Chef Fern Tran shared her insights into the Thai staples that should be on your shelf.
Soy Sauce and Dark Soy Sauce
Chef Tran says there is no substitute for thick, slightly sweet, super-rich dark soy sauce. Typically it’s too strong to be used on its own, so you’ll want to have some regular soy sauce on hand to cut it with.
Yes, it actually is made from oyster juice, along with some sugar, salt, and soy sauce. It has a caramelized flavor that is a bit sweet and salty, and it adds depth, but not fishiness, to dishes.
Fish sauce is made by salting and fermenting fish, which leads to an umami-rich, salty, earthy, slightly funky taste that is an essential flavor note in Southeast Asian cooking. Don’t skip it and don’t sniff it. Trust us.
This ingredient adds a beautiful citrus scent and subtle flavor to dishes. To release the most flavor, be sure to bruise or slightly crush the stalk before cooking. You’ll want firm stalks with fat, rounded bottoms, and be aware that you will only be using the white (bottom) portion of the stalk for cooking. You can freeze sliced lemongrass, or the whole stalk, just be sure to trim off the root ends and leaves first.
Tran explains that in Thai cooking, tamarind paste is preferred over vinegar and citrus as the main source of sour flavor because it is more subtle. You can find tamarind pods in many Asian grocers, as well as blocks of the paste with the seeds still intact, but to make the watery puree needed for Thai cooking, the seeds need to be removed and the flesh soaked in hot water and pushed through a sieve. Alternatively, you can simply buy a jar of Thai-style tamarind paste, which is ready to go.
Nam Prik Pao
This roasted chile paste is made by dry roasting chiles and garlic and simmering them with shrimp paste, tamarind, fish sauce, and a little palm sugar. The fiery blend can be used as a condiment or added by the spoonful to Thai dishes as they cook.
Nope, it isn’t just a different name for ginger, though the roots are related. Compared to ginger, galangal has a slightly spicier bite and is less sweet when cooked. You can store fresh galangal in the freezer in an airtight bag for up to two months.
Do not use regular white sugar in Thai cooking. Just don’t do it. Palm sugar is made from the sap of the coconut palm tree and is minimally processed for a flavor that is less sweet and more complex. In a pinch, the closest substitute is light brown sugar.
Tom Yum Soup Base
Chef Tran sees this convenience product as worth its weight in gold. Packed with galangal, lemongrass, palm sugar, chiles, tamarind, and other Thai seasonings, the cost of the inputs is much higher than the cost per bottle. Plus it makes cooking Tom Yum soup an easy weeknight undertaking.
Kaffir Lime Leaves
The essential oils in kaffir lime leaves add a pungent, citrus aroma to soups and curries. The thick leaves hold up when simmered whole and are typically removed before serving, though you can shred them into small strips and eat them.They freeze well in an airtight bag.
Thai Coconut Milk
Thai coconut milk is basically the equivalent of canned coconut cream. It has a much thicker texture and richer flavor than the watery coconut milks often found in the grocery store. Look for a Thai brand and opt for carton rather than can when available.
Traditionally, thin rice noodles are used for Pad Thai and added to Tom Yum soup, while wide rice noodles are used for Pad Kee Mao. These naturally gluten-free noodles cook very fast and need only be softened before adding to your wok or pot where they will finish cooking. Chef Tran warns that most people use too many noodles when making Thai dishes, so it’s better to use about a quarter of what you think you’ll need.