If you will have a long holiday in Koh Samui, you can save a great deal on your expenses if you book a private rental and commit to cooking your own meals. Heading out to eat especially in Western restaurants on the island can break the bank as foreign food is expensive. What you can do is visit the fresh markets, buy local meat and vegetables and just make your own food. This is cheaper, healthier, and more practical especially if your rented space has a nice kitchen anyway. If you want to make Thai dishes or at least impart Thai flavors in your home cooking, here are commonly used ingredients in Thai cuisine that you should be familiar with.
Bright and lemony, this ingredient gives a citrus flavor in Thai dishes and cuts through the richness of coconut milk so it does not overwhelm the taste buds.
This can be used as a whole, sliced, or pounded although most of its flavor is concentrated on the white bulb part. Lightly pound this to bring out the fragrant essential oil of lemongrass. For soups, you can tie a bundle of this ingredient into a knot and and dump it into the cooking broth.
Just take it out when done. For marinades and dips,you can peel the outer skin of the bulb, then slice and chop the inner part to get the most flavor. Lemongrass can also be tucked inside a fish before you cook it to impart a citrus tone and get rid of the fishy smell.
Thai food is spicy because chili is used in almost every local savory dish. Chili imparts heat that balances the sweetness of certain other ingredients like coconut milk. It also amplifies other flavors in the background creating a more interesting flavor combination. It is believed that island folks are drawn to spicy food because of the hot weather.
Spicy food will make you sweat, making you feel cooler and refreshed afterwards. Thais use red, yellow, and green chili in their cooking although the most popular ones are the red of course. Bird’s Eye chili is something that you can find easily at the markets.
You can use this fresh or dried. Know that working with chili peppers will burn your hands, depending on the intensity of the heat they have. When working with a lot of chili, wear plastic or gloves to protect your skin. Or use a blender or food processor instead.
Also remember to wash after and never touch your eyes with a hand that handles the chili. You will regret it.
A versatile ingredient commonly used in the tropics, coconut goes well with a lot of ingredients. Its richness and deep resonance makes it a good partner with Asian aromatics like ginger and lemongrass. Its innate sweetness and milk-like consistency make it invaluable when making Thai desserts and beverages. Coconut milk amplifies the presence of sugar so you need not add a lot of the sweet stuff to get full flavor. This humble ingredient also gives body to soups and is added to curry dishes to round all the many flavors together, creating a unified taste. You can find grated coconut at the wet markets or if you want a less messy approach, you can go for the canned coconut milk, desiccated coconut, or coconut oil and use them if you want a hint of the exotic in your dishes. Of course, nothing beats fresh so get that while you are on the island.
In other Asian countries, soy sauce seems to be the top condiment and seasoning of choice. In Thailand, it is fish sauce. You can find this in any Koh Samui fresh market or supermarket since it is a household staple. It is used in cooking in many ways. It is used as a dip, usually mixed with chili and local lime juice. It is also popular in marinades and as a seasoning to soups. Fish sauce is also great for sauteing and local stir fried dishes.
Because of its pungent aroma, it is an acquired taste. However, once you have come to terms with its importance in Thai cooking and get past the smell, it will be something of a necessity for you and will never leave your pantry. Fish sauce is salty, with flavors so deep you will notice a difference when it is missing in a dish that calls for it. Buy a bottle and don’t be put off by the smell. This is an amazing savory ingredient and will enhance the taste of many dishes, not just Thai food. Hint, use it as a marinade for chicken along with a little lime juice and ground pepper. Grill or fry the meat after a few hours. You will love it for sure.
The star carbohydrate in Koh Samui, you can find rice all over the island. It is served steamed, fried, or sweetened as dessert. It is also used ground as a flour for some local snacks like rice buns and rice crackers.
Its neutral taste allows for many pairings. You can eat this with fish, seafood, curry, sauteed vegetables, egg, and stews. It goes well with fried, sauteed, grilled, baked, or boiled dishes. The fact that rice grains are already small and ready to cook, it means that it is easier to work with than potatoes that you have to wash, peel, slice, dice, and mash. Uncooked rice also has a longer shelf life than bread which means you can purchase in bulk, stock up, and save money. Budget travelling tip: when you are staying for a long time in Koh Samui, buy a big bag of rice. You will never go hungry then since you can eat it with fried egg, dried fish, or canned tuna. It also is amazing with fried Spam. If you are lazy, make a big batch of chicken fried rice made with chicken meat, fried egg, chopped spam, and spring onions. Portion your leftovers into single serve packs, and keep in the freezer. When you need to eat something, just reheat your rice by refrying it with a little oil or in the microwave with a tablespoon of added water to revive the moisture.
Fish sauce’s fancier cousin, shrimp paste is also widely used in Thai cooking. Sauteed with garlic, onion, chili, and a little brown sugar, this is the perfect dip for green mangoes. It can also be used for shrimp fried rice, curries, and pad Thai. Add a little lime juice to sauteed shrimp paste and you can eat it with rice and or use it as a dip to fried fish.
Bean like, brown, and pulpy, you will be hard pressed to find a substitute to the unique sour flavor of tamarind. It has this sour fruity flavor to it that is different from citrus fruits but is more neutral and versatile than pineapple or lychee. The flavor of tamarind makes it a nice standby in the kitchen. It goes well with savory dishes and blends well with sugar too. Try tamarind candy or tamarind juice and you’ll understand.
Tamarind’s strength lies in its ability to mesh with other flavors without overpowering them. Steamed tamarind with a little shrimp paste is the perfect dip for grilled fish and shrimp. It can also be used to flavor stir fried chicken. It can also be added to pad Thai to give it a lift and to brighten the flavors. You can steam fresh fish with tamarind and a little salt for a simple island dish you can eat with a lot of rice and shrimp paste. You can buy tamarind fresh at the markets or you can use the paste or powder mix if you need some for your cooking.
Kaffir Lime Leaves
Widely used in Asian cuisines and popular in places like Laos and Indonesia, Kaffir lime leaves are also staple in Thai cooking. Zesty, lemony, and aromatic, they can be used for soups and curries. They are also used in marinades.
This herb is definitely among the most widely used in the world and is essential in Thai cuisine. The roots are often used as an ingredient in many local dishes since it is less bitter than the leaves. Cilantro on its own taste a bit weird. Actually some people don’t like it. Combined with other ingredients, it certainly adds magic to every dish. This is usually used as garnish for Pad Thai and is present in fresh spring rolls and chicken and galangal soup. It also brings life and color to Tom yum soup. Cilantro can be mistaken for flat-leaved parsley but they taste really different. Cilantro has a bitter, earthy taste to it. While parsley is greener and more herbal tasting.
Thai cuisine won’t be complete without curry dishes. Curry paste can be made from scratch and can also be bought pre-made if you don’t have the time to do the paste yourself or have no access to all the necessary ingredients. Thai curry paste is mixed with coconut milk, meat or seafood, local vegetables, and Thai herbs. It comes in many kinds depending on the type of chili used and the spices and herbs present.There’s the Malaysian derived Paneng curry, which is mild and sweet. There’s green curry, yellow curry, and red curry. A curry of Muslim origin is the ever famous Massaman. There’s also sour curry. Thai curry has more fresh herbs than spices, making it different from curries of India and Middle East (with the exception of Massaman curry). Because of the herbs, Thai curries are less warming and are actually lighter and zestier.
In Koh Samui you can buy good quality seafood because they are abundant all over Thailand. Seafood particularly shrimp and crab are used in many aspects of Thai cooking. They are fermented as in the case of fish sauce and shrimp paste, are fried as in deep fried soft shelled crabs, grilled, steamed, and used as the protein base in soups and curries. Seafood is also stir-fried and is used to give flavor to fried rice, pad Thai, and spring rolls. Naturally rich in umami, shrimp, lobster, and crab provide an intense flavor, making them indispensable for local food preparation.
While it looks like ginger, galangal has a flavor all its own. Minced, it can be added to fermented fish and seafood then eaten with rice. It is hot, astringent, and slightly camphorous. Its smell and flavor are unmistakable. You can buy this fresh or dried. However, the fresh variety is better. This is an important curry ingredient and is known for its many health benefits. It is an effective remedy for arthritis and will help you stop stomach bloating.
Not as frail as sweet basil, Thai basil has a stronger leaf so it can be added to cooking while retaining its texture and bite. It gives an herbal taste to stir fried dishes and can also be sprinkled as a garnish to salads. It has a taste similar to liquorice and tarragon but spikier.
There is no substitute for ginger in Asian cooking and it is very essential in Thai cuisine. This gives flavor to stir fried chicken, Thai chicken and rice, and Thai stir fried noodles.
Without a doubt a universally used ingredient, garlic is widely used in local dishes in Koh Samui too. It is the head spice of stir fries and is used with onions, and ginger in many Thai favorites.
The best way to get acquainted with these Thai cooking essentials is to visit a fresh market or join a cooking class. Most sessions have an introduction to commonly used Thai ingredients so you can be familiar with them and be able to use them in your home cooked meals on the island and back home.