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Thai Pantry Staples You Should Have (That Will Keep Forever)

Julia Bainbridge
Food Editor
December 11, 2013

Just because chef Andy Ricker spends several months a year in Thailand and owns restaurants in Portland, OR, and New York doesn’t mean you can’t cook like him. (We said like him, okay?) And he’s got a new cookbook out, named Pok Pok (for his first restaurant) to prove it. Yes, cooking Thai food at home requires both effort and some less-than-familiar ingredients, but once you stock your pantry, putting that Yam Khai Dao on the table becomes infinitely easier. We talked to writer JJ Goode, who worked on the book with Ricker, about what staples we should have on hand.

Dried or preserved ingredients last a looooooong time at room temperature in your pantry.

Palm sugar: A common sweetener for Thai salads, curries, and sweets, this golden brown sugar is derived from the coconut palm and sold in hard discs in Asian markets, particularly those with a Southeast Asian focus.
Dried chiles: Ricker calls for two varieties of dried chiles: dried Thai bird chiles, which are slim and incendiary, and dried pulla chiles, a moderately spicy Mexican staple that he uses for a stand-in for this variety. And they’re used in, well, everything.
Tamarind pulp: To get that tangy liquid that’s so often used in Thai salads, buy these fibrous blocks of tamarind flesh (ultimately, you’ll just simmer some of the pulp with water). In Northern Thailand, tamarind water is an even more common souring agent than lime juice.
Fish sauce: Thai fish sauce, an amber-colored liquid made from salted, fermented fish, adds umami and salt to many Thai dishes, from salads to soups to curries. Like anchovies, you can’t always tell it’s there, but you’ll miss it when it’s not. Use Squid or Tiparos brands.
Coconut milk and cream: Common in Central and Southern Thai food and occasionally spotted in Northern Thai food, coconut cream/milk is a rich liquid made from coconut flesh and water. Look for the unsweetened kind in cans, or better yet in boxes with “Tetra Pak” or “UHT” on the label.

These fresh ingredients aren’t always easy to find, but when you spot them, buy and freeze them—no defrosting necessary. You might also be able to find them already frozen, in which case you can just transfer them to your home freezer and use at will.

Galangal: This knobby root looks like pale-skinned ginger, but is less sharp and has a pleasant citrusy, almost soapy fragrance. You’ll find it fresh at some Asian markets, particularly Thai ones, but the galangal sold frozen is typically of excellent quality and tends to be younger and more tender than the fresh versions available in the US.
Kaffir lime leaves: The glossy leaves of the kaffir lime tree perfume curries and soups and finely sliced, they lend their distinctive aroma to salads.
Fresh Thai bird chiles: You’ll find these fiery, narrow chiles at Asian markets and even at certain Whole Foods locations. Both ripe red versions and the unripe green ones have high heat levels, but different flavors and fragrances.
Cilantro roots: In the US, bunches of cilantro typically come without their roots. That’s a shame, because the root is a common ingredient in Thai cooking. When you do see cilantro with the roots on—Thai stores and farmers’ markets are a good bet—buy several bunches, wash and thinly slice the roots, and freeze them in a resealable bag.
Banana leaves: Thai cooks wrap everything from fish to pig brain inside the leaves of the banana tree before grilling the parcels over charcoal. The leaf keeps the stuff inside nice and moist, plus it adds a nutty aroma.

Phat Khanaeng, stir-fried brussels sprouts. Photographs by Austin Bush

Now get to cooking! Here are three recipes to try:
Sticky Rice with Mango and Salty-Sweet Coconut Cream
Pok Pok’s Phat Si Ew
Yam Khai Dao (Fried Egg Salad)