Thai cuisine is a combination of a variety of cooking styles from different regions of Thailand. It is typically famed for its powerful spicy flavours, but in actual fact Thai dishes should be the perfect balance of four fundamental tastes: hot, sour, salty and sweet.
There is a degree of complexity to Thai cookery which can often be mistaken as a jumble of flavours to the untrained chef. However, by using the correct quantities of each ingredient, a harmony of flavours can be achieved, so that each of the four tastes can be distinguished and compliment each other perfectly.
Thai dishes tend to include a wide variety of herbs and spices that are now readily available in your local oriental supermarket and some can even be found in western supermarkets. Kaffir lime leaves, known as ma gruud, bring a sour, but aromatic flavour to Thai cuisine, and are usually bruised and added whole to many Thai soups. They are famously used in Thailand’s most popular soup dish; Tom Yum Goong.
Much like bay leaves, kaffir lime leaves are not consumed but used to provide an aromatic afternote. They are often blended with various other herbs, roots and spices and used to add fragrance to Thai curry paste. They can be purchased fresh or in frozen and dried forms.
Lemongrass (ta krai) also provides a sour element to Thai cuisine. They are often purchased fresh, but can also be frozen for convenience. Lemongrass is used to inject a sour fragrance into a wide variety of Thai cuisine, including Thai curry pastes.
The Bird’s eye chili (prik kee noo) is another ingredient that is widely used in Asian cooking. Indigenous to Central and South America, the bird’s eye chili made its way to South East Asia via the Spanish and Portuguese colonists and traders. It is characterised by its fiery heat and is often consumed raw in dishes such as khao kha mu (stewed pork trotter served with rice).
Roots such as garlic (krathiam) and ginger (king) provide a deep base flavour for many Thai dishes, although traditionally Thai chefs prefer to use a more citrusy root called galangal (kha). The galangal root is a staple ingredient for many Thai curries and soups and because of its deep flavour it blends well into spicy dishes.
Dried herbs are often used to provide a ‘spice’ element to Thai cooking. Ground white pepper (prig thai bhon) was traditionally used as the prime provider of heat before the ‘Fresh Chili’ was brought to Thailand, but it continues to be used in a wide variety of dishes.
Ground chillies, (prig kee nu bonn) are simply a dried version of the bird’s eye chili. The drying process allows it to be stored for longer and often delivers a serious heat to food.
Typically cumin (ye raa) is used to provide a bitter element to Thai cuisine. This is often sold in seed form, but can also be sold as a ground powder.
Fish sauce (nam pla) is commonly used in many Thai dishes and is made from fermented fish. It provides salty and pungent flavour and is typically used as a seasoning. It can be added to food during the cooking process, but can also be enjoyed as a raw seasoning that can be added to prepared dishes.
Shrimp paste (kapi) is another staple in Thai food and is made by fermenting ground shrimp and salt. Much like fish sauce it has a pungent aroma but is used only as an ingredient in cooking and cannot be consumed raw. Shrimp paste provides a powerful flavour which exudes bitterness and saltiness and is used in the famous chilli paste called nam phrik kapi.
Thai curry paste (khrueang kaeng) which translates to "curry ingredients", can be made fresh or bought in most supermarkets. Most khrueang kaeng will be a ground mixture of fresh or dried spices, chillies and various herbs and other ingredients such as shrimp paste.
To provide sweetness to food two ingredients are primarily used; Palm sugar (nam taan peep) and coconut milk (maphrao).
Palm sugar is a solid formed sweetener made from Palm Sap. Rich and sweet in flavour it has a more subtle sweetness than ‘cane sugar’, and is more suitable for cooking with spiced dishes. It is often used to sweeten Thai desserts, but is also regularly used in savoury Thai dishes.
Coconut milk is creamy and sweet and is especially popular in dishes that originate in Southern Thailand. Most famously used in Thai curry, coconut milk is added after spices and herbs to provide a deep creamy flavour and helps to blend the intricate aromas together.