Thai food is loaded with flavor. Considered one of the healthiest cuisines in the world, Thai dishes are both light and vibrant. Thai chefs layer five main flavor profiles—spicy, salty, sweet, sour and bitter—to create complex dishes that are mouth-popping, aromatic and, if you dare, hair-raisingly hot.
If you’ve ever been out for Thai food, you’ve likely come across Tom Yum soup and green papaya salad. In the markets of Thailand, you’ll also come across some pretty exotic fare. If you go, don’t miss the Chiang Mai Night Market in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Every Sunday, they set up a market along Ratchadamnoen Road that’s bursting with locals and foreigners, street performers and artists.
There’s so much out-of-this world food on hand from Sai krok, a delicious Thai pork sausage, to fresh durian, a local fruit. Just beware, it’s not unusual to find chingrit, or crickets, and other creepy-crawlies deep fried with kaffir lime leaves, chilies and garlic and eaten as a snack.
Whether the dish is familiar or unimaginable, Thai cuisine relies on a few essential ingredients that give it that distinctive Thai flavor. You can easily find all of these ingredients in Asian markets and some even in your local grocery store.
Coconut milk. The foundation of most Thai curries, coconut milk gives Thai curries a rich, sweet flavor. It’s made by pressing fresh, ripe coconut meat. There are exceptions: the spicy yellow Kaeng lueang curry is made without coconut milk.
Kaffir lime. This isn’t your average lime. Characterized by its bumpy exterior, the kaffir lime is super tangy and intense. The rind, fruit and leaves are used wildly in Thai cooking. Don’t try to swap in regular limes. They won’t have the same punch.
Lemongrass. The long stalks of the lemongrass plant give Thai food a slightly floral aroma and delicate citrus flavor. Look for stalks that are firm. They’ll be mostly green with a pale yellow or white base. If they’re limp or the outer leaves are brown, move on. That means they’re old.
Fish sauce. Vegetarians beware. For Thai people, fish sauce is as common as salt, so even meatless dishes tend to have a splash. Fish sauce, or Nam pla, is the juice that results from a long process of salting and fermenting small fish, such as anchovies or sardines. The result is a pungent, reddish-brown liquid that is used to flavor nearly everything.
Thai chilies. There are a host of native chilies that give brightness and heat to Thai. One of the most common is Prik kee noo (or bird’s eye chili), which literally means “mouse dropping chili.” As unappealing as that sounds, these tiny chilies, which turn from green to red as they ripen, pack serious fire. Most dinner tables in Thailand have jar of chopped Prik kee noo in fish sauce to use as a condiment.