Thai food lovers dream of hot chili peppers, lemongrass, holy basil, palm sugar, Kaffir limes, fish sauce, and sieved tamarind pulp-essential for adding the hot-sour-salty-sweet balance to rice noodle stir-fries and rich coconut milk curries.
Some key flavors are found only in Thailand and its neighboring countries, remaining the secrets of Thai grandmothers and top Thai restaurant chefs…until now.
Here are 10 Thai ingredients you’ve never heard of:
This burnt toffee, peach, pear, cinnamon, brandy and cooked banana-flavored fruit is like candy. Native to Central America, it migrated to Thailand long ago and is now a local favorite. When ripe, the flesh inside the edible dark brown skin ranges in color from orange tinged with yellow and green, to palm sugar-brown. It makes incredible ice creams and smoothies and is best eaten fresh.
Peel back the hairy, red skin of salacca to reveal a lychee-like, sweet-and-sour wonder. Thais find it fairly acidic, and often eat it dipped in sugar and salt. The fruit grows in clusters at the base of the salak palm tree. Don’t eat too many, though, as it’s said to clog digestion—the opposite of papaya.
3. MORNING GLORY
This leafy green, also called water spinach, has crunchy, tender stems and soft, thin leaves. It’s most often found stir-fried with soy sauce, oyster sauce, garlic, fiery red and green chilies, and bottled soybean paste, with just enough sugar to balance the slight bitterness of the otherwise mild green. It grows in rice paddies, but some Thai grow it at home since it can grow in just fifteen days.
4. WINGED BEAN
This water-loving, crunchy bean has four winged edges. When sliced, the beans look like X’s. Also known as the asparagus bean, the crisp pod has a fairly neutral flavor that soaks up sauces well, whether braised in coconut milk or eaten raw in salads. They can be substituted with green beans in recipes, but the frilly edges add texture to traditional Thai stir-fries, like at Buoy Toey restaurant in Krabi Town where they’re cooked with a hot-sweet-salty-sour sauce and ground, toasted coconut.
Galangal is often replaced with easy-to-find ginger, but there’s a world of difference between the two. Fresh galangal makes your eyes water and your mouth burn, and leaves your mouth with the freshness of mint. Galangal becomes aromatic when pounded with a pestle, and although the root part of the rhizome does resemble ginger when fully grown, young galangal looks more like a bunch of small, skinny carrots covered in dirt. Chef Ya of Thai Cookery School in Ao Nang, Thailand, says it makes room in the stomach for more food, meaning it both eases digestion and allows you to taste a yellow curry after a Panang, a red, a green, and a Massaman curry, which is about half of all the dishes you make (and eat) in her six-hour classes. If you’re not planning a trip to Southern Thailand, you may find galangal frozen at your local South Asian market.
6. THAI PUMPKIN
Thai pumpkin puts the watery North American butternut to shame. The thick-skinned, dense Thai version tastes rich and creamy when cooked in sweet coconut milk and spicy red curry paste. The chicken in the dish is just there for show. You’ll end up picking the squash pieces out of the curry one by one.
7. YOUNG GREEN PEPPERCORNS
Long before hot chilies came to Thailand via the Portuguese, Thai cooking relied heavily on what they call the native chili— Prik Thai, or green peppercorn. In fact, green peppercorn seeds were discovered in archeological digs in Mae Hong Son, Thailand dating from over nine millennia ago. Rather than burning, they warm the tongue. Think of them as hot chilies’ refined older sibling. They pair well with both strong meat dishes such as duck green curry, and spicy seafood and vegetarian dishes such as shrimp or wood ear mushroom stir-fry.
8. PEA EGGPLANT
This green pea-sized eggplant is traditionally added to curries and soups. They look like immature clusters of grapes when ripe, and pop in the mouth after cooking, releasing a slightly bitter, intensely eggplant-flavored explosion that counter-balances the sweet heat of a dish.
9. WATER MIMOSA
Like winged bean, water mimosa is a nitrogen-fixing plant, making it essential for soil health near rice paddies. It’s a good thing the plant is much loved in stir-fries such as yam phak krachet (wilted mimosa with shrimp, red onion and peanuts), and southern soups such as kaeng-som (tamarind-soured soup with fish), because it can be a nuisance if it takes over a waterway, blocking flow and disturbing fish activity.
10. YOUNG TAMARIND LEAVES
These slightly tart leaves are similar to sorrel or under-ripe pineapple in flavor, and add a mild acidity to sour tom som soups in place of tamarind juice or Kaffir lime leaves. They pack Vitamin A and a bright green color into a dish and is often combined with sweet, creamy coconut milk in red curries. Their season is short, making them a sought-after delicacy when available.