Image courtesy of Piyachok Thawornmat at
Image courtesy of Piyachok Thawornmat at


A vegetable fruit with a mildly sweet flavour. Many varieties of aubergine are used in Thai cooking, from tiny pea aubergines, which are added just before the end of cooking, to white, yellow or green aubergines. When these types are unavailable, substitute with the purple variety.

Bamboo Shoots

The edible young shoots of the bamboo plant. Pale to bright yellow when bought fresh. Fresh shoots need some preparation and take quite a long time to cook. When buying canned shoots , look out for the whole ones as they seem to be better quality than the ready-sliced canned bamboo shoots.

Banana Leaves

Glossy , dark green leaves of the banana tree are used to line steamers or to wrap foods such as chicken or fish prior to grilling or baking. They impart a vague flavour of fine tea.


A pungent herb much used in the Mediterranean regions and in South East Asia. Three varieties of basil are used in Thai cooking – bai mangluk (hairy basil) , bai horapa (sweet basil) and bai grapao (Thai or Holy basil) , which tastes hot and slightly medicinal. Bai horapa isthe most popular. It has small, dark leaves with reddish-purple stems and flowers. Its flavour is reminiscent of aniseed and somewhat stronger than that of the western sweet basil.

Bean Curd

Most often used in soups and Chinese dishes. It is made from soy beans and is rich in vitamins and minerals . It is usually sold in square blocks packed in water. Bean curd comes in many forms fresh, fried and dried.


Sprouted from mung beans, they are used in salads and stir-fried dishes. Rich in vitamins, protein and iron, beansprouts are widely available in supermarkets. Look for crisp, firm sprouts with little scent.

Bean Sauce

Made from salted, fermented soy beans , this sauce is a popular flavouring agent in oriental dishes. It is also called yellow bean sauce.


There are many different kinds of chillies. The small, red and green fresh chillies, known as Thai or bird’s eye, are extremely hot. Larger varieties are slightly milder. The ‘fire’ comes from the seeds so discard them if a milder flavour is preferred. Chillies contain volatile oil that can irritate the skin and cause eyes to burn. Always wash your hands immediately after using them.

Coconut Milk

This unsweetened liquid made from grated coconut flesh and water , is an essential ingredient of many Thai dishes. It is available in cans, compressed blocks or in powder form.


The leaves and seeds of the coriander plant are one of the most essential in Thai cooking. The root is also used, often pounded with garlic and other ingredients, to make a marinade.

Curry Paste

This is traditionally made in a mortar by pounding together fresh berbs and spices. There are several kinds. Home-made curry pastes take time and effort to prepare but they taste wonderful and keep well. Ready made pastes, which come in packets or tubs, are a good alternative and enable cooks to make tasty curries quickly.

Fish Sauce (Nam Pla)

The most commonly used flavouring in Thai food. Fish sauce is used in Thai cooking the same way soy sauce is used in Chinese dishes. It is made from salted anchovies and has a strong salty flavour.


A member of the ginger family that looks similar to fresh root ginger, but with a more translucent skin and a pinkish tinge. It has a wonderful sharp, lemony taste and it is prepared in a similar fashion to root ginger. Best used fresh, it is also available dried or in powder form.


Garlic is indispensable in Thai cooking. Heads of the Asian variety are quite small. Look out for fresh shiny heads of garlic with no soft, dusty or monldy cloves. Jars of pickled garlic can be bought from Oriental stores.


A root of Chinese and Indian origin. It is always used fresh rather than dried and should be peeled and chopped or crushed before cooking. It is avalilable in supermarkets. Look for shiny fat roots that aren’t wrinkled or shrivelled. Though not used as frequently as galangal in Thai cooking, ginger makes a good alternative to galangal.

Kaffir Lime

This is similar to the common lime but has a knobbly skin. The zest of the fruit is often used and the dark glossy green leaves from the tree impart a pungent lemony-lime flavour to soups, curries and other dishes. You can buy them fresh in Oriental stores. They keep well and can be frozen. Dried Kaffir limes are also available.

Lemon Grass

Also known as citronella, lemon grass has long pale green stalks and a bulbous end similar to a spring onion. Only the bottom 12cm/5in is used. It has a woody texture and an aromatic lemony scent. Unless finely chopped, it is always removed before serving because it is so fibrous.

Palm Sugar

Strongly – flavoured, hard brown sugar made from the sap of the coconut palm tree. Available in Oriental stores. If you have trouble finding it , use soft dark brown suger instead.

Roasted Ground Rice

Raw glutinous rice grains are dry-fried until brown, then ground to a powder. A traditional ingredient in salads.

Salted Eggs

A traditional way of preserving duck eggs in Asia. You can find them in most Oriental stores, often sold covered in a think layer of charcoal grey ash. Rub off the ash with your finger under running water and then hard-boil the eggs.


Thai shallots have a lovely pinkish purple colour and are used extensively in Thai cuisine instead of onions.

Soy Sauce

Made from fermented soy beans, soy sauce is available in light or dark versions and can be quite salty. It is the background seasoning to many stir fried and noodle dishes.


An acidic tropical fruit that resembles a bean pod. It is usualy sold dried or pulped. To make tamarind juice, take 25g/1oz of tamarind or about 2 stock cube-size pieces and leave to soak in 150ml/1/4 pint 2/3 cup warm water for about 10 minutes. Squeeze out as much tamarind juice as possible by pressing all the liquid through a sieve and use as in the recipes.


Thais use a mild, plain white vinegar. Cider or Japanese rice wine vinegar can be used intead.