Back to Basics: Herbs and Spices in Thai Cuisine
Any experienced chef will tell you that to create amazing and flavorful dishes, and you need to learn how to handle your herbs and spices. They lay the groundwork upon which you can build your food. Your fancy and expensive ingredients will mean nothing if you don’t know how to dress them up!
This is particularly true for Thai cuisine. Thai food features extremely bold flavors that are the perfect blend of salty, sweet, spicy, and sour. Indeed, what makes Thai food very special is that it manages to combine two or more of these essential flavors without being too overpowering.
While this may seem intimidating to an average home cook, you don’t need to splurge on Westwood restaurants every week for your regular dose of Thai food! You can start familiarizing yourself with the basics of Thai cuisine from the comfort of your own home. While many of these ingredients are readily available in your local supermarket, some of them might warrant a trip to an Asian grocery store—don’t worry, using authentic ingredients will make the end result all the more worth it.
So, without further ado, let’s dive into the herbs and spices that a typical Thai dish would use!
Garlic and Onions
I think it’s safe to say that many cuisines around the world—not just Thai—use garlic and onions as staple herbs in their dishes. That’s because they’re so accessible—they can grow in almost any climate in the world and are also cheap. Additionally, you only need a bit of it to add some great flavor to your food. I’m sure many of us have fond memories of smelling garlic and onions sauteing happily in the kitchen.
The Thai also love adding chilis to their dishes. Whether it’s red or green or small or big chilis, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any savory Thai dish that doesn’t contain these spicy morsels. Indeed, many of Thailand’s most iconic dishes, such as Tom Yum and Khao Pad Nam Prik Pao (literally translated to ‘fried rice with chili paste from hell’), have chili in them.
There are scientific theories as to why Thailand and other countries near the equator love spicy food so much. Some say that it helps them battle the heat—spicy food makes them sweat, which in turn cools them down. Others say that they love spicy food simply because it’s convenient—chilis grow best in a temperate environment. Lastly, spicy food is known to preserve better—perhaps in the tropical heat, chilis are a way to prevent food from spoilage.
Whatever the case is, chilis are undoubtedly a quintessential spice in Thai cuisine.
While galangal is a close relative of ginger, the two of them could not be any more different. Indeed, cookbook writer Pailin Chongchitnant says, “[Galangal] may look like the sister of ginger, and you may be tempted to use them interchangeably, but trust me, the flavors are as different as yin and yang.” Ginger gives off a slightly sweet and super spicy taste, and galangal offers a more woodsy and peppery taste.
Now, fresh galangal that restaurants in Brentwood, Los Angeles like to use is relatively hard to come by. They might be easier to find for those who live in bustling cities due to the large Southeast Asian populations, but it might be a challenge for those who live in smaller cities and towns. Luckily, plenty of stores have started selling sliced and dried galangal, though admittedly, these aren’t as impactful as fresh galangal.
Speaking of close relatives of the ginger, turmeric is another spice that makes its way into Thai dishes quite often. And again, it’s pretty distinctive from ginger and galangal!
For starters, turmeric is very bright orange. It’s used often to add some color to a dish, and many Thai curries like yellow curry and southern sour curry are very fun to look at because of it. The color is so vibrant, in fact, that it stains everything and everything when you cut it open, so be careful if that type of thing bothers you!
In terms of taste, turmeric is earthy and a tad bitter.
Lemongrass, as the name suggests, is an herb with a lemony scent and taste. It also tastes slightly of ginger. It is a common herb in many Southeast Asian countries and is used to flavor curries, soups, and meats.
It is typically used in one of two ways. The first is by bending a long stalk of it and adding it to the dish, releasing that beautiful scent and flavor. The second is by chopping the tender bits thinly and incorporating them into the dish.
Last but not least is the reliable basil. No Westwood restaurant would be complete without the holy trinity of Thai cuisine: Thai basil, holy basil, and lemon basil.
Thai basil looks similar to Italian basil except that it has purple stems, and its bold flavor lasts longer, even at prolonged high temperatures.
Lastly, lemon basil is the most delicate basil of all. Thai lemon basil, or Lao basil, is a hybrid between basil and American basil. The herb is grown primarily in northeastern Africa and southern Asia for its fragrant lemon scent and is used in cooking. lemon basil is great because it tastes sweet with a hint of lemon, and it adds some acidity to a dish.
Come visit Emporium Thai in Westwood, Los Angeles, and try one of the most popular dishes on the menu, Thai Basil Ground Chicken. Don't forget to add Fried Egg on the side!