Our Favorite Ingredients for Vibrant Thai Cooking
In the Marley Spoon Test Kitchen, we’re fans of Thai recipes because of how much flavor and vibrant colors we can get from just a few ingredients in such a short amount of time. Take a green curry. It takes only seconds to fry the curry in coconut cream and a few more minutes to let vegetables simmer until just tender. Spooned above a heaping bowl of fragrant Jasmine rice, green curry (or red or yellow!) is the happy marriage of fiery spices, soft coconut cream, and fresh vegetables like eggplant or squash.
The truth is, I’m always particularly excited when Chefs Jennifer Aaronson and Dawn Perry are sprinkling fish sauce. When I hear its sizzle on a hot pan for fried rice and smell its initial pungent fishy odor, I’m all the more impatient for Jen and Dawn’s magical culinary concoctions. It wasn’t always like this. I came to the Thai pantry fairly late – just a few years ago – but when I did, it was with surprising passion. I couldn’t get enough of the elegant fragrance of galangal simmered in coconut milk, or the ever-so-slight minty flavor of Thai basil.
We’ve created a personalized Thai pantry to help you navigate some of our ingredients, but to also introduce you to a few of our favorites, in case you’re impatient to cook up other Thai recipes.
A friend who was raised in Bangkok once told that his high school cafeteria had fish sauce bottles on each table, and the greatest tragedy was when someone splashed you with fish sauce for the smell stuck to your clothes for the entire day, ripening with the hot weather.
But don’t fear!
Most often made with anchovies and salt, sweetened with a little sugar, fish sauce is a deep reddish brown, and the main source of salinity in Thai recipes. The great power of fish sauce is in its unlikely transformative power. Let’s call it the Thai umami. It begins as a pungent, smelly sauce (traditionally anchovies are layered with salt in large barrels, left to ferment in the sun for several months), but once combined with other ingredients – such as in a curry or papaya salad – it becomes the nectar that melds flavors together, making a dish sing.
A long, tough, fibrous stalk with a woodsy and citrusy scent. It can seem daunting at first. We are cooks, not carpenters after all! A few tips: the stalks need to be crushed or finely minced to release lemongrass’ aroma, which is delicate and faintly floral and shines in coconut soups or marinades.
Bird’s Eye Chiles:
Bird’s Eye Chiles are hard to come by, so as soon as you find them, buy many and stick them in the freezer where they can stay fresh for months. They thaw easily at room temperature. Careful, Bird’s Eye Chiles, which are small in size, are extremely high in heat. The pods should be shiny and firm.
Once you’re hooked on purple-stemmed Thai basil you’ll never turn back. It truly holds its ground with a infectious anise, minty flavor (slightly mouth-numbing), so addictive you’ll want to stir it into all your noodles, stews, and soups. It’s sturdy, too, like flat-leaf spinach, and requires some chewing.
Coriander (aka Cilantro) Leaves:
Coriander leaves are often an antidote to hot spice. The refreshing leaves will always be a welcome addition when heat hits your mouth.
Fermented shrimp is a key relish in Thai cooking that has a hot, salty and sour taste. Though notable for its strong smell, in small quantities and once cooked, it brings a beautiful complexity to a dish. You’ll find it in omelets, steamed eggs, and curry paste.
It has an intensely salty flavor and a delightful, crunchy texture, perfect for garnishing a papaya salad.
Not ginger, although its physique is similar! More sophisticated than ginger, it has a lovely pink hue and a much tougher flesh. It feels like a piece of wood. Thinly slice with a sharp knife. It imparts an intoxicating aroma to simple soups such as Tom Kha Gai.
Kaffir Lime Leaves:
Hard to come by, so as soon as you snag a few, wrap them tightly in plastic (or zip them in a plastic bag) and throw them in your freezer for safekeeping. Well, unless you’re making panaeng curry every day, and in that case you may as well move to Chinatown where they are more readily available. Tangy flavor, delicious when cut into fine strips and sprinkled on curry. Remember to devein and bruise a little if adding whole to help release their essence.
Coconut Milk and Cream:
Cream is the solid part that rises to the top of a can. Milk is the clearer, lighter liquid found beneath the cream. Use the cream to fry curry paste and add the milk just as you’re finishing a curry for a fresh, coconut flavor. Coconut cream is also used in many Thai desserts where it’s simmered and combined with a pinch of salt to balance very sweet desserts. You’ll usually find coconut milk/cream in the canned form, although if you happen to visit a market in Thailand you’ll see how the liquid is extracted from pressing grated meat of a mature coconut.
Prevalent in Chinese cuisine, it’s become a staple in modern Thai cooking. It adds a slightly sweet, meaty depth and a caramel coloring. We particularly like it in quick stir fries.
A few of our favorite Marley Spoon Thai inspired recipes: