It’s challenging to classify Thai food. The labels “salty, sweet, sour, spicy” are too general, because those elements are found in many cuisines. Instead, Thai cooking takes all these seemingly contrasting elements and puts them together in harmonious dishes. Thai cooking is layered and nuanced, light and flavorful, and relies on fresh aromatic herbs and high-level spice. Like its layers of flavor, Thailand draws influences from countries nearby—China, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia—each adding its own unique riff.
“People in the U.S. are familiar with the Thai cuisine that is served in restaurants, but when you actually go to Thailand, there is so much more,” says Leela Punyaratabandhu, blogger and author of several Thai cookbooks, including Bangkok (Ten Speed, 2017). “Food from American Thai restaurants has been changed to incorporate the flavors that appeal to Americans, but it’s a good starting point for people who want to cook Thai food.”
Punyaratabandhu says stocking the kitchen with typical Thai ingredients isn’t difficult—most items are readily available. Coconut milk, lemongrass, cilantro, rice and rice noodles, and garlic are all common ingredients in Thai cooking. Red, green and yellow curry paste are also essential.
“There’s no shame in using premade curry,” she says. Other common items, like kaffir lime leaves and fish sauce (Red Boat is a favorite of many chefs) can easily be found at an Asian market. A paste made of garlic, white peppercorns and cilantro is a common homemade blend at the heart of Thai cuisine, too. “Thai moms have this on hand all the time,” says Punyaratabandhu. “This is central to our cooking. It’s simple and easy and gives a basic Thai taste to a dish.”
For people who may find the breadth of Thai cooking intimidating, Punyaratabandhu advises to just begin where you are. Perhaps you have a limited knowledge of spices, but that’s no reason to feel overwhelmed or inferior, she says. “Instead, look at it as a starting point.” If you want to replicate the tom yum soup or pad thai from your favorite local restaurant, she suggests starting by identifying the flavors you taste. Once those are recognized, it becomes easier to “reverse-engineer” a recipe.
With the help of a good cookbook, home cooks can create the dishes they enjoy most when dining out, and once they master those flavors, explore from there. Like Punyaratabandhu recommends: “Start with what you know.”