Basic Thai IngredientsFRESH HERBS: Fresh herbs, such as basil, mint, and cilantro, are added to finished dishes in great quantities, sometimes by cupfuls, with leaves often left whole to give a burst of flavor with each bite.
BAMBOO SHOOTS: The shoots of the bamboo are cut when they have grown about 15 cm (6 inches) above the ground. They need to be peeled and the inner, white part boiled for 30 minutes in water. However, the canned variety needs to be boiled for only 10 minutes and may be used immediately in soups or curries. Canned bamboo shoots, stay well in the fridge, if the water is renewed every day.
BEANSPROUTS: The sprouts of the soy or mung bean are crunchy and tender. They can be grown at home, but they are easy to find in most places nowadays.
CELERY: Thai celery is much smaller than the variety found in the West. It is also greener, thinner-stemmed and leafier, with a stronger celery flavor. However, either type can be used equally well for Thai soups, sautés and salads.
CHILIES: The Thai add generous amounts of chilies to most of their dishes. No one region is known as the home of fiery food, as each province has its own "hot" dishes. The seeds are the hottest part of the chili so if you want to keep the flavor, with out the heat, slit open the chilies and discard the seeds. Dried chilies should be soaked in hot water for 10 minutes before grinding. The Thai use chilies in almost every conceivable way - fresh, dried, whole, chopped, crushed or sliced into rings. Just a few words of caution, always wash your hands carefully after handling chilies and do not touch your eyes or mouth, or they will suffer from a burning sensation.
CHILI PASTE: Can be bought in bottles from Asian stores. A particularly popular one in Thai cooking, especially for seafood dishes, is burnt mild chili paste.
CHINESE MUSHROOMS: These dried, whole mushrooms have a distinctive flavor. They should always be soaked in warm water for 30 minutes before being added to other ingredients. The stems are seldom eaten, as they are quite tough.
COCONUT MILK: The milk itself is the liquid wrung from the grated and pressed coconut meat and then combined with water. In Thai cooking it is used with curries and stews and it is often combined with curry pastes for sauces. The milk is used as a popular cooling beverage and a key ingredient in puddings and candies. Be sure to shake the tin well before opening to use.
FISH SAUCE (Nam pla): Fish sauce is also known as nam pla. It is a thin brown sauce made from fermented salted fresh fish, usually anchovies. It is sold bottled and has a noticeable fish odor and salty taste. However, it is a Thai standard and should be used, perhaps sparingly at first; moreover, cooking greatly diminishes the 'fishy' flavor, and the sauce does add a special richness and quality to dishes. The Thai brands are especially good, with a less salty taste. It is an inexpensive ingredient so get the best on offer.
GARLIC: The Thai garlic head is made up of smaller cloves than the Western varieties. It is used abundantly in Thai cuisine.
GINGER: The aromatic rhizome of the ginger plant is an important ingredient of Thai main dishes and desserts. It must be peeled before it can be chopped, grated or crushed. Fresh ginger is preferable, but powdered ginger can be substituted if necessary.
KAFFIR LIME LEAVES: impart a most intense floral and citrus flavor and are almost required in Thai curries. Lime zest, while not the same, will give the dish a similar refreshing citrusy flavor.
LEMONGRASS: This herb is close to being the 'signature' ingredient of Thai cookery. Lemongrass is available in fresh as well as dried form. Dried Lemongrass is used for herbal teas, and only the fresh for cooking. Fresh lemongrass is sold in stalks that can be 60cm (2 ft) long – it looks like a very long, thin spring onion. Most recipes use only the bottom few inches of the stem. Lemongrass pieces are removed after the dish is cooked. In recipes that call for lemongrass to be finely chopped or pounded into a paste, it becomes an integral aspect of the dish, and isn't removed. Fresh lemongrass can be kept, loosely wrapped, in the bottom part of your refrigerator for up to one week. Please note that lemon is not a substitute for the unique flavors of lemongrass.