Nam Pla (Fish Sauce) น้ำปลา [nahm PLAH]
Nam Pla is a salty, fermented fish sauce that is prevalent in Thai cooking. Anchovies are typically used in Thai fish sauces, although the actual fish varies by brand. It is used as a seasoning ingredient and often times fresh cut chilies are added and it’s served as a condiment with meals – you’ll usually find it on the table, just as you would salt and pepper in western restaurants. It is much thinner and lighter, almost translucent, in color than soy and oyster sauces. Fish sauce has a very intense and salty flavor, a little goes a long way.
Coriander is a fresh herb related to the parsley family and the entire plant (seeds, roots and leaves) are used in Thai cooking. Coriander leaves are commonly known as cilantro and Chinese parsley, are generally served raw and used as a garnish for many dishes and soups. The root of the coriander plant is often crushed using a mortar and pestle and combined with pepper and garlic for use in soups and curry pastes. The seeds are often roasted and used in sauces and marinades.
Kaffir Lime and Leaves
Kaffir limes are known to be very flavorful and exotic, they are a very popular ingredient in Thai cooking where both the lime and the leaves are essential to many dishes. Kaffir limes are distinguished by their bumpy, warty skin and the double hourglass-shaped leaves, which are often dried and used to enhance the flavor of soups, particularly Tom Yum, and sauces. The rind is usually used to flavor curry pastes. It is usually a staple ingredient for most Central and Southern Thai dishes.
Lemongrass is an herb and one of the most important flavorings in Thai cooking. It is available in fresh, dried and powdered forms and is usually used in soups and curry pastes. Dried lemongrass can be soaked in hot water for about an hour and then used as you would fresh lemongrass – add a couple of stalks more than the recipe calls for.
Galangal is a rhizome that is related to and often confused with ginger, but the taste is actually quite different. The flavor is much more subtle and does not have the spicy kick often associated with ginger. It is usually used as a seasoning to flavor soups and curries and is one of the distinctive ingredients in the popular Tom Kha Gai soup. It appears frequently in fish and seafood dishes.
Tamarind is a fruit and grows in 5-8 inch pods on a tree, the pulp has a consistency similar to dates. Tamarind has a lot of sugar that is balanced by high acid levels that give it a sweet/sour taste. It is usually available as a paste and adds sweetness to Thai dishes. Tamarind is also a popular snack and is often sold in a fresh preserved form covered in sugar and chili. It is a key ingredient in the popular dish Mee Grob and the syrup is also used to make refreshing drinks. Tamarind is also an essential ingredient in Worcestershire sauce.
Thai Basil
There are 3 different basils that are commonly used in Thai cooking. The first is Holy Basil (bai grapow), which is distinguished by its slightly hairy leaves and peppery spicy flavor – the reason it’s sometimes referred to as “hot” basil. Holy basil is usually used in stir fry dishes, many of which have “grapow” in the title. The second variety, Thai Basil (bai horapha), is often used in curries or served raw with soups. Thai Basil has a sweeter, anise-like flavor, and is therefore referred to as “sweet” basil, it has green leaves and purple/brownish stems. The other popular basil used in Thai cooking is Lemon Basil (bai menglak), and as the name implies, it has a lemony flavor and its leaves are slightly hairy. Its seeds are sometimes soaked in water and used in Thai desserts. All of these basils can be eaten raw and they also release a great deal of flavor when cooked.
Thai Chili
There are a number of different chilies that are used in Thai cooking, but the most popular is called phrik kee nu and is also known as “bird’s eye chili.” They are thin, slightly curved and end in a point, with green stems – they start out green and turn red as they ripen. Thai chili are relatively small in size (usually anywhere from .5 – 3 cm) but they pack a big punch with a rating of 75,000 – 100,000 on the Scoville scale.