Sauces & Pastes
Fish SauceNaam Bplaa
About: Fish sauce is made from anchovies (or any small fish), water, and salt and left to ferment for up to a year. Fish sauce is one of the oldest ingredients in the world. I’ve read that soy sauce was invented as a way to create a cheaper alternative to fish sauce thousands of years ago in China. Fish sauce is essential to Thai food.
Brands: ‘Squid Brand’ (pictured) and ‘Oyster Brand’ are recommended. Tipparos brand is not recommended. Make sure you buy a Thai brand as other (mostly Vietnamese) brands taste very different. Fish sauce brands vary greatly in quality and fishiness.
Note: If you are vegetarian, you can usually get away with substituting fish sauce for either sea salt or white soy sauce, depending on the recipe.
White Soy SauceSee-yew Khaaw
About: White soy sauce is also called ‘thin soy sauce’ or ‘light soy sauce’. Don’t confuse this with ‘low sodium’ or a healthier version of light. What they mean is it’s somewhat translucent, or not as thick as black soy sauce.
Brands: My favorite brands of white soy sauce are ‘Healthy Boy’ (pictured on the left – look for the bright yellow label) and ‘Boat Brand’ (pictured on the right – look for the light blue label.) Boat Brand is actually called Nguan Chiang. The brand with the dragonfly on the label is also tasty.
Note: Don’t use Chinese or Japanese soy sauce when you cook Thai food. The flavor is totally different. Soy Sauce goes bad fast. If you’ve had an opened bottle in the cupboard for months, ditch it and get a new one.
Black Soy SauceSee-yew Dam
Black soy sauce is thick and black, and has a different flavor than white soy sauce. It’s mainly used in Chinese-Thai cooking, marinades, etc.
Sweet Soy SauceSee-yew Dam Wahn
Sweet soy sauce is a bit darker and thicker than black soy sauce. It’s sweet, with a hint of molasses.
Oyster SauceNaam Man Hoy
Oyster Sauce is used in a few Chinese-Thai dishes. There’s a rumor going around that it’s not actually made from oysters. Yes people, it’s made from real oysters, among other ingredients. Vegetarians will be happy to know that most Asian groceries carry a Veggie version. Usually it’s called ‘Mushroom Stir Fry Sauce’, ‘Mushroom Oyster Sauce’, ‘Vegetarian Oyster Sauce’ or the like. Do not confused this with ‘Mushroom Soy Sauce’, as that is just white soy sauce with mushroom flavoring. Store this in the fridge, as it goes bad.
Tamarind PasteNaam Ma-khaam
Tamarind is a very sour fruit which comes from a tall tree. The fruit is then squeezed with hot water, and the seeds removed to create this paste. You can usually buy this pre-made at a Thai/Asian grocery, but it’s better if you make it at home with fresh tamarind.
Coconut Milk & Cream are essentially the same thing. The cream is thick and will rise to the top, similar to un-homogenized milk. It also has more fat than the milk. Homemade coconut milk/cream has the best flavor. A good substitute is canned coconut milk from Thailand. Good brands are: Chao Koh (Island People) and Mae Ploy. If you buy canned it’s best not to shake the can like they suggest. Instead, open it and use the ‘head’ (cream) to fry the curry paste in. The coconut fat really brings out the flavor! There are bags of frozen coconut milk available in some Asian groceries. While the flavor is better than canned, it separates and gets chunky when you heat it. I’m not sure why freezing does this to coconut milk. I’ve experimented with freezing my own homemade fresh-pressed coconut milk, and the same thing happens. The flavor is OK, but the consistency is quite odd. So, I recommend canned. If you are lucky enough to find Chao Koh brand coconut milk in a paper carton, this is even better.
Storage: Fresh coconut milk goes bad very very fast, and should be used the same day as pressing. Canned also spoils quickly, and should be used within a few days of opening.
VinegarNaam Som Saay Choo
Thais use the regular clear white vinegar, not the yellowish vinegar made from rice. The regular vinegar which you can get from the grocery store works the same as the Thai brands, so no need to buy any special brand for this one. Vinegar keeps for a very long time in the cabinet, so this is an easy one to store.
Vegetable OilNaam Mun Poot
Vegetable oil is used in almost all Thai food which is cooked on the stove. Any oil will work, altho I recommend Rice Oil and Peanut Oil. Soy oil also works. Most Thais use Palm Oil. Make sure your oil is fresh, and hasn’t been sitting in the cupboard for a year. If it smells funny, ditch it and get a new one.
Chicken Dipping SauceNaam Jim Gai
Sweet and tangy. This sauce is used to dip fried chicken. It can also be used for a dipping sauce for fried spring rolls, or any fried ’street food’. Store opened bottles in the fridge.
Sri Racha SauceNaam Prik See Ra-chaa
Originally from Sri Racha, a town on the ocean near Bangkok, now known all over the world! Similar to ketchup, but with a kick! Excellent on Thai Omlettes! Store opened bottles in the fridge.
Salted Bean PasteDtao Jee-oh
This sauce is made from soy beans which are fermented with salt. In my opinion, dishes like ‘Raad Naa’, and ‘Pak Boong Fai Daeng‘ would not be tasty without salted bean paste. I like ‘Healthy Boy’ brand the best. Store opened bottles in the fridge.
Roasted Chili PasteNaam Prik Pow
Curry PasteKhruang Gaeng
Curry Paste comes in so many varieties. The most common is ‘Red Curry Paste’, which is pictured to the left. You can make your own, or you can buy pre-made at most Asian groceries. My favorite brand is ‘Mae Sri’. You can store curry paste in the freezer for months without losing any flavor, and since it has low moisture content, it doesn’t get rock solid.
Shrimp paste is a fairly common ingredient in Thai cooking. It’s made from dried small shrimp, left to ferment and solidify, and then cut into cubes or sold in jars. Shrimp paste is in almost all curry pastes, some naam prik, stir fries, and there’s even a rice dish which is cooked in it.
Storage: Shrimp paste is really pungent, and must be stored carefully — you don’t want your whole house smelling like it. I recommend double bagging it once opened or store it in a sealed jar. You can store un-refrigerated… it’s already rotten.
Knorr Buillon CubesKha-nore
Bullion/Soup stock cubes are essentially a fast trick to replace chicken or pork broth in a soup or curry. Knorr brand makes some which are available in Thailand as well as Asian food stores in the West which have flavor more suitable to Thai food. There are even ‘tom yum’ flavors! The ’shitake mushroom’ flavor works well for a vegetarian substitute for chicken or pork broth. These cubes are very flavorful, so only 1/4 or 1/2 cube is enough for a soup. They’re also very salty, so be careful.