There is nothing more important to Thai cooking than a solid understanding of Thai ingredients. After all, ingredients are the foundational building blocks of Thai cuisine! I always say that Thai cooking is not hard, it only feels hard because the ingredients are unfamiliar. And that's an easy problem to fix!
This article will give you an overview of the most important ingredients in Thai cuisine. For many of these ingredients there are also dedicated posts that dive further into the minute details; but this post should provide plenty of information for you to start cooking Thai food with more confidence.
I've divided the ingredients into functional categories: the salty, the sour, the sweet, herbs and spices, and dry goods.
Thai cuisine employs a number of different salty sauces in our cooking. Here they are listed roughly in order of how often they are used for the average Thai person.
FISH SAUCE | NAM PLA | น้ำปลา
Fish sauce is a must-have in any Thai home. Made from fermented anchovies and salt, this pungent amber liquid adds a sharp saltiness and a punch of umami that is an iconic characteristic of many Thai dishes, such as green papaya salad, green curry, and yes, pad thai!
I have a detailed post about how to choose a good fish sauce and recommended brands here, but briefly, look for brands that contain as few ingredients as possible; preferably only anchovies, salt, and sugar. Squid and Megachef are classic, good-quality Thai fish sauce brands that are inexpensive, easy to find, and perfect for everyday cooking.
SUBSTITUTIONS: If you’re vegetarian, the easiest thing (and what I do for vegan friends) is substitute soy sauce in equal amounts, or sometimes I do a combination of soy sauce and Golden Mountain Sauce (see below). Larger Asian markets do sell vegan fish sauce, but some of them can be rather awful.
Having said that, I have sampled a pleasant-enough version labeled “premium pineapple-made vegetarian fish sauce” from Vietnam. Also check online sources from time to time, as there are a few new products on the market that have had some good reviews.
OYSTER SAUCE | NAM MUN HOI | น้ำมันหอย
Oyster sauce is the queen of stir-fry sauces. Imagine a combination of the briny flavors of oysters, the umami of soy sauce, and a subtle sweetness—that’s the flavor of oyster sauce. A common Thai brand is Maekrua, but the widely available Lee Kum Kee is also great for Thai cooking.
Oyster sauce quality varies significantly though, with the better ones containing more “oyster extract” (which is the oyster poaching liquid). Better ones also tend to be more expensive.
For a deeper dive, see my post What is Oyster Sauce and Which is The Best One? where I tasted the four oyster sauces in the pic above.
SUBSTITUTIONS: You can find vegetarian oyster sauce at Asian markets, but it won't say "vegetarian oyster sauce" on the label. Look for vegetarian stir fry sauce by Lee Kum Kee.
SOY SAUCE | SEE EW KAO | ซีอิ๊วขาว
You probably have Japanese or Chinese soy sauce in your kitchen already, but Thai soy sauce is unique. Compared to these other more common soy sauces, ours is a little lighter in both color and body and has a distinctly different aroma and flavor.
Healthy Boy is a classic brand available at many Asian markets; look for a bottle labeled “thin soy sauce” (yellow label) or “mushroom soy sauce” (brown label); these are two varieties of Thai soy sauce. The mushroom version is the one I prefer, though either will work in your recipes just fine.
For a deeper dive, see Types of Soy Sauces Explained.
SUBSTITUTIONS: If you cannot find Thai soy sauce, you can use your favourite Japanese soy sauce. A 1:1 substitution will still result in a tasty dish.
GOLDEN MOUNTAIN SAUCE (Thai Seasoning Sauce) | SAUCE PROONG ROHT | ซอสปรุงรส
Yes, these are all seasoning sauces technically, but there is a specific type of sauce that we literally call “seasoning sauce.” I commonly refer to this as Golden Mountain Sauce because it is the most common brand available outside of Thailand.
It is actually a type of soy sauce, but with a different character; it is a bit richer and darker than Thai soy sauce and has a very similar flavour to Maggi Seasoning. We usually use Golden Mountain in combination with soy sauce in order to create a more complex flavour than soy sauce alone. We also love to drizzle it on eggs!
SUBSTITUTIONS: This is not an essential ingredient to stock, and wherever it is called for you can use an equal amount of soy sauce instead. However, if you have Maggi Seasoning or Bragg Liquid Aminos, they do taste quite similar, and these will be your best option.
BLACK SOY SAUCE | SEE EW DUM | ซีอิ๊วดำ
Black soy sauce is a nice-to-have ingredient but not essential because it’s not usually integral to the dish. Think soy sauce mixed with molasses - it’s thick, mildly salty, a little sweet, and very dark. It’s used mainly to add a dark brown color and a touch of richer flavor. Whenever you see a Thai dish with a very dark color, such as some dark soup broths or stir-fries, it’s probably see ew dum in action.
Black soy sauce brands vary significantly in terms of how dark they are, so in my recipes I always give a range and you should always start with the smaller amount. Healthy Boy brand and Dragonfly brand (my preference) are two popular Thai black soy sauces, but Healthy Boy is much darker and less is required for the same colour.
For a deeper dive, see Types of Soy Sauces Explained.
SUBSTITUTIONS: You can substitute Chinese dark soy sauce, which will give you the dark color, but it tends to be saltier; so if using more than ½ teaspoon or so in the recipe, you might want to cut back on other salty stuff you’re adding.
FERMENTED SOYBEAN PASTE | TAO JIEW | เต้าเจี้ยว
Tao jiew is what I call the Thai version of miso, but with a pourable consistency and the whole soybeans are still visible. It’s very salty, with an edge of acidity, and its aroma is slightly different from that of Japanese miso. It’s not used often, but when it is, it is important to the character of that dish. Healthy Boy soybean paste is the most popular brand of tao jiew outside Thailand.
SUBSTITUTIONS: You can substitute Japanese miso or Korean doenjang in roughly equal amounts, then thin it out with a bit of water to achieve a similar consistency. Be prepared to taste and adjust for saltiness.
FERMENTED SHRIMP PASTE | GAPI | กะปิ
This salty, purplish-gray paste made from fermented small shrimp (or sometimes krill) is the epitome of "funky" and is used all over Southeast Asia. It’s one of those things that tastes better than it smells. It has lovers and haters. I am a proud lover of shrimp paste.
You may have eaten shrimp paste without knowing it, because most Thai curry pastes contain it in small amounts. You can buy Thai shrimp paste in a plastic tub, or the Malaysian type in a plastic-wrapped brick called belacan.
SUBSTITUTIONS: Where shrimp paste is used in small amounts, such as in curry pastes, you can omit it and add extra fish sauce instead. If omitting because you are vegan, substitute an equal amount of miso paste.
Note: Do not confuse this with a product called "shrimp paste in soybean oil" which is an orange paste in a glass jar. That is made from shrimp tomalley cooked with herbs and seasonings. It’s delicious added to fried rice and stir-fries, but it is not fermented and cannot be used as a substitute for gapi.
Sour is an extremely important component in Thai cuisine. Every cuisine uses acids in their cooking in some manner, but I can't think of any other cuisine that uses it to the extent that we do. Here are two main acidic ingredients of Thai cuisine.
LIMES | MANAO | มะนาว
Limes are used when we want a bright, fresh-tasting acidity, such as in salads. Freshly squeezed lime juice has the best flavor, though I have found that crystallized lime powder (True Lime brand) is a great substitute in a pinch.
Do not use bottled, shelf-stable lime juice, especially in Thai salads where it is a main dressing ingredient, as it can be slightly bitter and doesn’t have as much of the lovely citrus flavor. Choose limes that have smooth, shiny skins, which indicate a juicy lime.
TAMARIND PASTE | NAM MAKAAM PIAK | น้ำมะขามเปียก
Compared to lime, tamarind has a richer, sweeter flavour, is less sour and is usually used in hot cooked dishes. I have a detailed post all about tamarind that you can read if you're interested about what the fruit is and how we use it in Thailand.
The tamarind that we use in Thai cooking, what I call "tamarind paste," is the pulp mixed with water until it has a pourable consistency. I do prefer making tamarind paste myself from pulp, and here's a tutorial for how to make your own tamarind paste and it is pretty easy. But you can buy prepared Thai tamarind paste in plastic tubs or glass jars, often labeled “tamarind concentrate”.
Note: ALWAYS use tamarind from Thailand when you are making Thai recipes. Do not get Indian tamarind products for my recipes as it is a very different, and much more potent product. It is extremely thick, sticky, and much more sour than what we use in Thailand.
SUBSTITUTIONS: It really depends on what you're using it in. If it's added in small quantities just as an acid to brighten up the flavour of a dish, you can substitute lime or lemon juice. But if it is the main flavour of the dish, such as in pad thai or tamarind shrimp, there really is no good substitute for it that won't change the flavour significantly.
Sweetness is an important part of Thai cuisine because it is used to balance the salty, acidic, and spicy elements of our dishes. Many Thai restaurants overseas overly sweeten their foods in the attempt to please the Western palate, so don't use that as a guide. Your Thai food should never be cloyingly sweet!
PALM SUGAR | NAM TAAN PEEP | น้ำตาลปี๊ป
Palm sugar is the traditional Thai sweetener, used before granulated sugar became available. To be clear, nowadays we use good old white granulated sugar A LOT in Thai cuisine. So don't feel like you always need to use palm sugar, especially in recipes where it is used in small amounts. But there are times when the flavour of palm sugar is important to the dish.
"Palm sugar" is made by reducing and caramelizing the nectar from the flowers of either the coconut palm or the toddy palm. It has a gorgeous butterscotch flavor that is tasty enough to be candy.
"Coconut sugar" that's often sold in granulated form is technically made of the same stuff, but it can taste different due to different processing. To be safe, stick with Thai brands of palm sugar.
For a palm sugar deep dive, see my ultimate guide to palm sugar.
If your palm sugar comes in a solid puck, shave it with a large chef's knife, then finely chop the shavings.
If your palm sugar comes in a tub you can spoon it out if it's soft enough. If it has hardened, heat it up in the microwave briefly to soften, and then spoon it out while still warm.
Measuring palm sugar for my recipes: My recipes are tested using solid pucks of palm sugar that have been finely chopped and then tightly packed into measuring spoons. One tablespoon of finely chopped, packed palm sugar weighs about 12 g, so weighing would be the easier thing to do. If using soft palm sugar, use the weight measurement as it tends to pack a measuring spoon more fully than chopped palm sugar.
Note: All palm sugar sold outside Thailand is mixed with granulated sugar, so the key is to find one that has the least amount of granulated sugar added because it'll have the most flavour. The only way to know is to taste, unfortunately, the labels will usually claim it is 100% palm sugar (100% not true) or it won't indicate the ratio.
Herbs & Spices
Here's a list of some of our core herbs and spices, some of which you may not be familiar with. There are obviously more than I'm showing here, but these are the most important and most commonly used ones.
GALANGAL | KHA | ข่า
The key ingredient of the iconic soup tom kha gai, galangal is a firm rhizome whose aroma is very much like that of a lush pine forest. It’s cooling, calming, and refreshing. Although it looks like ginger, and many people will say that you can use ginger as a substitute, I insist that you don’t do this. Not if you expect it to have a similar flavor, anyway!
There are two common uses of galangal: pounded into curry pastes, and sliced into rounds for infusing into soups such as tom yum soup. While not done as often, it can also be finely chopped and added to salads or stir fries.
Galangal freezes very well. Slice it into thin rounds and freeze in a single layer on a tray lined with plastic wrap before storing in a freezer bag.
For a deeper dive see my ultimate guide to galangal.
SUBSTITUTIONS: If you can't find fresh galangal, try looking first for frozen which will work just as well. Your second choice would be dried pieces of galangal which can work in soups, but not ideal if you're trying to grind it into a curry paste as it's very tough. I don't suggest using powdered galangal.
LEMONGRASS | TAKRAI | ตะไคร้
Lemongrass has a citrusy aroma but without the sour taste. It’s as core to Thai cuisine as garlic is to Italian cuisine. Lemongrass can be bruised and infused into soups, like a cinnamon stick might be, or finely chopped and added to salads, dips, or stir-fries. It’s also a key ingredient in many curry pastes.
I use only the bottom half of lemongrass because the flavor gets weaker at the top. I freeze the tops for making stock, but you can also make lemongrass tea. If making soup such as tom yum soup or tom kha gai where the lemongrass is added to infuse and is then discarded, there is no harm in also adding the tops - it’ll just be more pieces to fish out later.
Lemongrass freezes well. I cut it into 2- to 3-inch long pieces before freezing for ease of use.
For a deeper dive see my ultimate guide to lemongrass.
SUBSTITUTIONS: If you can't find fresh lemongrass, try looking first for frozen. Your second choice would be dried pieces of lemongrass which can work in soups, but not ideal if you're trying to grind it into a curry paste as they're very tough. I don't suggest using powdered lemongrass.
MAKRUT LIME LEAVES | BAI MAGROOD | ใบมะกรูด
Previously called kaffir lime leaves, these thick, sturdy leaves smell like the grassier sister of lime zest. It’s all aroma, though, as makrut lime leaves don’t impart any of the sour taste you might expect from something with such a citrusy fragrance.
Makrut lime leaves are extremely versatile. They can be roughly torn and infused into soups and broths, or finely julienned and added to just about anything you can imagine. Make sure those juliennes are really fine though, as these leaves are tough, and too-big juliennes can leave you feeling like you’ve got a piece of hay stuck in your teeth.
We do not generally use the juice of makrut limes, of which there isn’t much anyway, though the zest is often used in curry pastes. Look for frozen leaves if you can’t find fresh; if not available, look for dried.
Makrut lime leaves freeze like a dream. Simply put them into a freezer bag and press as much air out as possible.
For a deeper dive, see my ultimate guide to makrut lime leaves.
SUBSTITUTIONS: If you can't find fresh makrut lime leaves, try looking first for frozen which will work just as well. Your second choice would be dried whole leaves which can work in soups and curries where it'll have a chance to rehydrate in the dish.
THAI BASIL | HORAPA | โหระพา
Fragrant and floral, Thai basil adds so much complexity to stir-fries and curries. It is quite widely available these days in Asian markets; and if not, it is also quite easy to grow in N. America in the summertime.
SUBSTITUTIONS: You can use Italian basil instead.
HOLY BASIL | GAPRAO | กะเพรา
Holy basil is technically pronounced ga-prao, but it is very commonly mispronounced by Thai people, so you often see it written in various ways with the R in the first syllable: gra pao, kra pao, or krapow.
A little more peppery than the sweet scent of Thai basil, holy basil goes well with dishes that are intensely spicy and is the star of the popular pad kra pao. It is very difficult to find outside of Thailand, even for me, and I no longer have convenient access to it. So don't be surprised if it's not available to you.
It is also notoriously difficult to grow in N. America because it requires hot temperatures to thrive, and few places have such a climate both day AND night, for a long enough time.
SUBSTITUTIONS: Most Thai restaurants use Thai basil instead, but I find that Italian basil better approximates the flavour of holy basil and is my substitute of choice.
FRESH CHILIES | PRIK | พริก
To add spiciness in our dishes, we most often use small and super-spicy bird’s eye chilies, or prik kee noo. In North America, you can find these sold as “Thai chilies,” and they can be found red (ripe) or green (underripe).
We also use larger, milder chilies to add color and chili flavor without heat, and for this we turn to spur chilies, or prik chee fa. These are not easy to find, but you can substitute any other mild red pepper you can find; even red bell pepper will do in a pinch.
All chilies can be frozen and they'll last basically forever. Use them without thawing or they will turn mushy and become harder to chop.
SUBSTITUTIONS: You can use any kind of hot peppers that are available to you to replace the heat of Thai chilies. If large, mild fresh chilies are called for, you can also use any type that's available to you; worst case, red bell pepper will be fine.
DRIED CHILIES | PRIK HAENG | พริกแห้ง
We use two major types of dried chilies: small (spicy) and large (mild). Don’t get too hung up on which specific varieties you need, because fortunately most dried chilies have a similar-enough flavor that they can be substituted for one another in Thai recipes, but you do want to be aware of the heat levels, which vary greatly.
Spicy, small dried chilies are used to add heat to curry pastes, and we also roast and grind them up into chili flakes, which can be added to just about anything. In Thailand we use dried bird's eye chilies. In the West, the generic no-name dried chilies you can usually find at Chinese grocery stores, as well as Mexican chiles de árbol, are great for this purpose, and they are not too hot.
Large, mild dried chilies are most often used in curry paste because we want to maximize the bright red color and chili flavor without making the curry too spicy. The Thai variety, prik chee fa, is essentially impossible to source, but dried guajillo or puya peppers are perfect substitutes. You can find them anywhere Latin American groceries are sold. You can also use Korean gochugaru pepper flakes instead.
PANDAN LEAF | BAI TOEY | ใบเตย
This aromatic, long, blade-shaped leaf is the star of Thai desserts because its floral aroma pairs fantastically with coconut. Most commonly, we simmer the leaf in liquid to infuse its fragrance, though it can be blended with water and strained when its natural green color is also desired.
In stores, they can sometimes be labelled as screwpine leaves or lá dứa in Vietnamese.
SUBSTITUTIONS: Fresh pandan leaves are harder to find, though frozen ones are perfectly fine to use. In fact, if I buy them fresh, I end up freezing them anyway. Pandan extract, though not ideal, can be used instead - but be sure to add a little at a time as it can be intense and easy to overdo.
COCONUT MILK | GATI | กะทิ
Coconut milk is our only source of creaminess because we do not traditionally use dairy in Thai cooking. And when it comes to Thai dessert, coconut milk is as essential to us as butter is to Western pastries.
Coconut milk quality varies a great deal and it's important that you know how to choose a good one. In my ultimate guide to coconut milk I talk about how to choose a good one out of all the brands that line store shelves, and I highly recommend you check that out. But in short, my recommended brand is Aroy-D in the UHT paper carton. But Chaokoh in the paper carton is good too.
Want to know how coconut milk is made? Watch my short documentary! How Coconut Milk is Made: From Farm to Cans.
COOKING OIL | NAM MUN | น้ำมัน
You can use any neutral-flavored, high-heat-resistant oil for Thai cooking. I personally use avocado oil because it is a healthier option, but because that’s pricey, I use canola when I deep-fry.
You may think we use coconut oil a lot in Thai cuisine, but we actually mostly use coconut milk and rarely the oil. If you want to use coconut oil, choose refined coconut oil, which does not have the coconut flavor. Using virgin coconut oil will make everything taste like coconut!
CURRY PASTES | PRIK GAENG | พริกแกง
If you want to make your own curry pastes and keep them in the freezer, great! I have recipes for just about everything: green curry paste, red curry paste, yellow curry paste, you name it. But I want to assure you that there is no shame in buying prepared pastes, as most Thai people do not make their own because it is time consuming.
I kind of draw the analogy that it's like making your own bread. Most people who make bread do so because they enjoy the process, not because it's the only way to get good bread.
BUT, curry paste quality varies A LOT and it's important to know how to identify a good one. So before buy your next one, please see my curry paste review of all the options that are commonly available, including the pros and cons of each. The review in this case is for red curry paste, but in my experience the results apply to other types of curry pastes as well.
In short though, you want to choose one that is made in Thailand and doesn't have a lot of additives; it should only contain herbs, spices, and basic seasonings like salt and shrimp paste.
My go-to brand is Maeploy, but it may or may not be the right choice for you depending on your heat tolerance and other things; so again, my review above will be very helpful for choosing the best one for you.
THAI CHILI PASTE | NAM PRIK PAO | น้ำพริกเผา
Thai chili paste, also called Thai chili jam, is not used that often, but when it is, it is a key flavour that makes all the difference and can't really be replaced with anything else.
It's a sweet, umami, and mildly spicy paste made primarily from dried chilies, dried shrimp, shallots, and garlic. You will recognize its flavours in famous dishes such as tom yum goong and cashew chicken.
At Asian grocery stores it is labeled either as "chili paste with soya bean oil" or "Thai chili paste" or "roasted red chili paste," depending on the brand. If you can't find it, you can make it yourself and it's not that hard! Here's my Thai chili paste recipe.
SUBSTITUTION: As I mentioned, you can't really substitute it with anything because it has such a unique flavour. So your only option here is to make it yourself, or here are a couple of listings on Amazon: Mae Pranom Brand and Thai Kitchen Brand.
DRIED SHRIMP | GOONG HANG | กุ้งแห้ง
Basically, goong hang are shrimp jerky. Little shrimp are salted and dried in the sun, and in that process they develop a robust, savory flavor. You can buy these in the refrigerated section at Asian grocery stores. I stick with medium-sized ones, which are most versatile. Freeze them and they will last indefinitely.
GLASS NOODLES | WOONSEN | วุ้นเส้น
These clear, thin noodles are also called bean threads or bean vermicelli because they are made from mung bean starch. My grandma always has glass noodles in the pantry, as everyone loves them, they’re quick to cook, and they’re extremely versatile.
They’re delicious in salads, soups, stir-fries, are very important in spring rolls, and they’re a staple for hot pots. They are also often used to bulk up meat-based fillings and stuffing such as in these glass noodle meatballs! I've even made fresh glass noodles using mung bean starch at home!
Look for glass noodles that are made from 100% mung bean starch, such as Pine Brand, with no other starches mixed in because they have the best texture.
SUBSTITUTIONS: There are no other noodles that have quite the same texture, but if you are subbing another type of noodles in a glass noodle recipe, you HAVE to change the cooking method to suit the noodles you are using. The methods for cooking glass noodles will not apply. Some people use Korean glass noodles (made from sweet potato starch) instead, which works fine in stir fry recipes, but they are much chewier than the Thai glass noodles.
RICE NOODLES | SEN GUAY TIEW | เส้นก๋วยเตี๋ยว
If you're not experienced with rice noodles, or if you find yourself often having trouble cooking them well, I highly recommend watching my video on How to Cook Rice Noodles Properly.
Dry rice noodles are a great thing to keep in your pantry because they are versatile and last seemingly forever. Choose brands from Thailand if possible, as Vietnamese ones can sometimes have tapioca starch mixed in and will have a slightly different texture.
They come in many sizes and shapes, but the thin ones are the most convenient for weeknight cooking because they don’t take long to soak and cook.
The 12 Ingredients You Really Need for Thai Cooking
The list of ingredients above may seem like a lot, but you don't need to stock everything here to be able to cook Thai food regularly! Below is a list of what I consider the core Thai ingredients that will allow you to make many of your favourite dishes.
- Fish sauce
- Soy sauce
- Oyster sauce
- Coconut milk
- Curry paste, whichever is your favourite. But I recommend stocking red curry paste at minimum because it is the most versatile and can be turned into other pastes easily, such as massaman and panang curry. Once open, keep it in the freezer.
- Palm sugar or light brown sugar
- Tamarind paste, store bought or homemade
- Jasmine rice