The Thai Pantry
What to have on hand to re-create the flavors of Thai cooking at home
Once you discover fish sauce, you may never want to cook without it again. It adds rich flavor (and intense saltiness if you use too much), and it’s a distinct component of Thai cooking, along with tamarind, limes, and palm sugar. If you’re exploring Thai cooking, here’s a starter kit that will get you through our pad thai recipe. If they’re not available where you live, many online resources stock them.
Bean sprouts: Sprouted from green mung beans, bean sprouts are added raw to cooked dishes so that they retain their crunch. Look for fresh ones that are white, crisp, and have little scent.
Chiles: Heat is one of the four flavor characteristics of Thai cooking. Chiles are used extensively in both fresh and dried forms. In general, the smaller the chile, the stronger the heat. The most common are small Thai bird chiles, which are sold fresh in green, orange, or red. They can also be found in dried form labeled prik haeng. Red dried chile flakes can be substituted for the whole dried chiles.
Chinese chives: Also known as garlic chives, Chinese chives are long, narrow, and flat-leafed with a sharp, garliclike flavor.
Dried rice stick noodles: Made from rice that is steamed and then dried and ground into flour. Rice noodles come in a variety of widths and are usually soaked in water until pliable before being stir-fried. A medium width is used for pad thai.
Dried shrimp: Tiny shrimp that are boiled, salted, and then dried in the sun add a salty, fishy flavor to many dishes. Look for brightly colored shrimp, and buy them in small quantities to ensure freshness. Store in the refrigerator.
Fish sauce: A salty sauce extracted from small fermented fish such as anchovies. The extremely fishy scent fades with cooking but adds a delicious salty, umami flavor.
Limes: A staple Thai ingredient, limes add the essential sour element.
Palm sugar: Made from the sap of the coconut palm or palmyra palm tree, palm sugar varies in color and consistency. Sometimes labeled coconut sugar or coconut candy, it adds a balanced sweetness to dishes. Brown sugar can be substituted if you can’t find palm sugar.
Preserved radish: Daikon radish that is pickled and salted, sometimes with chiles; it is sold either in long strips or smaller pieces. Preserved radish adds a tangy, apricotlike flavor to dishes like pad thai. Look for the word sweetened on the package or for sugar in the ingredients, as there is a similar product that is salted only. Preserved radish can be found in the dried goods or refrigerated section of many Asian markets.
Tamarind paste or pulp: Harvested from the pods of the tamarind tree, the tamarind fruit is crushed into a pulp and pressed into block form (or concentrated tamarind paste). It adds a sweet-and-sour element to Thai dishes. To prepare: Mix with water, breaking up the pulp, and let sit for a few minutes, then strain over a bowl, pressing on the solids. Discard the solids and use the liquid mixture remaining. Tamarind is also available in liquid concentrate, which must be diluted before using.