Falling in love with Thai food? That’s easy. People the world over do just that on an hourly basis.
But getting the flavor nuances of your favorite Thai dishes just right, especially when you’re first starting out, is more tricky. The complexity of the cuisine – perceived or actual – can be quite intimidating.
While it’s natural to go after Thai recipes labeled “quick” or “easy,” it doesn’t take long to find out that “quick” doesn’t always mean “easy,” and “easy” doesn’t always imply a short list of commonly-found ingredients.
So what’s a newbie chef to do?
Just as it’s more efficient to master one basic cookie dough recipe that leads to countless variations through different add-ins and flavoring agents, beginners can also learn some basic components used in Thai cuisine – each of which leads to hundreds of different dishes.
Here are five ingredients found in countless Thai meals that deliver a lot of bang for your buck.
They can help ease you into Thai cooking, and will prepare you for a more advanced stage of your culinary journey where your palate becomes more accustomed to how Thai food tastes and your skill is solid enough to help you further refine your creations.
1. Basic Thai meat marinade
This marinade paste is the key ingredient in several meat-based dishes. To make it, pound into a smooth paste two parts peeled garlic cloves, two parts chopped fresh coriander roots (or stems, if the roots are not available) and one part whole white peppercorns.
This master paste is the essential ingredient in many well-known dishes: grilled skewered pork (Mu Ping), grilled chicken (Kai Yang), pepper-garlic pork (Mu Thot Kra Tiam Prik Thai), and even the famous Thai-style fried chicken (Kai Thot).
Different recipes call for additional seasonings, such as fish sauce, palm sugar, oyster sauce or soy sauce, in varying amounts. Invariably, this paste serves as the foundation for all of them.
2. Basic spicy salad (yam) dressing
The bare-bones version of Thai spicy salad dressing comprises three main ingredients: fish sauce, lime juice, and fresh chilies. The standard formula is one part fish sauce, 1.5 parts lime juice, plus how ever many chilies you can cope with.
A pinch of sugar is often added to round out the flavor, but it’s optional. This basic dressing works with countless combinations of ingredients and serves as the main component of dishes such as glass noodle salad (Yam Wun Sen), and seafood salad (Yam Ta Le).
Add some toasted rice powder and use dried red pepper flakes in lieu of fresh chilies, and you end up with a very basic dressing for various Isaan meat salads such as Lap and Nam Tok.
To make a basic dipping sauce for grilled or steamed seafood (Nam Jim Ahan Ta Le), just add fresh garlic to the basic dressing and purée it.
Adjust the quantities when you deal with ingredients that are naturally sour, sweet, or salty. The fish sauce:lime juice ratio will need to be tweaked accordingly.
3. Thai chili jam (Nam Prik Pao)
Thai chili jam is used as a dip, a relish, a bread spread; it can also be used to accent a stir-fry or a salad, resulting in a variation of the same dish that has a more smoky and complex flavor.
Commercial Nam Prik Pao from the supermarket is your ally as you inch your way towards a more advanced stage of Thai cooking competency.
4. Red curry paste
This is perhaps one of the most loved and the most versatile composite ingredients in Thai cuisine.
Fry up some store-bought red curry paste with the first and most concentrated extraction of coconut milk for an easy curry sauce, then add your favorite meat and vegetables to the curry mixture. Season with fish sauce.
Liven up the whole dish with a handful of fresh basil towards the end. Be creative with meat and vegetable combinations. Hundreds of permutations can be created out of this simple curry sauce.
5. Sweetened coconut cream
This is as simple as diluting coconut milk to a desired consistency and sweetening it by heating it up with either white or palm sugar until the sugar dissolves.
The amount of sugar is dictated by individual taste. Add a tiny pinch of salt to round out the flavor and you’re on your way.
Sweetened coconut cream forms the base of both warm and cold desserts such as bananas in coconut cream (Kluai Buat Chi), pumpkin in coconut cream (Fak Thong Kaeng Buat), mock pomegranate seeds in coconut cream (Tap Tim Grop), and several more.
Leela Punyaratabandhu is a Bangkok-based food journalist.
Editor’s note: This article was previously published in 2011. It was reformatted and republished in 2017.