Essential Thai Herbs and Spices
Herbs and spices are an essential part of Thai cooking. All the different blends and combinations of these Thai herbs and spices will make a balanced base for any Thai dish. We like to call the four essential flavours in Thai cuisine the 4 S’s: Salty, Sweet, Spicy and Sour. These ingredients used together will help achieve these Thai tastes.
Pastes are a Thai Fundamental
Many Thai recipes start with a paste, and while it is easier to find a ready-made “Thai” paste in the supermarkets, the combination of herbs and spices by these bigger brands use will not give the same flavour, heat, aroma or nutrients as a paste made from Thai brand (like us - Mae Jum) or a home-made paste.
Pastes are made using whole spices, dried and fresh herbs pounded together in the traditional method with a pestle and mortar. This method does take some time and a lot of elbow grease but the taste and texture of the paste, in the end, will be worth it! While some Thai chefs still use this method, a food processor is a quicker and more convenient alternative to make a paste from scratch.
A quick tip for anyone who is interested in making a paste using the traditional method, I would advise starting with the dry ingredients first. Pound these down so the larger spices are smaller before adding in fresh herbs, the moisture in the herbs will gather everything together to form a paste.
[Image of Mae Jum's Range of Thai Curry Pastes]
Chillies, Garlic and Shallots
The majority of Thai pastes have shallots, garlic and red and/-or green chillies, so getting these ingredients first is a good place to start. These base ingredients with a variety of other herbs and spices will lend to a unique paste for a range of different Thai dishes.
The variety of herbs used in a paste are fresh coriander roots, galangal (part of the ginger family), lemongrass, fresh green peppercorns, turmeric and Kaffir Lime leaves/rind. Some of the spices used include dried peppercorn, star anise, cinnamon, clove, mace, coriander seeds and cumin seeds.
Lemongrass, Galangal and Turmeric
Lemongrass is can be prepared for cooking in various ways such as being chopped and pounded for pastes or it can simply be chopped into long pieces and bruised. Bruising is a method where the lemongrass is bent and kneaded, the broken surface releases an aromatic scent and helps release bold flavours for Thai stir-frys, soups and curries.
Fresh galangal is used more in Thai cooking than its relative, ginger. Galangal is harder to get your hands on and it's not available at mainstream shops, you will need to visit Asian food stores such as Wing Yip and online supermarkets. You will see a lot of recipes call for ginger for a Thai dish, I would suggest using galangal (if you can find some) for a more authentic Thai taste.
Fresh turmeric is also commonly used in Thai cooking, which is also part of the ginger family. Turmeric is mostly used to ‘spice up’ and brighten a dish, for example, it is one of the main ingredients for Thai yellow curry and southern sour curry which are both brightly coloured curry.
Thai cuisine has many beautiful and complex flavours to explore. Keep on cooking and learning how these herbs and spices come together, the number of dishes you could make are endless! Take a read of our ‘4 essential flavours’ blog for further information on the 4S’s: Salty, Sweet, Sour and Spicy. Lots more information on these herbs and spices mentioned in this post on our blog sub-category, ‘Herbs and Spices’.
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