Specialty Thai Cooking Ingredients

When preparing a Thai meal, there are several sauces you will need to have on hand. Depending on the dish (and which region it comes from), fish sauce is as important (or more important) than soy sauce in Thai cooking.

If you are vegetarian, soy sauce can be substituted for fish sauce in nearly every instance. Note that there are two types of soy sauce—dark and light—both of which are used in Thai cooking. “Light” simply refers to regular soy sauce, while “dark” is a stronger and thicker sauce, best used sparingly.

Another ready-made ingredient you will want to have on hand is shrimp paste. This fishy-tasting paste is a stronger version of fish sauce, and once you’ve tried it, you’ll find a little goes a long way.

Most Thai recipes use coconut in one way or another, and most often it is coconut milk that is called for. Be sure to buy good-quality coconut milk, and don’t be taken in by its reputation among the general population as cholesterol-raising. Recent studies show that coconut oils and milks contain “good fats” that help lower cholesterol, not raise it.

Another healthy ingredient in Thai cooking is mushrooms. Various types are used, including shiitake, wood ear, and straw. Every Asian store sells a variety of dried shiitake mushrooms, which are both convenient to keep in the kitchen and just as nutritious as the fresh variety.

When cooking Thai, you will need to have a good supply of Thai fragrant (jasmine) rice on hand. If you prefer brown rice, I recommend using whole grain Thai (or, if unavailable, whole grain basmati) which may be available at your Asian grocer or health food store. Two other types of Thai rice used in desserts are sweet rice and black rice. Both are sticky in texture and have a sweet flavor. Black rice is especially nutritious and also wonderfully exotic-looking. If you can’t find black rice at your local Asian store, try a health food store or organic market.

Instead of using cling wrap or tinfoil, Thai chefs use a natural alternative: banana leaves. These leaves are enormous and inexpensive—great for wrapping up food. Banana leaves are also excellent for use in steaming and barbequing (ingredients are tucked inside, like small packets or envelopes). When cooked in this way, foods gain a slight aroma and taste from the banana leaf that is quintessentially Southeast-Asian and very tropical.

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