Each culinary culture has its own familiar staple flavors: pimiento cheese and deviled eggs in parts of the American South, or fried clams and doughnuts in New England. Here are six classic Thai ingredients our writer thinks you should always have on hand.
My fixation began when I was making the famous wings from Pok Pok, the bi-coastal Thai restaurants where chef Andy Ricker picked up cook Ike Truong’s Vietnamese fish sauce chicken wing recipe—and built a mini-empire around their tastiness. Sticky, crispy, and aromatic of salt, herbs, and the sea, the wings are fabulous—and fabulously easy. You simply make a quick stovetop caramel of fish sauce and sugar for the fried wings, tossing fried garlic and cilantro into the mix at the last minute. I’ve made these for years, and love the flavors together.
Then that combo popped up again, as I was cooking Melissa Clark’s excellent “Thai-inspired,” coconut milk-based red curry with tofu. Fish sauce plus garlic, with sautéed cilantro stems serving as the base, plus fresh cilantro and chiles for heat. It was so familiar.
Finally, I cooked David Chang’s wonderful roasted Brussels sprouts a couple of weeks ago, and the sauce it employed was so addictive that I had to cook some rice to pour it over. There they were again: fish sauce, sugar, garlic, chiles, lime, and cilantro. Together, they made a fish sauce vinaigrette so tasty that I’d happily use it on salad, fish, probably even chicken or pork.
Palm sugar (sometimes called jaggery), fish sauce, lime juice, Thai chiles, cilantro, and garlic—I was seeing them over and over in various combinations. The cilantro stems are often sauteed as the base of a dish, sometimes along with garlic or chiles, producing an herbaceous, hot base to build upon. The palm sugar (which in the Western kitchen is often simply white sugar) is dissolved in the fish sauce, creating a balanced, sweet-salty element to add an umami boom to the dish. Lime juice tends to be added at the end of cooking for brightness and acid, and cilantro leaves are used as a fresh finishing touch.
I’m a New Englander who’s been lucky enough to visit Singapore and Indonesia, but have never visited Thailand or Vietnam, so I reached out to Chat Suansilphong, who is co-chef of Manhattan restaurant Fish Cheeks along with his brother, Ohm. The Thai natives have been cooking their homeland’s cuisine since they were children working in their father’s restaurant in northern Thailand.
The iconic trio of Thai ingredients, Suansilphong tells me, are actually cilantro root, garlic, and white peppercorn. “It goes in everything,” he said. “We call it ‘three brothers’ or ‘three sisters.’” And cilantro root, mind you, is not identical to cilantro stems; those come up often in recipes here, but are the Western cook’s approximation of the root. “Cilantro root is different, and more aromatic,” said Suansilphong. He visits a farmer who will sell the restaurant the entire gnarly root. (As this is probably not viable for you, you can use cilantro stems.)
Palm sugar (sometimes called jaggery), fish sauce, cilantro, lime juice, Thai chiles, and garlic “are things we use a lot,” he says, so he wasn’t surprised to see the combo popping up in the various Asian dishes I was cooking. (Those wings, he suggested, were more Vietnamese—but that cuisine is very similar to Thai.) At Fish Cheeks, Suansilphong mixes bird’s eye chiles with cilantro root, fish sauce, and palm sugar, making a flavor-packed sauce to pour over whole bluefish or branzino that he has steamed with lemongrass and fish sauce. Finally, he garnishes the dish with mint—another Thai power player—cilantro, more garlic and more Thai chiles.
I’ll admit to being a fan of the trendy Red Boat fish sauce, which is pungent and salty as all get out, but there are plenty of good ones on the market these days. Here are the three starter recipes that got me hooked on these classic East Asian flavors, plus a tasty-sounding halibut recipe I’ve yet to try. Once you start combining these ingredients, I have a feeling you’ll find an excuse to put them on all sorts of things. Please report back!
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.