Cooking with Herbs – Thai Cuisine

Thai IngredientsI recently attended festivities held by the local Thai community to celebrate their New Year.  While there we were spoilt with the most amazing choices of foods – fresh and cooked.  The freezer is now firmly stocked with many new favourites which we had not tried before but loved so much we had to buy in bulk.  The fresh and healthy taste of Thai food prompted me to write about the health giving properties of the herbs used in this popular cuisine.

Authentic Thai cookery relies on five essential tastes – sweet, sour, hot, salty and bitter.  The trick lies in getting the balance right so that no one taste overpowers the others.  Herbs are an important part in Thai cuisine and here are some of the most common flavours you may find.

Basil – Three different types of basil are used in Thai cooking. The most common is Bai Horapha (Sweet Basil), has a slight aniseed flavour. Others are Bai Kahrao (Holy Basil), often stir-fried with meat, which has a hotter flavour, and the slightly hairy Bai Maenglak (Hoary Basil), a milder form often sprinkled over soups and salads.  If Thai basil is not available, western sweet basil may be used but be prepared for the taste to be slightly different. Basil is a restorative, warming, aromatic, mildly sedative herb that lowers fever, relaxes spasms, improves digestion and is effective against internal parasites and bacteria. It is also used in skin ointments for stress-induced skin complaints.

Chilli – Several different types of chilli (phrik) are used in Thai cooking. As a general rule, the smaller the chilli, the hotter it is, The hottest of all are tiny red or green Phrik Khi Nu, followed by the slightly larger Phrik Chi Fa. Dried chillies (Phrik Haeng) and ground chilli powder (Phrik Pon) are also used. Medicinally, the bitter alkaloid capsaicin is responsible for the hot taste and modern science found this to be a great painkiller. Everyone who has ever eaten hot chillies will be able to attest to the sweat inducing properties which combined with the antibacterial properties of chillies makes it ideal for colds and chills. Other benefits include increased blood flow, increased appetite, relieves indigestion and aids in the treatment of sore throats and laryngitis.  Topically it can be added to massage oil to improve circulation and help with rheumatism, arthritis, aching joints and muscles.

Coriander/Cilantro – Called Phak Chi in Thai, this is essential to many authentic Thai dishes. Not only are the leaves used but also the stems, roots and seeds, all of which impart very different flavours. Both seeds and leaves are rich in oils and act on the digestive system, stimulating the appetite and relieving irritation. Coriander has great success in treating loss of appetite and other dyspeptic complaints. When used in laxatives, it eases griping. It is also included in lotions and ointment to treat piles (haemorrhoids), rheumatism, menstrual disorders and painful joints.

Galangal – A relative of the ginger root, galangal (Kha) imparts a delicate, unique flavour. It is used fresh, dried or powdered. Resembling ginger in its effects, galangal is an aromatic stimulant, carminative and stomachic. It is used against nausea, flatulence, dyspepsia, rheumatism, catarrh and enteritis. It also possesses tonic and antibacterial qualities and is used for these properties in veterinary and homeopathic medicine.

Ginger – In addition to galangal, two other varieties of ginger are used in Thai cooking, the familiar one Khing and another Krachai, which has a milder flavour. Ginger is a sweet, pungent and aromatic herb that has expectorant properties. The herb increases perspiration, improves digestion and liver function, controls nausea, vomiting and coughing. It stimulates circulation, relaxes spasms and relieves pain.

Garlic – Thai garlic (Krathiam) is smaller and sweeter than the western variety. It is used both fresh and picked in a large number of classic dishes. Garlic is a pungent herb that prevents or clears bacterial infection, lowers fever by increasing perspiration, reduces blood pressure, cholesterol and sugar levels. It is also an expectorant and is regarded to rejuvenate, detoxify and is also seen as an aphrodisiac in some cultures.

Kaffir Lime – Both fruit and leaves of this shrub, Makrut Thai, lend a distinctive taste to many Thai dishes, especially curry pastes.  There is no flavour substitute for kaffir lime. Kaffir lime leaf is high in antioxidants and beta-carotene. It is one of the main ingredients used in Thai herbal compresses (used in Thai massage). Useful for the treatment of colds, congestion and cough.

Lemon Grass – This tall, grass like plant, known as Takhrai, has small bulbous roots and a lemony flavour and aroma. The bud and base leaves are chopped and pounded for many dishes, as well as herbal teas.  It has a pleasant lemony fragrance and has antimicrobial, analgesic, antioxidant and anti-fungal properties. Treats problems with the digestive system, usually in children and is also useful for relieving muscle spasms and has been found useful as a personal insect repellent.

Mint – Fresh leaves of this plant (Saranae) are used for flavouring and garnishing of many Thai dishes.  Mint is a decongestant, cooling, fragrant and bitter herb that is anti-spasmodic, diaphoretic, digestive, antiseptic and slightly anesthetic.

We love Thai food in our house and cook it often.  If you would like to try your hand at Thai cookery why not recreate the recipes below.

Green Curry Paste
1/2 cup green hot chillies, chopped
1/2 cup green spur chilli, chopped
2 tablespoons galangal root, finely sliced
4 tablespoons lemon grass, finely sliced
1 tablespoon kaffir lime rind, chopped finely
2 tablespoons coriander seeds, roasted
1 tablespoon cumin seeds, roasted
1/2 tablespoon pepper
1 tablespoon shrimp paste
2 teaspoons salt
4 tablespoons peeled garlic, chopped
5 tablespoons peeled shallot, sliced

In a mortar and pestle,  grind all ingredients until a finely blended paste forms. Use in all dishes that call for green curry paste.

Authentic Thai food is rather hot. When we travel to Thailand I make sure to order my food “not hot” and the result is still what I would consider fiery. For something a bit milder leave out some of the chilli from this oh so fragrant try this chicken and coconut soup.

Tom Kha Kai
500ml/16 fl oz coconut milk
6 thin slices young galangal
2 stalks of lemon grass, lower section cut into 2.5 cm/1 in sections, crushed
5 fresh Kaffir Lime leaves, torn in half
250g/8oz chicken breast, s
5 tabkespoons fish sauce (Nam Pla)
2 tablespoons sugar
125ml/4fl oz lime juice
1 teaspoon roasted chilli paste (Nam Phrik Pao)
1/4 cup coriander/cilantro leaves
5 green hot chillies, crushed

Combine half the coconut milk with the galangal, lemon grass and lime leaves in a large saucepan, and bring to boiling. Add the chicken, fish sauce and sugar and let it simmer for 4 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked. Then add the remaining coconut milk. Heat to boiling. Place lime juice and chilli past in a serving bowl and pour the soup over them. Stir well and garnish with coriander/cilantro leaves and crushed chilli peppers.

Do give Thai food a go- it is healthy and ever so flavoursome. Better still, pop over to Thailand and meet the most friendly people in the world.
It’s not called the Land of Smiles for nothing.

I would like to thank the Tourism Authority of Thailand for providing authentic recipes and information on the ingredients used in Thai cooking.

Stay herbal