At the heart of Thai cuisine is a wide range of spices. Thai food leverages the complex flavor of spices such as galangal, cumin, turmeric, shallots, kaffir lime leaves, and Thai chilies. The most commonly used is the highly versatile lemongrass.
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What are the 15 thai food spices?
When you eat Thai dishes, your palate will welcome a burst of flavor courtesy of the various seasonings incorporated into their cooking. Here are 15 of the most commonly used Thai spices that make Thai cuisine one of the most popular Asian cuisines across the globe.
- Cilantro or coriander
- Cumin seeds
- Green and red chili
- Green peppercorns
- Kaffir lime leaves
- Star anise
- Thai basil
|Cardamom||Has a complex flavor of mint, lemon, and camphor|
|Cilantro or coriander||Has a flavor reminiscent of lemon|
|Cloves||Has a subtly sweet and spicy flavor|
|Cumin seeds||Nutty and sweet|
|Galangal||Tastes like ginger but spicier|
|Garlic||Slightly pungent, amplifies the flavor of stir-fries|
|Green and red chili||Add a pleasant spicy kick to many Thai curry dishes|
|Green peppercorns||Have a mild peppery flavor|
|Kaffir lime leaves||Citrusy and peppery flavor|
|Lemongrass||Has a citrus flavor with mint and ginger undertones|
|Shallots||Have a similar flavor profile to onion|
|Star anise||Has a sweet and spicy flavor with notes of licorice|
|Tamarind||Has a distinguished sweet and sour taste|
|Thai basil||Thai basil has a spicy flavor with licorice-like undertones|
|Turmeric||A colorful aromatic spice|
Thai cardamom is a close relative of Indian or green cardamom. Its complex flavor features a medley of mint, lemon, and camphor (though it’s less camphoraceous than its Indian counterpart). This ingredient is one of the main components of south Thailand’s massaman curry.
2. Cilantro or coriander
Cilantro or coriander leaves have a flavor reminiscent of lemon. It adds intense and fresh tartness, which works well as a garnish to Thai side dishes. You can also grind coriander seeds with a mortar and pestle and use it to make curry paste. These seeds also have warm, nutty, and spicy flavors.
Cloves give recipes an intense aroma, incorporating warmth and a subtly sweet and spicy flavor. You can use it whole or ground. While common in sweet recipes, they’re a star ingredient in meat dishes such as Massaman curry in Thailand.
4. Cumin seeds
Cumin is one of the most used Thai spices. Its nutty and sweet taste makes curries and pastes (such as vegetarian red and green curry paste) more gastronomically appealing.
Also referred to as Siamese or Thai ginger, galangal tastes like ginger but spicier. In terms of appearance, it resembles turmeric (another popular Thai spice). It’s one of the most used condiments for meat dishes, such as tom yum gai (sour chicken soup) and tom kha gai (galangal chicken).
Garlic is essential to many Asian cuisines. In Thailand, cooks chop garlic bulbs into small pieces and use them to amplify the flavor of stir-fries. Garlic is also a key ingredient of the Thai dishes garlic pepper chicken and garlic pepper pork.
7. Green and red chili
Thai chili can be used as fresh or dried chilies. Thai people use these chili peppers to add a pleasant spicy kick to many Thai curry dishes, such as Panang curry, red curry, and green curry. Together with shrimp paste and lime juice, these chilies are an ingredient in Thai chili dipping sauces called Thai nam prik.
8. Green peppercorns
Also called Prik thai on, these peppercorns are essentially unripe black peppercorns. They boast a mild peppery flavor and are fresh-tasting. You can use them in spicy stir fries and meat-based curries.
9. Kaffir lime leaves
Kaffir or Makrut lime leaves are a herb used to make green curry paste. However, their citrusy and peppery flavor is also great if you want to add depth to soups and stir-fries. Thai people also use these leaves to make iced tea.
One of the most versatile Thai herbs, lemongrass has a citrus flavor with mint and ginger undertones. It’s a key ingredient in Thai lemongrass chicken, Thai lemongrass curry, and tom yum.
Shallots or Thai red onions are as ubiquitous as garlic in many Asian cuisines. While they have a similar flavor profile to onion, they become sweet and mild to taste once cooked thoroughly. You can use it for cooking Thai curries, but you can also consume it as crispy fried shallots.
12. Star anise
Also named Chinese star anise, it has a sweet and spicy flavor with notes of licorice. In Asian cooking, people use it as a spicy rub and marinade. In Thailand, locals use it to elevate the flavor of kao ka moo or braised pork leg and the base soup for many Thai noodle recipes.
Together with India, Thailand is the top producer of tamarind globally. It has a distinguished sweet and sour taste and is a crucial ingredient in Pad Thai (noodle stir fry with a sauce). It’s also used to make fish sauce, best paired with crispy Thai fish.
14. Thai basil
There are various kinds of basil in the culinary world. The Italian sweet basil has a mild peppery and sweet taste, while Holy basil has a flavor close to clove. On the other hand, Thai basil has a spicy flavor with licorice-like undertones. The most known recipe that uses it is Thai basil chicken or pad krapow gai.
Turmeric is present in curry powder and other spice mixes. It’s a colorful aromatic spice used in many Thai dishes, such as turmeric chicken soup and yellow curry.
You can make a Thai seasoning when you combine it with other spices (e.g., paprika, black pepper, ground coriander, ginger, cumin, cayenne powder, and fenugreek). Then you can use it in roasted vegetables, rubs, and marinades.
What is the main spice in Thai food?
The most common spice used in Thai recipes is lemongrass. People most notably associate it with Thai lemongrass chicken and green curry.
Apart from its culinary uses, lemongrass is known for having many health benefits. It has antioxidant properties and anti-inflammatory effects and can reduce high levels of bad cholesterol. Its extract is also a popular bug-repellant.
The flavor profile of lemongrass
Thai people enjoy the mild citrus flavor of lemongrass. It also delivers a hint of ginger and mint, while its aroma is reminiscent of lemon and lime. It has a sweet-smelling scent that adds appeal to the culinary pieces they’re a part of.
Interesting thai recipes where you can use lemongrass
Lemongrass is a fixture in any Thai kitchen. Besides lemongrass chicken and green curry, you can use lemongrass in Thai cooking as whole stalks. Bundle it up and use it when making the broth for tom yum soup, then remove it before serving.
You can also chop it into thin slices and use it to elevate the flavor of salads and other soups (for example, yum takrai or spicy lemongrass salad, yum gai or chicken and lemongrass salad, and Thai coconut milk soup). It’s also used to make herbal tea and coconut soup.
popular Thai recipes to try
Here are the best Thai recipes to try at home: