Thai Herbs and Spices!
What separates Thai food from other foods is the mixture of various food ingredients including rice, meats, fish, vegetables and fruits together with various Thai herbs and spices found in Thailand. This unique combination is what makes Thai food stand apart from other cuisines. In particular it is the herbs and spices that gives the food the unique Thai food taste as well as the “heat”. One of the interesting things to observe is how herbs and spices are combined in what appears to be a haphazard manner, but is actually well planned. Often these combinations are passed down from generation to generation orally. The precise measurements and quantities of the herbs and spices is done from memory and by “feel” as precise measurements are never made.
Ask any Thai cook what the most important herb and spice used in the preparation of Thai food and they will all say the chili. There are a number of chilies used and all have various degrees of “heat” associated with them. Chilies are either cut up into smaller pieces or they are ground up into a powder. In some Thai foods such as “som tom”, which is a spicy papaya salad, the chilies are crushed in a ”cruk” with a “sak’. The “cruk” is a deep wooden bowl, while the ”suk” is a wooden rod with a bell shaped end. Food prepared with crushed chilies tends to be very spicy.
As with all chilies, the smallest, which is “phrik khi nu suan”, is the hottest and will leave your eyes watering and sweat on your forehead! I ate a pork and rice dish tonight that had one of these in it and all I can say is WOW!“ Suan” means small in Thai. And these chilies are small in size but big in flavor. The next chili, which is less “hot” is the “phrik khu su”. Although this chili is less hot than its smaller brother, it is still potent. “Prik chi fa” is the next chili in the rankings of chilies and is either green or red. There is also a large chili called “phrik yuak that is pretty mild compared to the other chilies. I have eaten these in quantity and did not suffer any negative side effects. Dries chilies are used quite a bit here in Thailand and it is not unusual to see them laying out in the sun drying. They carry a pretty good “bite” to them.
One of the things that you notice here in Thailand is how chilies are used in everything both to prepare the food as well as to further season it to achieve the right level of spiciness. Every home, restaurant, food cart has a combination of chili products on a “spicy tray”. Mainly in the form of various types of ground up chilies as well as a liquid “nam kim”, these items definitely allow you to add heat. Often you will find “phrik khi nu suan” chilies on spicy trays. Ground up chili powder is also used on fruits such as mango. The combination of a sweet fruit with chilies is unique, but does grow on you,
On a side note, Thailand is a great place if you enjoy photography. Chilies with their deep red colors make great photos especially with the contrast with the other ingredients found in Thai food. A couple of days ago, I saw a man carrying thousands of dried “Prik chi fa” to the market in a large clear bag and am sure that everyone found there way into a home in Thailand that night. It would have been a great image. When you visit Thailand, be sure to bring your camera and keep it with you all of the time!
There are a number of other herbs and spices used in the preparation of Thai food, some of which many from the west are familiar with, while others are unique to Thailand and Southeast Asia.
There are three distinct types of basil used including sacred or holy basil, which is known in Thai as “ka phrao”. The second type is hoary basil or “maeng lak “as it is known in Thailand. The third type of basil is sweet basil and it is called “ho ra pha” in Thai. All of these basil are leaves that are either used to flavor the food.
Garlic, which is called “kra thiam” in Thai, is often chopped up and put into a variety of foods for flavoring. And is also used as a condiment as well. Many Thais put this in a large number of dishes just like cooks in the United States do! Garlic is definitely an herb with no borders!
Cumin, which is also known as “yira” in Thai, is used as to flavor food as well and definitely has a powerful smell! I know in my house I can always tell when my wife is using this herb before I eat what she has made.
Other herbs and spices include Ginger, which is also known as “khing”, is one of my favorite spices and herbs. Greater galanga to “kha” in Thai, has many of the same properties as ginger and is used as a flavoring.
Kaffir lime, which is know as “makrut” in Thai, is a very popular herband spices used in a great number of Thai food dishes. The entire lie is used including the leaves, rind of the lime itself as well as the juices. Many may find the leaves hard to digest, so it is best to let them flavor the food and put them aside.
The common lime, which is known as “ma nao” in Thai, is used as a garnish for a number of Thai dishes including pad thai, where the lime-juice is mixed into the dish. It is also commonly served with San Miguel Light beer, which is popular in Thailand.
Pepper, which is known as “phrik tahi” in Thai, is also used in Thai food here in Thailand, but not to the extent that it is in the west. Typically it is mixed into the food while it is being prepared. It is very rare to see a shaker full of pepper at the dining table. I find that pepper has a tendency to overpower the other flavors, so caution should be exercised when using pepper.
Other herbs and spices include “kra chai”, which has no English language name and is a native plant that is used to flavor Thai food. Another herb and spice is lemon grass, which is known as “ta khrai” in Thai. The plant is used as a flavoring and is quite good. Marsh mint, which is called “sa ra nae” in Thai is an excellent flavoring spice and herb and is good to eat raw as well. Sharllott, which is known as “hom daeng” in Thai is basically a small red onion that is used for seasoning. When you see Thai food that has a yellow color to it, it is the result of using turmeric, which is also known as “kha min” in Thai. It is similar to ginger and is used as a flavoring agent as well.
One of the things that you will notice about the vast majority of Thai people is how healthy they are. Obesity is very rare here and people are generally very active even into old age. I think the well-known and documented medicinal qualities of all of the herbs and prices used in Thai food contribute in a very positive manner to Thai people’s health. These qualities include antithetical, anti-inflammatory, digestant, diaphoretic, diuretic, and stomachic. I have lived in Thailand for abut a year and a half and eat Thai food almost exclusively and have lost approximately 15 kilos as a result. It is amazing to see the quantities of Thai food consumed by Thai people and yet they stay at a healthy weight. Many think that the “heat” of the spices and herbs contribute to their ability to “burn” fat and stay at a healthy weight. Although there is no scientific evidence to back this up, there is definitely something going on and the herbs and spices found in Thai food appear to be making a difference!
Herbs and spices are a key part of Thai food and their unique combinations is what separate Thai foods from other cuisines. One of the things that you will notice when you visit Thailand is how fresh the food is including the herbs and spices. These items are found in local markets and not in a grocery store. They are found in their raw form and are not in a processed form in a plastic container on a price rack at the local Safeway. I believe that the freshness of the ingredients including herbs and spices is what makes Thai food so good and is one of the major differences between Thai food in Thailand and Thai food in the United States and other western countries.