There’s so much to love in Thai cuisine, from spicy Tom Yum soup to creamy curries. You probably already love the Thai takeout place on the corner – but takeout is expensive. What if you could create these mouthwatering dishes in the comfort of your kitchen? Well, I’m here to tell you you can.
In this guide, we’ll dive deep into the secrets of Thai cooking, making it easy for anyone, regardless of their cooking experience, to whip up authentic Thai meals at home, even on a weeknight. So read on to learn the top tricks to succeed with Thai recipes at home.
Use Authentic Ingredients
First things first, to cook Thai food, you need Thai ingredients. Think fish sauce, coconut milk, curry paste, rice noodles, and fresh herbs. While you can often find them at your regular supermarket, I recommend you check out your closest Asian market if you have one. They often carry more options, as well as more authentic brands.
Common Thai ingredients to look for include:
- Fish sauce: Often referred to as the “soul of Thai cooking,” fish sauce adds depth, saltiness, and a distinct umami tone. You use it the same way as soy sauce in Japanese or Chinese cooking – both in dishes and as a condiment. Look for brands like “Tiparos” and “Squid” for authentic flavor.
- Coconut milk: The creamy base of many Thai curries and soups. Opt for full-fat versions for the creamiest result.
- Thai chili paste (nam prik pao): This paste brings heat and flavor to Thai dishes, and you can also use it as a dipping sauce.
- Rice noodles: Essential for popular dishes like Pad Thai and Pad See Ew. At Asian supermarkets, you can often find them in various widths to choose the perfect one for your recipe.
- Lemongrass: A fragrant herb used in many Thai soups and curries, it adds a citrusy aroma and flavor.
- Galangal: Galangal is similar to ginger and a key ingredient in many Thai curry pastes. It’s a must if you want to make Tom Kha Gai soup!
- Kaffir lime leaves: These highly aromatic leaves are often used in Thai soups and curries.
- Curry paste: You can make curry paste at home, but the versions you find at Asian markets are usually excellent and will save you a lot of time. Find an exploration of the different types of curry paste below.
Know Your Curry Paste
Thai curries are the gems of Thai cuisine, and they all start with curry paste. Thai curry paste is made from a blend of spices, herbs, and chilies, and there are many different colors and varieties available, each providing a different flavor profile. Store-bought curry paste works well, but make your own if you feel adventurous.
Let’s take a closer look at some popular Thai curry pastes:
- Red curry paste: Vibrant and fiery, Thai red curry paste is made with dried red chilies, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, and other aromatic spices. It’s often paired with duck, chicken, or beef but is also delicious with seafood.
- Green curry paste: Known for its vibrant green hue, Thai green curry paste derives its color and flavor from green chili peppers and fresh herbs like Thai basil and cilantro. It’s often paired with chicken or tofu.
- Yellow curry paste: Milder compared to red and green curries, yellow curry paste gets its color from turmeric. It’s often paired with chicken or seafood.
- Massaman curry paste: Massaman curry paste is a unique Thai-Muslim creation. It uses mainly dried spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, as opposed to the fresh herbs of the other curry pastes. You use it for Massaman Curry, a slightly sweet curry that tastes like a cross between a Thai and Indian curry.
Use Fresh Herbs and Spices
Freshness matters in Thai cooking. For most dishes, you will want to use fresh herbs and spices instead of dried ones. The exception is Massaman curry, which relies more on dried spices.
Here are some common fresh herbs you will find in Thai recipes:
- Thai basil: Known for its sweet, slightly peppery flavor, holy basil is a must in dishes like pad krapow (Thai basil chicken).
- Cilantro: The fresh taste of cilantro brightens up salads, soups, and curries.
- Mint: Mint leaves add a refreshing touch to salads and Thai iced tea.
- Kaffir lime leaves: These highly aromatic leaves infuse your dishes with a unique citrusy fragrance. It’s one of the secrets to achieving a citrusy flavor without adding acidity.
- Lemongrass: With its bright, lemony flavor, lemongrass is a crucial ingredient in many Thai soups and curries. Just as with Kaffir lime leaves, it’s a great way to add citrus flavor without acidity.
- Galangal: Galangal adds a warm, earthy note to your curry pastes. It looks similar to ginger, and the flavor is not entirely different.
Balance The Flavors
Great Thai food is a tightrope act of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy flavors. To get it just right, start with a little of each and adjust as you go. Sugar adds sweetness, lime juice or tamarind brings sourness, fish sauce delivers saltiness and umami, and Thai chilies bring the heat. Dare to experiment and play around with these different components until you find your perfect balance.
For a better understanding of how to balance these flavors for Thai recipes, here’s a breakdown:
- Sweetness: Thai dishes often incorporate palm sugar or brown sugar for sweetness, but you can also use coconut sugar or regular white sugar. Start with a small amount, about 1-2 teaspoons, and adjust to your taste as you go along.
- Sourness: Lime juice or tamarind paste provides the necessary tanginess. Begin with a tablespoon of lime juice or a teaspoon of tamarind paste and adjust from there.
- Saltiness & umami: Fish sauce is the traditional choice for adding saltiness and umami. Use it carefully, as it can easily overpower the dish. Start with a teaspoon and taste as you go.
- Spiciness: Thai cuisine is famous for its heat. You can introduce spice with bird’s eye chilies, dried chili flakes, or Thai chili paste. Begin conservatively, adding a small amount and gradually increasing it to suit your palate.
Thai Chili Heat
Thai cuisine is famous for its spicy heat. But don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be super spicy: you’re in charge! If you’re new to spicy food, start with a little bit. If you love the heat, begin with a little and go from there.
There are multiple vehicles for Thai spice:
- Bird’s eye chilies: These small, fiery chilies are often used in Thai cooking, especially for spicing up a green curry. Use them sparingly to add heat to your dishes. They might be small, but one or two go a long way.
- Chili flakes: Dried Thai chili flakes are a convenient way to add heat. Sprinkle them into your dishes and serve them as a side condiment.
- Thai chili paste: Thai chili paste (nam prik pao) is a flavorful way to spice up your dishes. Start with a small amount and adjust to your desired level of heat. You can also serve it on the side for everyone to add as they wish.
Prepare Ingredients Properly
Prepping is half the battle, and since Thai food cooks quickly, it pays to have it all done beforehand. So slice your veggies thin, cut your meat into bite-sized pieces, and have everything ready before you turn on the heat.
Here are some examples of how to properly prepare common Thai ingredients:
- Garlic and shallots: Finely chop or mince garlic and shallots for a base in many Thai dishes. For a lighter garlic flavor, you can crush the garlic cloves with the side of your knife and then add them still in one piece. Remove them from the food before serving.
- Lemongrass: Slice in half and crush with the side of the knife. Added this way, it’s easy to remove before cooking.
- Kaffir lime leaves: Either remove the center stem and finely shred the leaves before adding them to your dish, or add them whole and remove them before serving.
- Fresh herbs: Pluck the leaves from the stems and tear or chop them gently for use in stir-fries and curries. Add them late in the cooking process for the best flavor.
Use The Wok Right
Time to stir-fry! Woks are like the sports cars of the cooking world, built for high heat and fast cooking. Heat your wok, add some oil, and toss in your veggies and meat. Keep them moving to get that smoky, wok-tossed flavor. Stir-frying at high heat ensures your ingredients retain their crispness and develop that characteristic smoky aroma.
If you don’t have a wok, don’t worry; a large skillet will work almost as well.
Here are some tips for cooking with a wok:
- High heat: To achieve that signature smoky flavor, you must use high heat.
- Protein first: Start by stir-frying your protein (such as chicken, beef, or tofu) until it’s almost cooked through. Then, set it aside before stir-frying the veggies. When the veggies are done, add the protein back to the wok.
- Quick cooking: Stir-frying is fast, so have all your ingredients ready and prepped before you start. Once you begin, things move quickly, and you’ll be glad you did all the chopping beforehand.
Taste as You Go
Think of cooking Thai food like painting a picture. You add a bit of this, a dab of that, and keep adjusting until it’s just right. Taste your dish as you cook. If it needs more spice, sourness, or saltiness, make those tweaks. Remember, the best Thai chefs rely on their taste buds, not following recipes to a T.
Here are some tips for achieving the perfect balanced taste:
- Start small: Begin with a small amount of an ingredient, especially if you’re not sure about the flavor. You can always add more, but removing something is trickier.
- Balance is key: Continuously assess the balance of flavors—sweetness, sourness, saltiness, and spiciness—as you cook.
- Trust your palate: Ultimately, your taste buds are your best guide. Feel free to adjust according to your personal preferences.
- Easy on the spice: Thai food can get very spicy very fast. Curry pastes are often quite spicy to start with, and while bird’s eye chilies might be small, they pack a punch. When in doubt, always make it less spicy, and you can add extra chili flakes when serving instead.
- Extra on the side: In Thailand, you will always get additional seasonings on the side, so you can mix and match to achieve the perfect taste for your palate. You will usually get a wedge of lime, sugar, fish sauce, and at least one type of chili flakes on the side to add at your discretion. Make it a habit to do the same at home!
Easy Thai Recipes To Start With
Now you know the secrets, let’s start by cooking up some Thai classics:
- Pad Thai: Stir-fried rice noodles with a sweet, sour, and salty sauce. Customize it with your choice of protein, and top it with crushed peanuts and lime wedges. It’s a crowd-pleaser that’s easy to make at home.
- Tom Yum Soup: A spicy and tangy broth often served with shrimp or other seafood. Lemongrass, lime leaves, and chili make it unforgettable. Perfect for warming up on a chilly day or soothing a cold.
- Massaman Chicken Curry: A rich and aromatic curry with a hint of sweetness. This version is made with chicken, but you can also make it with beef or add tofu or cauliflower for a vegetarian version.
- Red Curry: Known for its sweet spiciness and red hue, red curry is versatile and pairs well with various proteins and vegetables. This version is made with shrimp, but you can just as well add salmon, chicken, or tofu. Feel free to use store-bought red curry paste for ease.
- Larb Gai: Minced chicken is cooked with fish sauce and fresh herbs and served as a hot Thai chicken “salad” with rice. It’s a delicious dish that can also be made with pork.
Cooking Thai food at home is a lot of fun, and by using authentic ingredients, balancing flavors, prepping right, and understanding the magic of curry paste, you’re well on your way to mastering it. Remember to hone your wok skills, taste as you go, and embrace the chili heat to make your dishes authentically Thai.
So prep your ingredients and start cooking your way to Thai culinary success right in your kitchen. With these tips and recipes, you’re well-prepared for your homemade Thai culinary adventure. Happy cooking!