What makes Thai cooking so special are the herbs and spices that are used. Here is a list of the more common ones used in Thai cooking and some of their reported health benefits.
The dark brown bark of the cinnamon tree normally contains a sweet flavour. Cinnamon, commonly used in both Western and Thai cuisine and is available in varied forms. In Thai cooking the bark is converted into cinnamon powder and is used in massaman curry and pa-loe (Chinese five-spice stew).
Medicinal benefit: reported to help promote vitality and acts as a remedy for exhaustion.
Coriander Root (Rak-pak-chee)
Coriander roots are an essential seasoning in Thai cooking. They have a deeper, more intense flavour than the leaves. It is a key Thai ingredient for clear soups, curry pastes or sauces to add aroma and full flavour.
Coriander Seeds (Look-pak-chee)
The seeds have a lemony citrus flavour when crushed. It is described as warm, nutty, spicy, and orange-flavoured. The more mature the seed is the more flavour it has. It is recommended to dry roast and to pound immediately before cooking. Coriander seed is used in curry pastes such as panang curry, green curry and masssaman curry.
Medicinal benefit: said to boost appetite and reduces stomach ache.
Cumin is one of the commonly used Thai herbs and spices for curries. It has a strong aroma and widely used in many international cuisines. Cumin should be generally dry roasted and pounded before mixing in curries pastes. Cumin is one of essential Thai herbs and spices for red curry, panang or green curry.
Medicinal benefit: reported to encourage digestion.
Dried Chillies (Prik-haeng)
This ingredient is one of the key Thai ingredients used in Thai cooking. Chillies are widely used in most dishes. There are different types and sizes of dried chillies. Dried chillies are normally dry roasted and ground, and used as the seasoning. While dried chillies are used mostly in curry paste and some stir fried dishes and salads. Dried Chillies are usually used in yellow curry, panang curry, choo chee curry pastes and often, in papaya salad.
Medicinal benefit: reported to boost the appetite, and the spur chilli is said to act as a tonic for the immune system. It can also be used to help treat indigestion.
A rhizome with a sharp flavour, it is usually used to flavour Thai soups and is one of the key Thai herbs and spices used for all Thai curry pastes. It helps reduce the fishy scent of seafood and the heaviness of red meats, thereby making them taste cleaner, more delicate and more succulent. Fresh galangal should be peeled before use, then sliced (for soups) or grated (for curry pastes).
Medicinal benefit: Galangal has many medicinal properties similar to ginger. It stimulates digestion and also helps to settle stomach upsets and ease nausea.
Gingers have a sharp pungent flavour. Two forms of ginger are used in the Thai cooking. Young ginger, which is usually sliced and sprinkled over steamed fish. And the mature Ginger with stronger flavour is best added to sauces. The tan skin of fresh ginger should be peeled before use, then sliced or grated ideal for soups and beverages.
Medicinal benefit: to help regulate the functioning of the gall bladder. It also lessens intestinal contractions, nauseas and vomiting. It can help relieve headaches, stomach aches and can alleviate inflammation.
Among other Thai herbs and spices, garlic is mostly used in Thai cooking. It is crushed and chopped for stir-fried dishes, or pounded for curry pastes, or sliced for crispy garlic in oil, soup flavours, and noodle dishes. The baby garlic is often eaten raw with fresh chilli in Kao ka-moo (Stewed pork leg with rice).
Medicinal benefit: said to lower blood pressure, high cholesterol and blood-sugar. It has been reported to boost the immune system of the body.
Green Peppercorns (Prik-thai-orn)
The young green peppercorns are soft, highly aromatic and mildly hot. The fresh green berries are often used for stir fry dishes especially with curry paste ingredients.
Medicinal benefit: said to encourage digestion and can help relieve headaches and rheumatic pains.
Holy Basil (Bai ka-prow)
Holy basil is a variety of Ocimum tenuiflorum popularly used in simple stir-fries, and together with garlic, fresh chilies and fish sauce. It imparts a wonderful flavour to any meat or seafood you wish to toss up quickly in the wok. It should not be confused with Sweet Basil or bai hora-pha which has an anise-like taste. See Thailand’s famous Stir Fried Chicken with Thai Holy Basil (gai pad ka-prow).
Medicinal benefit: reported to resolve colds and flu, treat various skin conditions, headache, stomach disorders and reduce fever. Holy Basil’s essential oil has been used for religious and medicinal purposes across South Asia.
Kaffir Lime Leaves (Bai makrood)
It is one of the key Thai herbs and spices for curry dishes. It has the dark green lime’s leaves (bai makrood) and the skin of Kaffir Lime (pew makrood) that are a valued. Kaffir lime is abundant with fragrant scents. It needs to be used in moderation as the power of the juice and leaves can easily overpower lighter Thai dishes. Kaffir leaves are used in soups, salads, curries and stir-fried dishes. The leaves contain calcium, beta-carotene, and vitamins A, B2 and C.
Lemon Basil (Bai maeng-lak)
Lemon basil comes from the same family of holy basil and sweet basil. It is often eaten fresh with noodles in curry (ka-nom jeen).
Medicinal benefit: to help remedy coughs. Also said to increase breast milk and act as a remedy for some types of skin diseases.
It is often used to enhance aromatic scent in food. Try to choose lemongrass with plump base and light purple in colour. It is often used in the favourite Thai spicy soup (Tom Yum) and in curry paste. Lemongrass is also used in some Thai beverages; lemongrass juice ( Nam Ta-krai) which provide a unique refreshing flavor.
Medicinal benefit: reported to help reduce high blood pressure, open skin pores and can assist in reducing fever and stomach pain. Also said to help digestion.
Lesser Ginger (Kra-chai)
Lesser gingers or Rhizomes are fresh plump roots that have a strong aroma and are juicy. Rinse and soak a few minutes to wash away the brine before using. You can also dry Lesser Ginger – be sure soak in water to reconstitute before cooking.
Medicinal benefit: May help to treat dizziness and inflammations around the mouth area. It also makes a tonic for improving bodily strength.
Black Pepper (Prik-thai-dum)
The mature pepper berries with its skin on are strong in flavour. When inner seeds are taken out from the skin the pepper is called White Peppers (Prik-thai- khoa or Prik-thai-lon). Both peppers are common Thai herbs and spices used extensively in some stir fry’s and in Thai curry paste ingredients including red curry, green curry and massaman curry.
Medicinal benefit: reported to promote appetite, and reduce fever.
Shallots are one of the key Thai ingredients for curry pastes, give a greater depth of flavour when chopped and pounded to make curry and chilli pastes. It can also be fried into brown crispy pieces for soup or yam (spicy salad dishes). When eaten raw in yum or a salad dish, they are sweet, leaving much less of a lingering aftertaste.
Medicinal benefit: to help treat colds.
Mint (Sa-ra- nae)
The leaves are often used in many salad dishes because of its fresh aroma and strong flavour. It is one of the key Thai herbs and spices for Larb salad recipe. It is never recommended to fry or cook in hot soup. It is best used fresh and has an interesting taste when combined with chillies and limes.
Medicinal benefit: reported to help relieve headache, flu and abdomen pain. It is contained in Beta-carotenes and vitamin C which is good for heart and eye sight.
Thai Basil (Hora-pha)
Thai basil or Sweet Basil is a variety of Ocimum basilicum.It has dark green leaves with red stems. Thai basil leaves are slightly thicker than holy basil, and have its own distinctive flavour. Thai basil leaves are extensively used in Thai cooking like green curry and stir fired dishes. Thai basil leaves are commonly eaten fresh with spring rolls and some appetisers.
Medicinal benefit: said to help digestion and relieve abdominal pain.
Turmeric is one of the essential Thai herbs and spices widely used in Southern Thailand cuisine. It is a key ingredient for yellow curry, many soups, stir-fries or deep fried dishes. It is a bit smaller than ginger. It has a bright yellow colour and strong flavour.
Medicinal benefit: said to help muscular relaxation, to heal wounds and to prevent and cure of acne. It contains antioxidants, antihistamine benefits, antibacterial benefits and antifungal benefits. It is also a natural liver detoxifier. It has been long used in Chinese medicine as a treatment for depression.