Tastes: The combination of hot and distinctive spices like chilli paste and salty fish sauces with aromatic herbs creates the ‘hot’ thai curry taste
Hints for Westeners: Pep up dried herbs with lime rind, ginger is a good substitute
Watch out for: Hot chilli pastes – the strength varies in each brand so test before you use!
Fish Sauce (Naam Pla)
Known as the salt of south east Asia, fish sauce is essential to Thai cuisine. The fish sauce industry is centred along the Gulf of Thailand coast. A variety of small fishes are used to make naam plaa icluding, shrimp, squid and anchovies. Harvested from the gulf, the fish are sun dried and stored in barrels with an exact ratio of salt and water, and left to ferment until it turns into a highly aromatic brown liquid, which is filtered, pasteurised and bottled. The most famous and reliable brand is ‘Thiparot.’
When dining in Thailand, restaurants will offer a fresh saucer of phrik nam plaa (fish sauce with chillies) which should be used to season your rice. For the chilli shy, you can simply ask for nam pla, without the heat.
Roasted Chilli Paste (Nahm Prik Pow)
This is a ‘secret ingredient’ which often gives Thai dishes its extra kick and flavour. The paste contains chillies that have been roasted and mixed with a variety of ingredients including shrimp paste, garlic, tamarind and palm sugar. The result is an intensely spicy but sweet chilli ‘jam’ that can be used to flavour an abundance of marinades and soups. Its sweetness also makes it a likable ready-to-use spread to put on toast, crackers or shrimp chips for a quick snack.
Two good brands of pre-packaged roasted chilli paste are available in Southeast Asian markets are Pantainorasingh (labeled as “chilli paste with soya bean oil) in 8 oz. and 16 oz. glass jars and Mae Ploy (“chilli in oil”) in 14 oz. plastic tubs. Since the combination of flavours and level of hotness and sweetness can vary considerably from brand to brand, make adjustments as necessary in cooking with recipes to flavour dishes to your liking.
Thai cuisine depends heavily on the availability of a variety of fresh herbs. Without them, it is difficult to get the intensity of flavours required to make a truly authentic Thai dish. In Thailand, lemongrass, kaffir lime and galangal grow practically everywhere and these three ingredients make up the base of most Thai dishes. Although lemongrass is now readily available worldwide, you may need a bigger quantity in your dishes to get the same effect. Dried kaffir lime leaves can be found in supermarkets however, the flavour can be intensified by adding the rind of a fresh lime. If galangal is not available, ginger can often be substituted. The importance is to use as many fresh (not dried) herbs as possible to get the ‘full kick’ of a Thai dish.