Thailand may have a reputation for ancient temples and beautiful beaches, but it is also home to some of the most delicious food on the planet! Spices in Thailand range from delicate and neutral to decadent and spicy, and come together to create unforgettable dishes that will have you coming back for more. Bring Thailand home with you, and make some magic in the kitchen with recipes for unique and tasty curries, stir-fries, and everything in between – time to add a little spice to your life!
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Spices In Thai Cooking At Home
When it comes to seasoning, Thai food doesn’t go light! Traditional Thai recipes call for plenty of spice and herbs to create the rich, balanced flavors that are so popular worldwide. ‘More is more’ is the catchcry of Thai cuisine, so make sure to be generous with your measurements when cooking up a storm.
There are many spices in Thailand that add flavor and color to traditional dishes – luckily, you can find all of them at home! Well-known Thai cooking ingredients like garlic, ginger, and cumin are readily available in grocery stores, and you can buy anything unusual (we’re looking at you, galangal!) from Asian markets.
Want to learn more about the flavors of Thai food, but don’t know where to start? Here are 9 of the most common Thai seasonings and spices to get you started on your culinary journey.
And, don’t equate Thai spices with only hot and spicy. Many of the dishes we learned to cook when living in Thailand, and some of our favorite Thai dishes, are perfectly balanced between spicy, sweet, salty, and sour.
Best Spices In Thailand For Cooking At Home
Learn more about Thai food with some of these posts:
Prik Haeng – Dried Thai Chillies
For those who are wondering, “Is Thai food spicy?”, there’s only one way to put it – yes! Thai people love chili peppers in all their forms, and prik haeng, or dried chilies, are one of the most common spices in Thailand.
Hot red chili peppers are left to sun-dry, then crushed in a mortar and pestle into a fine powder – seeds and all! This deliciously spicy Thai cooking ingredient is used without abandon as a broth base, condiment for noodles, or to add heat to soups and curries. You’ll find prik haeng in any international aisle at the grocery store – if you’re not a fan of spice, go easy on this particular Thai seasoning!
Galangal And Ginger
Two of the most common spices in Thailand are galangal and ginger. The latter is more well-known and is one of the most distinctive flavors of Thai food.
Unlike Western meals, two forms of ginger are used in Thai cooking. Young, immature ginger root is delicate and crunchy and normally accompanies citrus juice in a marinade for seafood. Mature ginger, on the other hand, has a more distinctive spicy taste and is significantly more fibrous than its younger version. This ginger is used for stirfries, green curries, and even to make tea!
Appearing very similar to ginger is galangal. This pale yellow root has a light, tangy flavor similar to citrus fruits. favored for its tart taste, galangal is a common spice in Thai cuisine, particularly in coconut-based soups like Tom Kha. Unlike ginger, you want to remove the galangal from your dish before serving – while it tastes fine, this edible root is extremely fibrous and chewy.
Bai Ka Prow – Holy Basil
Not to be confused with regular basil, holy basil is one of the most common Thai herbs. Peppery, bitter, and piquant, keen chefs can find this ingredient in everything from rich jungle curries to pork and chicken stirfries. Commonly combined with hot chilies, garlic, and ginger, holy basil is a staple base for classic dishes that you’ll find in any Thai restaurant.
If you’re having trouble telling the difference between holy basil and sweet basil, look to the leaves! Holy Basil leaves have sharp, jagged edges compared to the soft, rounded lines of the sweet basil plant. The holy basil will also set your mouth on fire – but you won’t know that until you’ve taken a bite!
Coriander Seeds And Roots
Possibly the most polarizing ingredient on this list, coriander seeds, and roots are another common Thai herb that features in plenty of popular dishes across the country. Unlike its Western cousin, Thai coriander is sweet and fragrant – no soap taste here! Instead, the seeds and roots are among the main ingredients for marinades and rubs for pork, seafood, and poultry.
Prefer to grind your coriander? Combine the roots with water, turmeric, and cumin, then crush with a mortar and pestle. The result is a sweet, herbaceous paste that provides key flavor bases for famous dishes like Panang curry.
Cumin is my secret ingredient! I use it in Thai, Indian, Spanish, and Moroccan recipes. Anytime I want just a little bit of a depth of flavor, I add cumin!
Known for its distinct, earthy scent, cumin is another common spice in Thailand in curries and stirfries. Dried, roasted cumin seeds are ground into a fine powder, then added to the base of dishes like Massaman curry and Panang curry.
Be careful when cooking with cumin – the strong scent and flavor can overwhelm the delicate spices and herbs if too much is added. Instead, take a ‘less is more’ approach and adjust as you progress. Remember, you can always add more – but taking it out is another story!
Prik Thai Orn – Green Peppercorns
It’s not uncommon to see entire bunches of green, grape-like plants thrown into dishes like Pad Khee Maw or Massaman Curry. If you’ve ever wondered what these mystery ingredients are – you’re looking at Prik Thai Orn! Mild, piquant, and slightly spicy, green peppercorns are commonly used to add flavor to curries, stir-fries, and traditional dipping sauces.
While these Thai spices may look fresh and succulent, avoid biting into them if you can. Not only do they pack a bit of heat, but green peppercorns also often have a bitter aftertaste that overpowers the rest of the dish.
Known as ‘poor man’s saffron,’ turmeric is a spice native to North Africa that is heavily featured in Thai cuisine. Used for its rich golden color and peppery flavor, turmeric creates a visual feast in dishes like yellow curry. It also helps to balance out spicy and sour flavors from other Thai spices.
Turmeric is not only delicious – it also has medicinal properties! Thai people have been using turmeric as an anti-inflammatory substance for hundreds of years. This yellow Thai spice also frequently appears in facial cleansers and anti-aging treatments.
Open any Thai recipe book, and you’ll see hundreds of recipes calling for kefir lime or kefir lime leaves. While Western limes are used for their juice, kefir limes are predominantly used for their zest and distinctly flavored leaves.
The oily skin of the kefir lime is great for creating curry pastes and marinades. And this delicious citrus fruit also has applications in aromatherapy! Save your leftover leaves and peels to create a fresh home deodorizer after cooking. Or add the zest to your shower to create a do-it-yourself clarifying shampoo.
It’s also fabulous in gin and tonics!
Lemongrass is a Thai cooking ingredient that enhances the taste of creamy, coconut-based dishes. In Thai cooking, lemongrass is often used in conjunction with other Thai spices like turmeric and garlic. Across Thailand, lemongrass is a key component of favorite soups like Tom Gai and Tom Yum.
Fresh lemongrass is easily sourced from grocery stores or Asian markets in most Western countries. Don’t want to use this Thai herb for your curry paste? Lemongrass is also delicious when sliced, fried, and sprinkled on salads or into noodle soups.
Start Cooking With Thai Spices Today!
While some of the Thai seasonings and herbs above may sound unfamiliar, they’re actually very easy to access! Frozen or dried Thai spices are preferred in many cases. Grocery stores or Asian markets will have everything you need. If you prefer to shop online, Amazon has a great range of spices from Thailand and other overseas locations.
FAQs – Spices In Thailand
Thai cuisine is loaded with tons of great herbs and spices. Three of the most popular spices include cumin, chilies, both green and red, and turmeric. These, plus other spices, make Thai cuisine one of the most flavorful out there.
Thai cooking features many important ingredients and spices. At the top of the list include coconut milk, chilies, and fish sauce. The three represent the sweet, hot, and salty flavor components so common in Thai cooking.
In addition to tons of flavorful spices, Thai cooking uses numerous aromatic herbs. Herbs like basil, cilantro, cloves, and mint can be found in nearly all Thai dishes.
Thai cuisine is unlike any other cuisine in Asia. A major factor in this is due to the 5 Thai flavors found in nearly every Thai dish. Those flavors are salty, sweet, spicy, sour, and umami. A properly seasoned Thai dish will use each of these flavors in their correct proportion not allowing one to overpower another.