These flavors help define dishes like pad see ew, lemongrass chicken, and Massaman curry.

By Lynn Andriani
February 21, 2020
Justin Walker

Known for its light touch, aromatic elements, and occasional punch of heat, Thai cuisine prizes four essential flavors, which you'll find in most dishes: salty, sour, spicy, and sweet. The ingredients used to build these flavors are often herbs and spices—and they frequently take the form of a paste. Traditionally cooks made their own curry pastes but now many recipes call for store bought versions of these red, green, or Massaman curry pastes. The base of these pastes is garlic and green or red chilies. Fish sauce and soy sauce are other common flavorings, used in cooking or for final seasoning. The most commonly used spices for Thai cooking are below.

Related: Thai-Inspired Recipes to Make You Forget About Takeout

Basil

The warm, sweet flavor of basil is one of the essentials of Thai cuisine. If you can find it, Thai basil, native to Southeast Asia, has an unmistakable flavor—licorice-like, sweet and slightly spicy—that stands up well to heat. Try it in this spicy ground beef dish that's served with coconut rice.

Coriander

Ground coriander is one way to subtly add spice to a dish without being aggressive. Thai cooks often roast or toast coriander seeds and then grind them for the most intense flavor.

Ginger and Galangal

Ginger and galangal aren't interchangeable, but they're related, and since galangal can be difficult to find, cooks often swap in ginger. Both add depth of flavor to many Thai dishes.

Lemongrass

Resembling thicker scallions, lemongrass has a woody stalk that releases a lemony fragrance when chopped or pounded. It's a classic addition to many Thai soups and curries, and is a natural for chicken and seafood. Although we’d choose fresh whenever possible, dried lemongrass works in pastes and soups.

Makrut Lime Leaf

Similar to how bay leaves are used in Western cooking, the leaves of the Makrut lime, sometimes called Thai or kaffir lime, are ubiquitous in Thai soups and curries. The Makrut lime is distinctly different to the common Persian lime found in grocery stores. Its lime leaves can be added whole, or sliced into thin strips; you'll find them sold fresh, dried, and frozen. Their intensely fragrant and citrusy flavor is a hallmark of many Thai dishes—even noodle salads.

Turmeric

Best known for its golden color, turmeric has a mustard-like taste that brings an earthy and mildly astringent flavor to dishes—not to mention a lovely hue.

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