Thai at Home with Chef Jeanne Rafefetto-Tentis

The Thai Pantry


Coconut milk (nam gati) –  Made from grated coconut meat and water.  Used as a substitute for cow’s milk.  It is used to enrich soups, curries, stews, roasts, beverages and desserts.  In Thailand, coconut milk is especially important in curries, imparting a richness and sweetness that compliment the spiciness.


Fish Sauce (nuoc mam or nam pla) – Fish sauce is the most important ingredient in Thai cuisine.  Like soy sauce, this salty fish extract is used to season food or make dipping sauces.  Five crabs, Squid, and Viet Huong are consistently good brands.  After opening, store in the refrigerator or a cool place.  Fish sauce will last up to two or three years if stored properly.


Five-spice powder – A fine brown powder made from a blend of star anise, fennel seed,

cinnamon, ginger, and orange peel.  Lending a licorice, woodsy fragrance, this  spice combination is great in marinades, especially for roast duck, stews and vegetarian dishes.


Galanga ( kha) – Also known as Thai ginger, galanga is a cousin of ginger.  Available

fresh, frozen, or dried (don’t bother with the latter), galanga is easy to use.  The flavor of galanga is best captured when added at the last minute of cooking.  If you purchase it fresh, store it in the freezer for future use.


Ginger (gung) – Sharp and pungent, ginger adds extraordinary flavor and zing to food, from savory dishes to desserts.  This spice is used as extensively as garlic in Thai cooking.  Available in most grocery stores.  Purchase and use fresh.  If wrinkly and dry it is too old.


Green curry paste – Made with green chilies, lemon grass, garlic, galanga, shallots, and

shrimp paste.  A milder curry, but should be used sparingly.  For better flavor store in the refrigerator after opening.  Buy a small quantity since you rarely need more than 2 TBS at a time.  If you are going to stock just one kind of Thai curry paste, buy this one.


Red curry paste – Red curry paste is made like the green except roasted red chilies are substituted for the green chilies.  The smoky flavor of roasted dried red chilies stands up particularly well against red meats.  The Mae Ploy brand is quite good.


Yellow curry paste – This is the “Indian” version of Thai curry and the mildest of all the

Curries.  Made with ingredients similar to the green and red pastes, yellow paste includes turmeric, which gives food a beautiful golden color.  Yellow curry greatly enhances fish, chicken, or vegetarian dishes.




Ground chili paste – Made from ground red chilies, garlic, and vinegar.  A stir fry that starts with oil, chili paste, and garlic is on solid ground.  Store in refrigerator after opening and it will keep indefinitely.


Hoisin sauce – Made from soybean puree, sugar and caramel sauce, hoisin sauce is primarily in dipping sauces, marinades, and stir-fries.  This sauce is never intended to be eaten straight.  Mix with onions, garlic, chilies, vinegar and crushed peanuts for a delicious sauce.


Jasmine rice (gao thom) – The long-grain “jasmine rice” is the preferred rice of Thai cooks.  It is similar in texture and fragrance to basmati rice.  The jasmine rice sold in the United States is imported primarily from Thailand and Vietnam.

Sticky rice (khao niao) – Also known as sweet rice or glutinous rice.  This rice is usually white and less translucent than jasmine rice.  Sticky rice is high in gluten, so the kernels tend to adhere to one another – convenient for finger-style eating and for dipping into curries and sauces.


Kaffir lime leaves (bai makrut) – These jade-green citrus leaves impart a lemon/lime aroma that is positively intoxicating.  Used extensively to flavor and liven up curries, soups, and stir-fries, kaffir lime leaves are picked from wild lime trees.  Leaves can be purchased fresh at Asian markets or found frozen.  Lime zest can be substituted but it is not as effective.  I buy the leaves whenever I can find them and keep them stored in my freezer in small freezer bags.


Lemon grass (takrai) – Lemon grass is used extensively in Thai cooking.  It is available fresh, frozen or dried.  Although fresh is best, I often buy fresh and store in the freezer for future use.  This herb has a fresh lemony ginger aroma and is used to infuse sauces, soups, curries and marinades.  Lemon zest can be substituted but it pales in comparison to the real thing.


Oyster sauce – Made from oyster extract, caramel sauce, and soy sauce, this brown sweet-salty sauce is used to enhance sit fries, especially those made with beef.  It is available in most markets.


Peanuts – Peanuts are widely used in Thai cooking.  Peanut sauces are common especially for satays, salads and curries.  Peanuts should be roasted and unsalted for use in most recipes.  Ground peanuts are often used as a garnish as well.


Rice noodles – These noodles made from rice are most frequently found dried and are referred to as rice sticks.  They are available either flat or round.  Flat noodles are distinguished by width-small, medium or wide.  The round variety, also called vermicelli, are used in salad style dishes and in soups.  Traditionally, rice noodles are soaked in water to soften before using but some people prefer to blanch them.


Sesame oil – Made from roasted sesame seeds, this rich, nutty oil is not used for cooking but instead as a flavoring for many Asian dishes.  It is a must in the pantry.  Sesame oil is graded similarly to olive oil (it has first and second pressings, for example).   I prefer Japanese-style sesame oil, either Kadoya or Marukan brands.


Shallots – Considered more aromatic than its onion cousin, shallots are roasted then pounded in a mortar along with lemon grass, chilies, and other spices to make curry pastes or marinades.


Soy sauce – There are many different types of soy sauce.  All- purpose Japanese Kikkoman will do for most recipes.   Most recipes will indicate if a lighter or darker style is needed.


Star anise – This six to eight pointed star spice imparts a flavor resembling cinnamon and cloves.  It is mostly used to flavor soups.


Tamarind – Comes from a long beanlike fruit of the tamarind tree.  The indefinable sweet-sour flavor is the basis for many sauces, soups, and salads.  Tamarind is usually sold in a syrupy form or as a paste that must be diluted.


Vietnamese-style curry powder – Vietnamese curry powder is similar to Madras-style curry powder.  This powder is not only used for curries, but to spice upstir-fries and soups.


Serrano chili pepper – The Serrano is a hot green chili common in Latin markets and very popular with Thai cooks.  It’s somewhat plump, around 2 inches long and very easy to handle and slice.


Thai chili, long – These slender bright red chilies have less fire than the more frequently used small Thai chilies, but they still pack a respectable punch.  Red jalapenos can be substituted.


Thai chili, small – Sometimes called Thai bird chilies or bird.  They are about 1 inch long, usually green but sometimes red. They are hot and should be used sparingly.  They are available fresh or dried.


Coconut palm sugar – This is the maple syrup of the tropics.  It is enjoyable in a cup of tea or in curries, stir-fries, and sweets.


Tofu – High protein, cholesterol free soybean product also referred to as bean curd.  There are several varieties such as firm, soft and silken.


Thai basil – The leaves are pointy ovals with purple stems and a strong anise flavor.


Holy basil – All basils are related to mint and this variety is especially mint like.



Serves 4-6

Tom Yum Kung



6 c chicken stock

1 large stalk lemon grass, tough outer leaves removed, trimmed to 12 inches and angle cut to 2-inch pieces

10 (5 pairs) Kaffir lime leaves, or strips of peel from 1 lime

1 ½ – 2 T Chili-Tamarind Paste (nam phrik pao)

4 T Thai fish sauce (nam pla)

½ c fresh lime juice

¼ c coconut palm sugar or golden brown sugar

1 lb. medium shrimp, peeled

½ lb. oyster mushrooms or button mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

5 small Thai chilies, stemmed and lightly crushed

Sprigs of cilantro for garnish


Put the stock and lemon grass in a soup pot.  If using Kaffir lime leaves, tear each leaf in half and add to the stock.  If using lime peel, add that.  Gradually bring to a low boil over medium high heat.  Keep at a low boil for 1 minute.


Stir in the chili-tamarind paste.


Add the fish sauce and lime juice.


Add the sugar and stir until it is dissolved and blended.


Add the shrimp, chilies and mushrooms and simmer just until cooked, about 1 minute.


Turn off the heat.  Ladle into a steamboat, a soup tureen or individual serving bowls.  Tear a sprig of cilantro over each.



NOTE:  This soup is the classic form of a very popular soup style called kaeng tom yum.  Replace the shrimp with chicken and you will create another version, tom yum kai.


This dish exemplifies the traditional blending of flavors that create the Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet combination found in Southeast Asian cooking


Frequent customers of Thai restaurants know that the lemon grass and lime leaves that flavor Thai soups are not meant to be eaten.  Eating the chilies is optional but watch out!

NAM PRIK PAO (Chili Tamarind Paste)                             

 Makes a small jar ( ½ c)

Recipe by Jeanne Raffetto Tentis


¼ c canola oil

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 shallots, finely chopped

Dried red chilies or chili flakes, ground to make about 3T (I used dried chili arbol)

½ t shrimp paste

2T fish sauce

2T palm or brown sugar

1 t tamarind paste

2 T water


Finely chop the garlic and shallots by hand or in a processor.  Be careful not to over process or you will end up with a mushy mess.  You want individual looking pieces of shallot and garlic.


To grind the chili, place whole dried chilies or chili flakes in a coffee grinder and pulse until you get a powdery consistency.


Heat oil in a small frying pan over medium high heat.  Add the chopped shallots and garlic, frying until they turn a very light brown and slightly crispy (2-3 minutes).

Tip:  Watch carefully so as to not burn the garlic.  Burned garlic is very bitter.


Remove the garlic and shallots with a slotted spoon and set aside.


Using a mortal and pestle or mini food processor, combine the chili with the shrimp paste, fish sauce, sugar, tamarind paste, and water.  Add the garlic and shallots.  Process to form a thick paste.


Return the paste to your frying pan and stir into the remaining oil over low heat until you get a fairly even consistency.


Adjust the consistency with water if too thick or more oil for a shinier paste.


Adjust the taste, adding more fish sauce, if you like it saltier or more sugar if you like it sweeter.


Namprik pao will keep almost indefinitely stored in a jar in your refrigerator.  Use thia sauce as an addition to soups, stir fries and curry sauces.  Also wonderful when stir fried with seafood, or as an accompaniment to noodle dishes.


NOTE:  If you have a sensitive stomach, it is recommended that you substitute cayenne pepper for the chilies as cayenne helps heal the stomach.

THAI GREEN CURRY WITH CHICKEN                                    

Serves 4-6

Recipe by Jeanne Raffetto Tentis


1 ½ c unsweetened coconut milk

1 T green curry paste (or to taste)

1 stalk lemon grass, cut into 1 inch pieces and bruised with back of knife

2-4 t tamarind chili paste

1 c chicken stock

2 T fish sauce

3 T sugar

½ t ground turmeric

2 kaffir lime leaves, cut into thin slivers

1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breast, sliced into ¼ inch thick strips

1 ½ – 2 c bamboo shoots, blanched in boiling water for 5 minutes and drained

½ c fresh or frozen peas

2 ripe tomatoes, cut into wedges

15 fresh Thai basil leaves, cut in half

Fresh cilantro for garnish



Heat 1/3 c of the coconut milk in a nonstick fry pan over moderate heat until bubbly and hot.  Do not overheat or burn.  Add the curry paste and lemon grass and stir until fragrant, about one minute.  Add the chicken stock, fish sauce, sugar, turmeric, and lime leaves.  Bring to a soft boil.  Add the chicken and cook until it turns white, 3-5 minutes.  Reduce the heat to low.  Add the remaining coconut milk, bamboo shoots, peas and tomatoes.  Continue to simmer until vegetables are thoroughly hot, about 3 minutes.  Do not allow the coconut milk to boil vigorously as it will separate.  Remove the heat and add the basil.  Garnish with cilantro.  Serve immediately with steamed jasmine rice.



  Serves 4

Recipe by Jeanne Raffetto Tentis


½ lb ricestick noodles

1/3 c warm water

1/3 c tamarind paste or liquid

¼ c fish sauce

2 T sugar

3 T fresh lime juice

½ c oil, peanut or canola

2 cloves garlic, minced

½ lb boneless chicken breast, cut into strips, or

½ lb shrimp, peeled and deveined, or

½ lb ground pork, or

½ lb firm tofu, cubed

2 eggs, slightly beaten

1/3 c ground peanuts

1 c bean sprouts

2 scallions, cut in 1 inch pieces

2 t  ground chili paste (to taste) or substitute ½ t cayenne pepper or chili oil

1 lime, quartered for garnish

Cilantro for garnish


Use a wok or very large fry pan.


Soak noodles in warm water for half an hour or until they are soft and pliable, drain.


Combine in a small bowl the tamarind, water, fish sauce, sugar, and lime juice.  Heat oil in wok until very hot.  Add minced garlic and chili paste, sauté about 30 seconds, being careful not to burn.  Add chicken , cook for 2 minutes.  Still stirring, add cubed tofu  and shrimp (if using) and cook for no more than one minute.  Drop eggs into the wok and let cook without stirring for one minute.  Add noodles, and stir whole mixture for one minute so that eggs and noodles are folded up from the bottom.  Pour in liquid and stir for two minutes.  Add two thirds of the ground peanuts, scallions and bean sprouts.  Toss lightly.  Transfer to dish.  Garnish with lime wedges and cilantro.




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