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5 Essential Ingredients For Authentic Thai Cuisine

In this article, we’ll talk about the five key Thai ingredients that are essential to have in your pantry. These easy to source ingredients are at heart of Thai cooking, giving your meals that true Thai flavor. Plus, they last a long time if you store them right, so you can always have them on hand for when the craving for Thai food hits. From coconut milk to fresh Bird’s eye chillies, we’ll show you what you need to make your Thai cooking taste just like the real deal.

Table of Contents

Thai curry paste

1. Curry Paste

Curry paste combines the dried spices of curry powder with oil, garlic, lemongrass, Thai ginger, and chilies. This single ingredient packs an enormous punch. Depending on what type of curry paste you choose, this can deliver a tremendous amount of heat, such as green curry paste.

Massaman or panang will deliver a more complex, layered flavor profile, while yellow curry paste will bring a distinct Indian influence to your dish.

Naturally, the first dish you’ll want to master with your curry paste is making a simple curry. This will begin by heating the curry paste in a pan with extra oil, and from there, you’ll add the other ingredients to build up your dish. Once you’ve become confident at making curry, you can experiment by adding it to a variety of other dishes, including stir-fries.

Unopened curry paste can survive on the shelf for a long time. But once you open it, make sure to store it in the refrigerator, where it should keep its potency for about a month.

You may be able to find Thai curry paste in supermarkets, but your best bet for a truly authentic curry paste is your local Asian grocery store. You can find a list of Nittaya Thai Curry retailers and importers near you by visiting our Shops & Importers page.

2. Fish Sauce

This delicious, umami-rich sauce is created by fermenting fish — typically anchovies or other small varieties with salt. The resulting condiment has savoriness that never seems to end! Thanks to that intense flavor, a little goes a long way. But added in just the right amount, it can make dishes shine.

Fish sauce is often added to stir-fries, marinades, and sauces as a way to add depth and richness. Given its potency, it’s wise to start with a little, gradually increasing the amount after tasting its effects. If your first experiments go south, take heart! It can be a bit difficult to master, but once you get the hang of fish sauce, you’ll be able to perfectly replicate the flavors of Thai cuisine like a Bangkok chef.

Because it is fermented, fish sauce has a long shelf life. You can make that even longer by keeping it tightly sealed in a cool, dark place.

The best place to find fish sauce is at your local Asian grocery store. If you don’t have any nearby, online retailers have you covered. Again, the fermentation is your friend here, meaning it can be shipped without much loss of quality.

how to cook thai yellow curry

3. Coconut Milk

Coconut milk is the creamy liquid drawn from the flesh of mature coconuts. It’s made by grating and soaking the white flesh in hot water. Then, the mixture is strained to produce a thicker product. It’s a wholesome process that creates one of the most versatile and essential staples in Thai cuisine.

Coconut milk is used to add a delicious creaminess to many Thai dishes. It is used in both savory and sweet recipes, and it is the base for both hot and sweet curries, soups, and stews. The main pro tip? Make sure you shake the can before opening it to mix the contents evenly.

Left in an unopened can, coconut milk can last a long time. But once opened, you should transfer it into an airtight container and refrigerate. It will last in there for a little over a week (if you can resist consuming it all right away). If you want it to last even longer, try freezing it in ice cube trays for easy portioning.

Coconut milk is widely available at grocery stores. That wasn’t always the case, but over the last decade, it’s cropped up just about everywhere.

Bird’s Eye Chili

4. Bird’s Eye Chili

Also known as Thai chili or bird chili, this is a small pepper (about one to two inches long) known for its intense heat. It clocks in at anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 Scoville units, making it much hotter than a jalapeño, serrano, or cayenne. When Thai chefs want to add a kick, this is what they reach for.

These work like any other hot pepper. You’ll want to manage how much you use. If you want a lot of its flavor with less heat, you can remove the seeds and inner membranes before slicing or mincing. Remember to handle bird’s eye chilis with caution. The oils can get on the skin, causing irritation. And oils on your fingers can easily end up in the eyes — causing a great deal of pain and discomfort.

Keep in a cool, dry place away from direct sun. They will keep in your crisper for about two weeks. To prolong their life, you can process and freeze them.

To find fresh bird’s eye chilis, check local Asian markets and specialty food markets. If you can’t find any fresh, you might want to look for them in dried or powdered form.

5. Palm Sugar

Palm sugar’s caramel flavor and amber color come from the sap of palm trees—coconut and sugar palm in particular. The sap is gathered from flower buds and boiled to produce a thick syrup, which can either be dripped into molds or left to crystallize.

Most people would guess that palm sugar can be used in sweet dishes, but in Thai cooking palm sugar is often found in savory and even super spicy dishes. Pad thai, green curry, som tam, and many desserts all use this essential ingredient.

Keep palm sugar from hardening (or attracting pests) by placing it in an airtight container. If your palm sugar becomes hardened or crystallized, you can heat it in short bursts in the microwave until it becomes workable again.

You’ll find blocks of palm sugar at Asian grocery stores and many other specialty food markets. It’s also easy to find online.

The Importance of the Right Thai Ingredients

For home cooks, it’s important to learn how to make Thai food by using authentic ingredients. These five will serve you in almost every recipe. Just make sure you get the best!

Next time you are craving a Thai curry, pad thai or yum woon sen, why not make it yourself? With these five Thai ingredients on hand, you’ll be able to create any delicious Thai dish any time.