Spices deliver Thai food's zing

September 05, 1993|By Barbara Albright | Barbara Albright,Contributing Writer

Thai cooking and restaurants seem to be the latest Asian cuisine to tantalize the taste buds of Americans.

Just as we are beginning to understand the lingo of Chinese restaurants, along comes a brand new set of ingredients and mystifying menu items to be deciphered.

Fortunately, there are some overlapping ingredients between the cuisines. The following is a list of a few of the most common ingredients.

* Fresh coriander: Also known as cilantro and Chinese parsley. It is probably one of the most heavily consumed herbs in the world. Coriander is found in the cuisines of India, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America in addition to its frequent use in Southeast Asia and China.

Coriander is a member of the family that includes dill, carrots and parsley. The leaves, roots and seeds of coriander are used in Thai cooking. Fresh coriander is usually sold with the roots. Store it in the refrigerator with the roots in water.

* Fresh ginger: While this ingredients looks like a gnarled root, it is actually a rhizome. After the thin, light-brown skin is removed, it is sliced, shredded, chopped or grated, and used in the cooking of every Asian country. Its crisp, spicy flavor adds freshness to almost every dish.

Select firm-textured pieces. To store it, place it in a plastic bag with a paper towel to prevent it from becoming moldy.

* Lemon grass: This is the ingredient that adds a subtle lemon flavor to many Thai and Vietnamese dishes. It is sold by the stalk and looks similar to a scallion. However, it has a woody texture. Because of this, it is used to add flavor, not substance, to dishes. Only the bottom 6 to 8 inches are used and the tough outer leaves are removed.

* Fish sauces: While soy sauce is popular in China and Japan, fish sauce is the flavoring and dipping sauce of choice in Southeast Asia. Fish sauces, from unsalted and fermented fish, were first used by the ancient Romans. Usually they used anchovy sauces to flavor their foods.

Fish sauce is made by salting down small fish that are packed in wooden barrels. The liquid that collects is cooked and bottled. The aroma of fish sauces is much more pungent than the taste.

* Oyster sauce: This is the thickened brown sauce of oyster juices and salt. It is used as both an ingredient and a condiment.

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