Getting the right flavor profile for Thai cuisine can be difficult, especially if you have limited experience cooking Thai dishes. The right flavors require that you know how to use the most common Thai spices. Here is a look at the most popular Thai spices and what they can bring to your food:
In Thailand, basil is used both as a vegetable and as a culinary herb for seasoning. Thai cooks mainly use three varieties of it: horapha, kaphrao, and maenglak. The types of basil are all related and share some properties with the Mediterranean basil used in Italian dishes but are still very different from each other and the European basil.
Horapha is the sweetest of the bunch and is highly aromatic when cooked. It has a licorice aroma that is released when it is cooked. Kaphrao has a much spicier flavor with notes of clove. Maenglak has a strong lemony note that you don’t get from the other two varieties.
Cassia is the only type of cinnamon that Thai cooks use. It is used mainly in meat dishes like massaman curry. Cassia is also called opchoei or Chinese cinnamon; the bark and the leaves are the parts that are used. Cassia has a sharp, sweet, and almost peppery flavor profile that is also pungent.
Thai bird chiles are the hottest peppers used in Thai cuisine. They typically measure about 1 to 1.5 inches long and may be used as a garnish or a condiment. Their heat level can range up to about 130,000 SHU. They have a mild fruity note along with their heat.
Kaffir lime leaves
The leaves from the kaffir lime tree are often chopped and added to curries, soups, and salads. These leaves are responsible for the distinctive flavor of Thai curries. Also called bai makrut, kaffir lime leaves have a valuable characteristic in that you can freeze them and thaw them with no discernable difference in quality. They have a bright, herbaceous, and citrusy flavor profile that is difficult to replace with other ingredients.
Like kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass is used to add a citrus flavor to dishes. As the name indicates, lemongrass has a strong lemony flavor with a slightly bitter edge. It is essential for tom yum soup and numerous other Thai dishes.
The leaves of the cilantro plant are commonly used for garnishing with the stems and roots more often used for flavoring. Cilantro’s flavor is grassy with a citrus note. Called phak chi in Thailand, it is another one of the essential ingredients for the popular tom yum soup. Cilantro is typically added to dishes raw just before serving them.
The Thai name for galangal is kaa or kha. Galangal is a rhizome and a member of the ginger family that has citrus notes as a part of its flavor profile. It has a distinctive appearance to differentiate it from ginger in that its flesh is pink. Galangal is widely used in Thai cooking. It is commonly used to flavor stocks made with chicken or fish and to make curry pastes.
Popular all over Asia including in China and India, ginger is a rhizome used primarily for savory dishes. Ginger’s flavor profile is dominated by a warm, molasses sweetness accompanied by peppery heat that can vary depending on the quality of the ginger.