct contact may leave a ‘burning’ sensation on your skin. Wash your hands thoroughly with soup and water after contact with fresh chillies, and do not touch your eyes or other sensitive areas of your body. Put chillies in a blender with a small amount of water to get chilli paste.
Coconut Cream or Coconut Milk (Ma prao)
Coconut cream/milk is a common ingredient used in Thai cooking, in dishes such as curries and desserts, and also beverages. Coconut cream is thicker and richer than coconut milk. It is extracted by soaking, fresh grated coconut in a small amount of water and then straining it in a fine sleve or muslin bag. Vary the thickness of the coconut cream/milk according to your preference. Ready made versions are now available from markets and supermarkets for added convenience. Add water as desired to dilute the liquid.
Coriander (Cilantro) Leaves (Pak chee)
Also known as Chinese parsley, coriander is fully edible, from its leaves to its stems and roots. The attractive bright green coloured leaves are commonly used to garnish dishes as well as to flavour foods. When storing coriander, first pat them dry with absorbent paper or kitchen towel, then wrap in clean absorbent paper or keep in an airtight container. Refrigerate and use as needed. Coriander will keep for up to a week this way, depending on the freshness of the herb.
This flour has a bleached-white colour which distinguishes it from plain (all purpose) flour. It is obtained from the endosperm of the forn kernel and has no smell or flavour. Cornflour is commonly used as a thickener for sauces and gravies and to bind meat mixtures. As it tends to form lumps, mix cornflour with a small amount of liquid to form a thin paste before stirring into hot liquids. Sauces and gravies that are thickended with cornflour are clear instead of opaque as with other flour-based sauces and gravies.
Dried Egg Noodles
These yellow coloured noodles are thin like angel hair pasta. A main ingredient is egg, which is what gives it its rich yellow colour. These dried noodles can be reconstitured quickly by blanching in boliing water for 2-3 minutes. When reconstituted, they take on a light springy texture. Do not soak in water for too long as the noodles will absorb the water and lose its springy texture.
Dried Prawns (Shrimps)
These are small prawns that have been completely shelled and then salted and sun dried. Dried prawns add flavour to dishes. They can be used whole, chopped or finely ground. Simply rinse or if preferred, soak in water for 10-15 minutes to remove the salty flavour.
Fish Sauce (Nam Pla)
This sauce is made from a brew of fermented fish or prawns (shrimps), and ranges in colour from light brown to dark brown. Salty, pungent and strong-flavoured, fish sauce is commonly used in Southeast Asia to enhance the flavour of dishes. Just as with soy saurce, fish saurce is used either as a condiment or added to food during cooking. As a condiment, it is sometimes served together with sliced chillies and/or lime juice.
This rhizome looks like ginger, but it can be distinguished from the former by its faint pinkish colour. Galangal has a distinctive peppery taste that is best when fresh. It lends a unique flavour to the dish when used in cooking. The flesh is creamcoloured. Slice off the required amount and peel off the skin before using. The remaining root can then be stored for later use. Simply slice off the dried portion.
Also known as cellophane noodles or bean vermicelli, these thin, dried transparent noodles can be softended in warm water before use or simply placed in boiling water to cook until tender. Glass noodles do not have much flavour of their own. As such, they take on the flavour of the gravy or soup they are cooked in most readily.
Unlike other types of rice, this variety of rice is opaque withe in colour. Soak the rice in water for at least 3 hours or preferably overnight before cooking. When cooked, glutinous rice takes on a sticky texture, as with Japanese rice. Allow less rice for each person when cooking glutinous rice, as it is more filling compared to other types of rice. In Thai cooking, glutinous rice is commonly used to prepare desserts and snacks.
This knobbly, dark green coloured lime has a very fragrant rind that is commonly used to flavour curries and soups in Thai cooking. Its leaves are also dark green colour and look like two leaves joined end to end. Like the rind, they are also used to a flavour curries and soups. Shred or tear the leaves to release its strong fragrance.
This is a very important herb in Thai cooking. With long thin light green-grey leaves and a bulbous base, only the lower 10-15 cm (4-6 inch) portion of the herb is used in cooking. Fragrant and aromatic, lemon grass imparts a distinctive lemony flavour dishes. To use, trim off the base and peel off the tough outer layers to reveal the tender centre. Bruise to release its flavour when the herb is used whole, or slice finely.
Lesser Ginger (Kra Chai)
Lesser ginger cornes in bunches of slender, short turberous roots. They range in colour from yellow to light brown and have a distinct aromatic flavour. Omit it from the recipe if it is unavailable.
Light Soy Sauce (see ew kaw)
A very common and almost essential ingredient used in Asian cooking light soy sauce is made from fermenting soy beans. Light soy sauce is clear and light brown in colour, with a salty taste. It is used to add flavour to dishes without darkening them as would be the case with dark soy sauce. Light soy sauce is commonly added to fish, meat, chicken, vegetable and soup dishes. It is also used as a condiment for dipping. Sliced chilli can be added to make the condiment spicier.
Both dried and fresh mushrooms are used in Thai cooking, but the dried Chinese mushrooms (dried shiitake mushrooms) are used most frequently. Soak dried Chinese mushrooms in warm water for at least 20 minutes to soften. Squeeze out the excess liquid before using. Dried Chinese mushrooms are available from Chinese supermarkets or specialty stores. Canned button mushrooms are used in some Thai recipes. Do not substitute with the fresh variety, as they taste rather different. Drain well and use as requried.
Palm Sugar (Jaggery) [nam tan paug]
Made from the sap of the coconut or palm trees, this natural sugar varies in colour from dark to light brown. It is less sweet than cane sugar and has a distinctive fragrance and flavour. Plam sugar has a soft texture and may melt easily depending on where it is stored. Store in a cool dark place in an airtight container. Palm sugar usually comes in a cylindrical block or in rounds. If unavailable, substitute with brown sugar.
Prawn (Shrimp) Paste [kapi]
This fine-textured and strong-flavoured paste is commonly used in Thai cooking, as well as in other Asian dishes. The paste varies in colour from pink to dark brown. Unless otherwise specified in the recipe, grill or pan-fry the paste before adding to dishes or pounding to get the best of its flavour. Prawn paste is typically used when cooking curries or preparing dipping saurces.
Thai Sweet Basil (Bai Horapa)
Also known as sweet basil, this aromatic herb is used widely in Thai cooking. Whenever possible, use the herb fresh, as it does not retain its flavour when dried. When choosing Thai sweet basil, choose leaves with a fresh green colour that show no sign of wilting. Add the whole leaves to dishes or slice them finely. To store, place the herb stem-down in a glass of water and refrigerate. Fresh Thai sweet basil will keep for up to a few days.
This rhizome has bright-orange flesh and can be used fresh or in powder form. Be careful when handling turmeric, as it tends to stain. It was used as dye for clothing and is reputed to have antiseptic and medicinal value.
Water Chestnut (hauw)
This edible dark brown tuber has crunchy cream coloured flesh that is rather bland but has a slight sweetness. Choose water chestnuts with a firm texture. Water chestnuts can be eaten raw or cooked. Peel off the skin before using. If the fresh variety is unavailable, substiture with canned water chestnuts. The canned version is ready peeled. Water chestnuts are commonly used in Asian cooking to add a pleasant crunch to stir-fried dishes, snacks and desserts. Store in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Spring Onion (Scallion) [ ton hom]
This immature onion has a white undeveloped base and long thin green leaves. The leaves have a hollow centre fully edible spring onions have a mild onion taste and is used in Asian cooking to add flavour and also colour to dishes. Choose spring onions with crisp sturdy green leaves.