Herbs and Spices are an essential part of Thai cooking. Used in combination, they help achieve a balance of the four essential Thai tastes: salty, sour, spicy, and sweet.
Nearly every Thai recipe begins with a paste. While it is possible to buy ready-made Thai pastes (such as red, yellow, and green curry), these packaged spice mixes will not give you the same flavor and aroma—not to mention nutrients—as a paste made from scratch.
In the Thai kitchen, pastes were traditionally made using whole spices and herbs (some fresh, others dried) pounded together with a pestle & mortar. While many Thai chefs still prefer to use this method, a food processor is a convenient and adequate substitute.
Most Thai pastes start with shallots (or onions), garlic, and green or red chilies. Added to this may be a variety of other spices and herbs, including dried or fresh coriander, Thai chili powder, galangal, green peppercorns, lemongrass, and turmeric. Kaffir lime leaves are also a common ingredient, lending a uniquely Thai flavor to pastes or simmering dishes.
Lemongrass is used in various ways in Thai cooking. For some dishes, it is chopped and pounded, other times it is simply cut into long pieces and “bruised” (bent and kneaded or even lightly cut in several places) to release the scent and flavor for soups and curries.
Galangal is a relative of ginger, as is fresh turmeric. If you can't find galangal (it's usually purchased frozen at Asian food stores in North America), you can substitute ginger. These roots (actually rhizomes) add valuable nutrients and depth of flavor to many Thai dishes.
Finally, no Thai kitchen would be complete without a good supply of fresh basil. Thais make use of several types of basil in their cooking, included sweet basil, and Thai holy basil.
Many herbs and spices used in Thai cuisine have beneficial medicinal properties. Herewith some examples :
"Phrik" in Thai Chilli is an erect, branched, shrub-like herb with fruits used as garnishing and flavouring in Thai dishes. There are many different species. All contain capsaicin, a biologically active ingredient beneficial to the respiratory system, blood pressure and heart. Other therapeutic uses include being a stomachic, carminative and antiflatulence agent, and digest
CUMIN (Cummin, Zeera)
"Yi-ra" in Thai Cumin is a small shrubbery herb, the fruit of which contains 2 to 4 % volatile oil with a pungent odour, and which is used as a flavouring and condiment. Cumin's therapeutic properties manifest as a stomachic, bitter tonic, carminative, stimulant and astringent.
"Kra-thiam" in Thai Garlic is an annual herbaceous plant with underground bulbs comprising several cloves. Dried mature bulbs are used as aflavouring and condiment in Thai cuisine. The bulbs contain 0.1 to 0.36 % garlic oil and organic sulfur compounds. Therapeutic use are as antimicrobial, diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, antiflatulence and cholesterol lowering agents.
"Khing" in Thai Ginger is an erect plant with thickened, fleshy and aromatic rhizomes. Used in different forms as a food, flavouring and spice, Ginger rhizomes contain 1 to 2 % volatile oil. Ginger's therapeutic uses are as a carminative, antinauseant and antiflatulence agent.
GREATER GALANGA(False Galangal, Galangal)
"Kha" in Thai Greater Galanga is an erect annual plant with aromatic, ginger-like rhizomes, and commonly used in Thai cooking as a flavouring. The approximately 0.04 volatile oil content has therapeutic uses as carminative, stomachic, antirheumatic and antimicrobial agents.
"Maeng-lak" in Thai Hoary Basil is an annual herbaceous plant with slightly hairy and pale green leaves, eaten either raw or used as a flavouring, and containing approximately 0.7 % volatile oil. Therapeutic benefits include the alleviation of cough symptoms, and as diaphoretic and carminative agents.
KAFFIR LIME (Leech Lime, Mauritus Papeda, Porcupine Orange)
"Ma-krut" in Thai The leaves, peel and juice of the Kaffir Lime are used as a flavouring in Thai cuisine. The leaves and peel contain volatile oil. The major therapeutic benefit of the juice is as an appetizer.
"KRA-CHAI" in Thai
(No Common English Name) This erect annual plant with aromatic rhizomes and yellow-brown roots, is used as a flavouring. The rhizomes contain approximately 0.8 % volatile oil. The plant has stomachache relieving and antimicrobial properties, and therapeutic benefits as an antitussive and antiflatulence agent.
LEMON GRASS (Lapine)
"Ta-khrai" in Thai This erect annual plant resembles a coarse grey-green grass. Fresh leaves and grass are used as a flavouring. Lemongrass contains 0.2-0.4 % volatile oil. Therapeutic properties are as a diuretic, emmanagogue, antiflatulence, antiflu and antimicrobial agent.
LIME (Common Lime)
"Ma-nao" in Thai Lime is used principally as a garnish for fish and meat dishes. The fruit contains Hesperidin and Naringin, scientifically proven antinflammatory flavonoids. Lime juice is used as an appetizer, and has antitussive, antiflu, stomachic and antiscorbutic properties.
"Sa-ra-nae" in Thai The fresh leaves of this herbaceous plant are used as a flavouring and eaten raw in Thai cuisine. Volatile oil contents give the plant several therapeutic uses, including carminative, mild antiseptic, local anaesthetic, diaphoretic and digestant properties.
"Phrik-Thai" in Thai Peper is a branching, perennial climbing plant from whose fruiting spikes both white and black pepper are obtained. Used as a spice and condiment, Pepper contains 2-4 % volatile oil. Therapeutic uses are as carminative, antipyretic, diaphoretic and diuretic agents.
SACRED BASIL (Holy Basil)
"Ka-phrao" in Thai Sacred Basil is an annual herbaceous plant that resembles Sweet Basil but has narrower and oftentimes reddish-purple leaves. The fresh leaves, which are used as a flavouring, contain approximately 0.5 % volatile oil, which exhibits antimicrobial activity, specifically as a carminative, diaphoretic, expectorant and stomachic.
"Hom, Hom-lek, Hom-daeng" in Thai Shallots, or small red onions, are annual herbaceous plants. Underground bulbs comprise garlic-like cloves. Shallot bulbs contain volatile oil, and are used as flavouring or seasoning agents. Therapeutic properties include the alleviation of stomach discomfort, and as antithelmintic, antidiarroheal, expectorant, antitussive, diuretic and antiflu agents.
SWEET BASIL (Common Basil)
"Ho-ra-pha" in Thai Sweet Basil is an annual herbaceous plant, the fresh leaves of which are either eaten raw or used as a flavouring in Thai cooking. Volatile oil content varies according to different varieties. Therapeutic properties are as carminative, diaphoretic, expectorant, digestant and stomachic agents.
TURMERIC (Curcuma, Indian Saffron, Yellow Root)
"Kha-min" in Thai Turmeric is a member of the ginger family, and provides yellow colouring for Thai food. The rhizomes contain 3 - 4 % volatile oil with unique aromatic characteristics. Turmeric's therapeutic properties manifest as a carminative, antiflatulence and stomachic.