I will categorize some of Thai herbs and spices widely used in Thai cooking in 2 groups; fresh herbs and dried spices.
Fresh herbs are aromatic plants which are naturally scented when it is fresh. The fragrant smell usually fades when dried out. Fresh herbs are Thai basil, holy basil, lemon basil, ginger, galangal, shallots, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, spearmint, coriander roots, garlic, chilies, lesser ginger and turmeric. These Thai herbs and spices are extensively used as fresh in curry pastes, curry dishes, Thai salads and stir fries.
Dried spices are slightly scented when dried out but will have a stronger smell when heated up. Dried spices are often dry roasted before cooking as the heat will emit the scents. Typical dried spices include cinnamon powder, coriander seed, cardamom, mace powder, star anise, bay leaves, black peppercorns and cloves.
These Thai herbs and spices are often used for making curry pastes and soups and often have medicinal benefits. The benefits of Thai herbs and spices used in Thai food may not always be obviously known.
Below are some common Thai herbs and spices used in Thai cooking with theirs health benefits;
Bay Leaves - Bai-kra-wan
Medium sized dark green leaves used extensively in both western and Thai dishes. In Thai cooking, bay leaves is one of the common Thai herbs and spices used in massaman curry. Using bay leaves in cooking Thai food can help to reduce overpowering sents of meat whether you are using fish, beef, pork or chicken in your cooking.
A simple method of tearing bay leaves into small pieces and rubbing into your meat before cooking with help to soften the flavor of your meat and provide your dish with more balanced flavors.
Medicinal benefit: to dispel gas in the stomach.
Black Pepper - Prik-thai-dum
The mature pepper berries with its skin on are strong in flavor. 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: to promote appetite, and reduce fever.
Cardamom - Look-kra-wan
This Thai ingredient, cardamom has a strong lemony flavor and is slightly spicy and mixed with bitter and sweet tastes. This spice must be wholly roasted and use only the inner seeds when cooking. Its seeds are commonly used in curry pastes such as red curry, massaman curry, yellow curry and panang curry. See Massaman Curry Paste
Medicinal benefit: to encourage digestion and promoting healthy lungs.
Cinnamon - Ob-choey
The dark brown bark of the cinnamon tree normally contains a sweet flavor. Cinnamon, commonly used in both Western and Thai cuisine is available in varied forms, but in Thai cooking the bark is converted into cinnamon powder; used in massaman and pa-loe (Chinese five-spice stew).
Medicinal benefit: to promote vitality and acts as a remedy for exhaustion.
Coriander Root - Rak-pak-chee
Coriander roots are essential seasoning in Thai cooking. They have a deeper, more intense flavor than the leaves. It is a key Thai ingredient for clear soups, curry pastes or sauces to add aroma and full flavor.
Coriander Seeds – Look-pak-chee
The seeds have a lemony citrus flavor when crushed. It is described as warm, nutty, spicy, and orange-flavored. The more mature the seed is the more flavor it has.
It is recommended to dry roast and to pound immediately before cooking. Coriander seed is used in curry pastes such as panaeng curry, green curry, masssaman.
Medicinal benefit: to boost appetite and reduces stomach ache.
Cumin - Yee-rah
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, panaeng or green curry. See Panaeng Curry with Pork
Medicinal benefit: to encourage digestion.
Curry Powder - Pong-karee
There are many Thai herbs and spices composed in curry powder such as cumin, coriander seeds, cinnamon, mustard powder, cardamom and many others. It is generally used in curry dishes to help create a vibrant yellow color in dishes such as crab curry and chicken curry.
Medicinal benefit: according to the study of Singapore University, Curcumin, (which is found in cumin) when used in curry powder helps boost brain energy for elderly people. It features antioxidants which help to reduce free radical damage including, inflammations, stomach ulsars, kills bacteria, and helps to whitening skin.
Dried Chilies - Prik-haeng
This ingredient is one of the key Thai ingredients used in Thai cooking. Chilies are widely used in most dishes. There are different types and sizes of dried chilies. Dried chilies are normally dry roasted and ground, and used as the seasoning.
While dried chilies are used mostly in curry paste and some stir fried dishes and salads. Dried Chilies are usually used in kue curry, yellow curry, panang curry, and choo chee curry pastes, and often, in papaya salad.
Medicinal benefit: to boost the appetite, and the spur chili also acts as a tonic for the immune system. It can also be used to treat indigestion.
Galangal – Kha
A rhizome with a sharp flavor, it is usually used to flavor Thai soups and is one of the key Thai herbs and spices used for all Thai curry pastes. It helps reduce the fishy sent 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.
Ginger - Khing
Gingers have a sharp pungent flavor. 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 flavor 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 regulates the functioning of the gall bladder. It also lessens intestinal contractions, nauseas and vomiting. It can relieve headaches, stomach aches and can alleviate inflammation.
Garlic - Kra-tium
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 flavors, and noodle dishes. The baby garlic is often eaten raw with fresh chili in Kao ka-moo (Stewed pork leg with rice).
Medicinal benefit: to lower blood pressure, high cholesterol and blood-sugar. It can also 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: to encourage digestion and can 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 flavor 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: 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 sents.
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 also increases breast milk and acts as a remedy for some types of skin diseases. It is often eaten fresh with noodles in curry (ka-nom jeen).
Medicinal benefit: to remedies coughs.
Lemongrass - Ta-krai
It is often used to enhance aromatic scent in food. Try to choose lemongrass with plump base and light purple in color.
It is often used in the favorite 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: to help reduce high blood pressure, open skin pores and can assist in reducing fever and stomach pain. It also helps 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: to treat dizziness and inflammations around the mouth area. It also makes a tonic for improving bodily strength.
Mace - Look-jun
It is obtained from the dry covering of the nutmeg fruit seed. Mace has more delicate flavor than nutmeg and is often used in light dishes giving a bright orange effect.
Medicinal benefit: to promote appetite and is also used for treatment of indigestion and or healthy heart benefits.
Nutmeg - Dok-jun
Nutmeg is the seed and is roughly egged-shape. It is the only tropical fruit that is the source of two different spices; nutmeg and mace. Nutmeg is a little sweeter than mace and is commonly used in many curry pastes.
Onions - Hom-Yai
Good quality onions are heavy with a dry and smooth skin. Keep them in a ventilated area or in a basket for longer use. Do not refrigerate. Onions are extensively used in Thai cooking for stir fries, soups and salads.
Shallots - Hom-daeng
Shallots, one of the key Thai ingredients for curry pastes, give a greater depth of flavor when chopped and pounded to make curry and chili 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 treat cold.
Star anise - Puy-kuk
Star anise or called in Thai Jan Paed Kleeb is wildly used in Chinese cuisine and is one of the essential Thai ingredients for five spices powder used in Thai cooking. It is commonly used in soup and Chinese stew dishes. The star anise powder is one of the ingredients of pa loe. And in Thailand’s northeastern provinces it is often used in larb (Minced pork spicy salad).
Medicinal benefit: to remedy for rheumatism, and the seeds are sometimes chewed after meals to aid digestion.
Spear Mint - Sa-ra-nae
The leaves are often used in many salad dishes because of its fresh aroma and strong flavor. 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 combines with chilies and limes.
Medicinal benefit: to 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 flavor. 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 appetizers.
Medicinal benefit: to encourage digestion and relieves abdominal pain.
Turmeric - Ka-min
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 color and strong flavor. See Thai yellow curry with seabass
Medicinal benefit: to help muscular relaxation, to heal wounds and to prevent and cure of acne. It contains antioxidants, antihistamine benefits, antibacterial benefits, antifungal benefits. It is also a natural liver detoxifier. It has been long used in Chinese medicine as a treatment for depression.
White Peppercorns - Prik-thai-kao
The white rounded berries are called prik thai kao or prik thai lon. Their scent is not as strong as black peppers. This Thai ingredient is often used to marinated meat, mix in chili pastes and curry pastes. It is both good for seasoning and preserving food.
Medicinal benefit: to promote appetite and reduces fever.
For international markets, Thai herbs and spices are available in varied forms; dried form, freeze packages, brine in jar containers and some fresh herbs from most Asian stores. Whiles spices are conveniently found in most stores in dried form.
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