Fans of Thai food culture already know that behind those amazing flavors you have the Thai spices that make this cuisine uniquely possible.
Siam – the land which everyone tried to rule. Indian, Chinese, Malay, Cambodia, Burma (Myanmar), Japan … The list of cultures who visited or ruled Thailand and/or lived there is long and varied.
As a result, Thai spices have evolved with all the flavor available in South and Southeast Asia, while also adding elements that are unique to the country.
The Western Europeans arrived in the early 16th century, and fortuitously, they were led by the Portuguese, who at the time were the foremost practitioners of trading spices over the sea, having just broken the hegemony of the silk route with Vasco da Gama’s trip to the Malabar Coast in India. One way or another, Thai cuisine has continued to absorb all these influences and create unique flavors.
The History of Thai Spices – Origins, Influences and Traditions
Thai food styles have evolved over many centuries. In a simple sense, Thai food is a combination of Indian, Chinese, Malaysian and other Southeast Asian cuisine.
Many will find that Thai food is amped up in terms of spices and with a huge assortment of curries driven by the use of hot chilis, with the counterpoint of coconut milk to cool the palate.
The initial influences were from Southern China, especially the Szechwan provincials, who also permeated the Thai, Laos and Cambodian peninsulas.
Shortly thereafter, Buddhist monks brought over an abiding style of Indian cuisine to the country, as well as neighboring countries such as Malaysia, giving rise to curry flavored cuisine.
Western influences were introduced with the arrival of Portuguese traders in 1511. After that time the spicy content of Thai food shot through the roof with the introduction of chilis and a variety of spices.
Later, the Dutch and the Japanese also cast their influences. Myanmar, on Thailand’s Northern Border, has continued to exert its imprint in terms of milder dishes compared to the rest of the country.
Thai Food Styles and the Use of Spices
Typical Thai food includes the following types of dishes, a vast assortment of Curries (a tradition that came from India, and then propagated all over South and Southeast Asia).
You will find a variety of Grilled and Stir-fried dishes (such as Satay and Tiger Cried); Fried Rice (distinct Chinese vibes but with Indian influences), Soups and some congee style dishes (with strong Chinese influences), and a large number of Fresh Fruits and Salads (such as Som tam, inspired by local produce and tastes). Spices are also used in drinks and desserts for flavor.
Thai food is one of the spiciest on the planet, mainly due to the use of dozens of spices in most bases, including the ubiquitous use of curry pastes and the heaviness of using coconut milk in the base – it helps to dull the heat but also adds to the volume.
While Thais enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables, the practice of at least squeezing lime juice on a fresh green papaya or mango salad is typical of the flavor consciousness of the country.
Spices that Originated in Thailand
Not many spices are known to have originated in Thailand, with some exceptions. Most were brought over by visitors to the country. The strong influences of India and China, and the later European trade, have kept Thailand stocked with a rich variety of spices. As mentioned above, ingredients like chilis were first introduced by the Portuguese.
There are, however, a number of herbs and spices that grow naturally, such as galangal, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. Some varieties, such as Thai Chilies and Thai Sweet Basil, are distinctively different from comparable varieties found elsewhere. In general, most of the spices used in Thai food originated in, and have been commonly used, in South and Southeast Asia for thousands of years.
List of 20 Thai Herbs and Spices
While regional cuisine may use certain specific spices and herbs, the list of 20 mentioned here are close to a staple in terms of principal Thai dishes. However, the descriptions of each are kept deliberately short, since most Thai cooking is complex and uses combinations of up to a dozen spices. As such, the different pastes mentioned in the next section are a better descriptor of what distinguishes different Thai dishes from one another.
1. Thai Chili Peppers (Prik Chee Fah)
The plants are grown ornamentally but its fruit is delicious. They can be green in color if plucked early, but if left on the tree to be ripened by the sun, they will turn bright red. They combine intense heat with citrus and red bell pepper flavors, making them great additions to any dish. The peppers come in two sizes, the first long and the second very squat and rounded. They are also called Bird Peppers since birds are known to eat them.
2. Ginger Root (Galanga)
Ginger originated in South Asia. Galanga, which is a close cousin to ginger as we know it, is sometimes substituted – at other times, both ginger and galanga are used, as in Panang Curry Paste described in the next section.
3. Sweet Basil (Kaphera)
Fresh basil is ubiquitous as a finishing flavor in many signature Thai dishes, such as Green Curry Beef described below. The herb has a sweet taste and is also considered to be appropriate for use in Hindu temples.
4. Lemongrass (Takhir)
The flavor of lemongrass – tart and sharp – is a necessary ingredient in curries. Traditional use of lemongrass is to dip it in the curry base without leaving it in, since lemongrass left in will acquire a bitter taste.
5. Kaffir Lime Leaves & Lime Zest (Bi Makrud)
Traditional Thai cuisine eschews overuse of lime juice, instead using the sweet and aromatic Kaffir Lime Leaves. The lime zest is also used in some of the more complex curries.
Cilantro in herb form is an essential part of cooking in Thailand, often added as garnish. All parts of the green plant are edible, but the dried leaves are used frequently. Coriander seeds, roots and powder are often used in the different Thai pastes.
7. Black Peppercorn
Black Peppercorn adds an intense aroma, heat and flavor to any dish. Both black and white pepper are used in Thai cooking.
8. Cumin (Phng Yihra)
White cumin seeds are usually ground into powder before being used in Thai cuisine. Sometimes confused with caraway seeds, Cumin is larger, lighter and stronger in flavor with a hot aftertaste.
9. Turmeric (Khmin)
Turmeric is used in a variety of Thai dishes, including Yellow Curry and Massaman Curry where the colorations are dictated by the use of this ground golden yellow powder made from the original root vegetable.
10. Cinnamon (Xbchey)
Cinnamon adds an earthy flavor to meat and curries and is used in spice mixes and curry pastes. It is used as a flavor in tea and Thai coffee as well.
11. Green Cardamom Pods (Krawan)
Green Cardamom pods, sweet and fragrant, are used to flavor many Thai dishes.
12. Clove (Kan Phul)
These aromatic flower buds are tiny black sticks with a knob-like head, releasing a lingeringly sweet yet pungent flavor. Cloves are used in curry bases.
13. Bay Leaves (Bl krawan)
These bay leaves are usually imported from India or grown in their mountains and are distinctly different from the Laurel Bay Leaves found in Europe. The olive-green leaves are larger and have a milder flavor closer to cinnamon bark.
14. Dried Mustard Seeds (Meld Mustard)
The small round seeds of various mustard plants, they are small and yellow brown or white in color. They can come from the Black, Brown or the White/Yellow Mustard Plant.
15. Fenugreek Seeds
Fenugreek is a very common spice used in Northern and Western Indian vegetarian cuisine. The small yellow, bittersweet seeds are usually dry roasted, or fried in butter or oil, to reduce the slightly bitter flavor.
Paprika, with its milder spice/heat overtones, is sometimes used in Thai cooking and curry paste bases.
Thai nutmeg is similar to European nutmeg, the inner fruit of the mace plant. Sweet and aromatic, a pinch of nutmeg adds flavor to selected dishes.
Garlic is used in almost every dish in Thailand, along with gingers and onions.
Onions are used extensively in cooking, along with garlic and ginger.
Scallions, especially the green part, are used as garnish.
Most of the spices named above are staple additions to a wide mix of Thai dishes but in particular the signature Thai Curry Paste blends (see some examples below).
List of 15 Thai Seasoning Blends and Cooking Oils
As mentioned in the previous section, while individual herbs and spices are important in Thai cooking, most Thai food can be prepared with exotic and delicious pastes/mixes of the most basic variety.
A difference in proportions, as well as the addition and subtraction of a few ingredients along with the ways of preparation ensure a never-ending variety of tastes, from mild to sweet to fiery hot. To enjoy Thai cuisine, you have to be familiar with the various curries.
1. Red Curry Paste
In its most basic form, red curry paste contains red chili peppers, garlic, coriander, cumin, lemongrass, turmeric, shrimp paste, black peppercorn and sea salt. Lime and lemon juice, along with lime zest, is also used. Green or red bell peppers may be used to turn down the heat. Red Curry Paste is used in many other variations, including Panang Curry, Massaman Curry and Peanut Curry described below.
2. Green Curry Paste
A recent addition to Thai cuisine (a mere hundred years old), Green Curry Paste uses green chilies, shrimp paste, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, peppercorns, makrut limes, cumin seeds, lemon and sea salt to taste. Ginger may be mixed in for zest.
3. Yellow Curry Paste
This is the closest facsimile to Indian curry paste in Thai cooking. It’s made with turmeric, yellow chilies, lemongrass, galangal, fish sauce, lemongrass, shallots, garlic, coriander, cumin (ground and seeds), cinnamon, shrimp paste, white pepper, brown sugar, tomato puree, lime juice and coconut milk.
4. Massaman Curry Paste
Massaman Curry Paste contains garlic, soybean oil, dried red chilies, shallot, salt, lemongrass, coriander seeds, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaves, galangal, cloves, kaffir lime, citric acid, tamarind juice, salt and sugar. The principal ingredient of Massaman Curry, it goes well with dishes that contrast the spice with sweetness – the use of peanuts is often encouraged. Originally from Malaysia, this curry paste is similar to red curry but with milder flavors.
5. Penang Curry Paste
Used to cook Panang Curry, the main ingredients of this paste are dried chili peppers, galangal, ginger, lemongrass, kaffir lime zest, kaffir lime leaves, coriander root and seeds and cumin seeds. It is a variety of red curry paste which is spicier, more aromatic and often has peanuts added to the sauce. The style of cooking is typical of Panang, an island off the coast of Malaysia.
6. Nam Prik Pao (Chili Paste in Soybean Oil)
Spicy yet sweet, this paste is used to spice up dishes, but also served on the side of main dishes. The ingredients were a lot of Thai red chilies, along with garlic, onion, dried shiitake mushrooms, light brown sugar, tamarind paste and white vinegar.
7. Kapi (Shrimp Paste)
This is the most famous among various Thai chili paste, made with fermented shrimp paste, chilies and lots of lime juice. The shrimp used is tiny, mostly krill, which is dried in the sun till it turns brown. Most Thai dishes use shrimp paste to flavor and white shrimp paste is commonly used in Southern Thailand. It is also served on the side as garnish.
8. Peanut Curry Paste
Peanut Curry Paste is a further adaptation of red curry paste, adding peanut butter, minced garlic, brown sugar, chili powder, cayenne pepper, fish sauce, sesame oil, vegetable oil and coconut milk to it.
9. Thai Seven Spice Blend
This blend is used for fish, seafood and poultry dishes and can also be mixed in with bread crumbs for frying or used in stir fries. The spices used are peppercorn, garlic, coriander, basil, Thai chilies, lemongrass, ginger, cinnamon, cumin and cloves.
10. Coconut Oil (also called “Lotus Oil”)
The oil from mature coconuts is extensively used in Thai cuisine, along with Coconut Milk. The practice arose at the time that Thais adopted woks from China – their religious beliefs precluded the use of lard, so they switched to Coconut Oil instead. It is the most commonly used oil in Thailand today.
11. Palm Oil
Oil extracted from the fruit of the palm tree is mainly produced in Southeast Asia. It is an extender used with Coconut Oil.
12. Soybean Oil
Soybean oil is used to make specific stir-fry dishes and also savory pastes, such as Shrimp or Chili Paste in Soybean Oil.
13. Peanut Oil
Peanut Oil is frequently used in specific dishes, especially to stir fry or deep fry.
14. Soybean Oil
Soybean Oil is used in preparing some signature pastes and dishes. When vegetable oil is mentioned in recipes, soybean oil is often used.
15. Other Oils Commonly Used
Other oils that are commonly used in India include Sunflower Oil, Vegetable Oil, Soybean Oil, Corn/Maize Oil, Rice Bran Oil, Sesame Oil and Safflower Oil. Some other nut-based oils are also used.
Our Verdict … Spice Up Your Life with Thai Seasonings
Thailand produces some of the most savory dishes in the world, especially for those curry lovers who savor contrasts of spices, a mixture of heat tempered with coconut milk, the flavors of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves and overall the abundant use of fish sauce and shrimp paste.
While proper Thai cooking can be time consuming and difficult to emulate, the various pastes mentioned above ensure that even a novice can make the basic dishes in a tasty manner. If you have not had the pleasure, try it today!! You won’t regret it.