10 Essential Ingredients of Thai Cooking with Saba’s Executive Chef Taweesak ‘Tao’
With the Thai New Year approaching on the 13th – 15th of April this year, I would like to give you an insight 10 essential ingredients of Thai cooking that every kitchen cupboard should have to cook delicious Thai food.
These are the same ingredients I explain to our students during our Saba Cookery Class, which we run twice a month in Saba on Clarendon Street.
The day starts with a typical a Thai breakfast called congee, that I make with the students in the kitchen. This is followed by cooking demos with everyone getting involved and helping out.
After the demos and answering questions on what products and ingredients I use, we take a trip to the Asia Market. This is where I show my class the range of products and I show them my favourite ten ingredients for great Thai food. Then, it’s back to Saba where they get to enjoy a sumptuous three course late lunch and a glass of wine.
A key ingredient in Thai cooking, it has a very distinct salty flavour and is coeliac friendly. It is made from mainly small saltwater fish including anchovy and is fermented for a minimum of 12 months. The strength can vary from brand to brand, so use sparingly and to taste. It has a pungent smell which fades greatly when added to other ingredients. Chopped chillies in fish sauce (Prik Nam Pla) is a widely used condiment to add a salty and spicy taste to prepared dishes. When choosing a bottle, the sauce should be clear but the colour will darken after opening. In Saba we only use ‘Squid brand’ fish sauce as its quality is excellent.
Made from soybeans and available in two varieties – dark/ black (used for adding colour to dishes) and light/ white. Neither are suitable for coeliacs but fish sauce can be substituted in stir-fry dishes. Soy sauce should be added to dishes during cooking at the same time as oyster sauce in a 2:1 ratio (2 parts soy to one part oyster). We only use ‘Healthy Boy brand’ in Saba. It is the most famous brand and widely used soy sauce in Thailand. I love the superior quality from Healthy Boy, which has been on the market since 1947.
Many different varieties of chilli are used in Thai cooking. The general rule is that the smaller the chilli, the hotter it is.
Bird’s eye chilli: The smallest and hottest chilli available in the West. They are used to make curry pastes. The green ones are unripe, have a sharper flavour and are hotter than the reds ones.
Long chillies or regular chilies: These are approximately 6-10cm in length and come in different colours, but the red and green are most common. These are not as hot as the smaller varieties but can still pack a punch. The red ones usually have more flavour and are hotter the green chillies.
Thai cuisine is rich in chilies and I might even go as far as to say Thai cuisine is the spiciest in the world. On top of being highly anti-inflammatory, spicy chili peppers are thought to possess antibacterial and infection-fighting abilities.
To make coconut milk, coconut flesh is blended with water, the quantity dictates the fat content of the finished product. This is then strained by pushing it through a cloth and the result is coconut milk. Once it settles, a thick creamy layer will form on the top which is coconut cream. We like to use coconut milk which has a fat content of 17% or 19% for soups. We use the richer cream with fat content of 21% for curries for a thicker creamier consistency and flavour. Coconut milk is one of the most delicious, nutritious ingredients in Thai food. The benefits of coconut milk are similar to those of coconut oil, and include lowering bad cholesterol and promoting good, giving the immune system a boost, aiding weight loss, and supporting skin and hair health.
Lemongrass is one of the most popular herbs used in Thailand. It is a tall and scallion-like stalk that has a refined citrus lemon flavour and fragrance. Before using lemongrass, peel away the tough outer layers and crush or chop the stalk to release the flavour. We import our fresh lemongrass from Thailand on a weekly basis as it has softer flesh and more flavour than some of the glass house grown varieties.
Galangal is the cousin of ginger and has a mild, peppery flavour. Galangal is larger and the skin is thinner, paler and tinged with pink. Ginger is warming while galangal is cooling. It has many health benefits and has been used in Asian cooking and medicine for centuries. Studies have revealed that this herb may be able to aid in digestion, alleviate stomach and intestinal pain, fight inflammation, and improve circulation.
Unlike the smooth surface of a regular lime, the kaffir lime has a bumpy, knobbly surface. The fruit itself has very little juice. It is bitter and not very widely used in Thai cooking, but the zest is often used in curry pastes and sauces and the leaves add a great citrus taste to many curries and salads.
Holy basil and Thai basil are the most commonly used varieties in Thai cooking. Regular basil cannot be used as a substitute as the taste is quite different.
Holy Basil: There are two types of holy basil, red and white. At Saba and Saba To Go, we use white holy basil with its oval shaped leaves and purple tinge. It has a sharp, hot taste and an aroma similar to cloves. Holy basil is widely used in spicy stir-fries and spicy soups.
Thai (sweet) Basil: This has a distinct aniseed aroma and liquorice flavour and is used to sweeten mild stir-fry dishes, salads and red, green and panang curries and as a garnish to Pho Bó.
Thai Pea Aubergine:
Pea-sized aubergines grow in clusters, have a tough skin and bitter taste and are a great source of vitamin C. They are added to curries and their flavour provides a stark contrast to the richness of the curry.
Thai Round Aubergine:
These round aubergines are usually green in colour and about the size of a lime. They have a nutty, sweet flavour and quartered when, added to curries or are eaten fresh with relish.
As with most traditional Thai ingredients, pea and round aubergines have many health benefits. They contain vitamins A, B1, B2 and B3, as well as calcium and iron.
There are many varieties of rice in Thailand. There are three colours – white, red and black with lots of different and unique characteristics. Each area of Thailand favours a different rice variety. From central Thailand to the south people generally use white rice but the north and north-east people use sticky rice in their regular diet. These are two distinct age categories for rice – new and old.
Not over 3 months old. It contains a lot of moisture so it required a small amount of water when cooking.
Stored for over one year. It has very low moisture levels so it requires a higher volume of water when cooking.
Should be soaked in water for at least 3 hours before cooking in the linen lined bamboo basket for 30 minutes.
New Jasmine Rice: This clean, white rice has a sweet, fragrant smell and a soft texture. To cook: 1 cup of rice to a half a cup of water, cooking time 25 minutes approximately.
Long Grain Rice: Clean, white rice with a mild aroma and firm texture. To cook: 1 cup of rice to 2 cups of water, cooking time 25 minutes approximately.
All the ingredients mentioned by chef Tao are available in Asia Market, Dublin; one of the largest importer, retailer, wholesaler and distributor of Asian food products in Ireland.
They supply to the majority of Asian restaurants, shops and take-away’s in Ireland and also to customers in their city centre shop.
More information asiamarket.ie
Born, raised and trained in Bangkok, Taweesak (Tao) Trakoolwattana has cooked great Thai cuisine all over the world before joining the SABA team in 2006.
Tao qualified as a chef in 1987 and started training in five star hotels in Phuket and Bangkok. After going to Germany in 1994, he realised that Thai food was very popular outside of Thailand.
He arrived to Ireland in 2002, when he met Paul. When Paul came to Bangkok in 2006 and told him about his plan, he was immediately excited and returned to Dublin with four chefs to run SABA’s kitchens. Nowadays he’s SABA’s Executive Chef.