One of the things I’ve learned from traveling around the world is that some familiar foods have different names depending on the region you’re in. Spices, in particular, go by many names. Some of the Thai spices you’ll find are indigenous to the region an you may not be familiar with them, but they’re what make the food so great.
When learning some Thai, you should be aware that there are 5 ways to pronounce each letter (making it one of the more complicated languages to learn and speak.) So, one word could have 5 meanings depending on the vowels used. Sometimes the pronunciation difference is ever so slight. For example, the word Soi (Soy) pronounced slightly differently can mean street or it can mean cow. I spent several days with my client in Thailand trying to figure out the difference between the pronunciation and never could get it. While they always giggled at my pronunciation, they really appreciated that I tried so hard. So, I’ve tried to use phonetic spellings below to best represent how we might pronounce the word or how it may sound to you.
Before you go, here’s what you should know.
One of my favorites, ข่า (pronounced Kha) is also called galangal (a root similar to ginger) and is used in many dishes, especially soups.
ใบมะกรูด (Bai Makrut) or kaffir lime leaves, are used in soups, curries, or chopped finely into meat dishes like larb. Don’t eat a whole leaf. If you love kaffir lime leaves, buy them in Thailand where they’re much less expensive. (just keep them in their original packaging so you don’t run into issues at customs)
ขิง (Khing) or ginger, is used in a lot of stir fry dishes.
ใบย่านาง (Bai toei) or pandan leaves, are very common in the region. Pandan leaves are often wrapped around beef, chicken or other foods and deep fried. They’re edible when cooked.
ตะไคร้ (Takhrai) or lemongrass, is much more recognized than some other spices, and is a highly used spice/herb. Lemongrass is not edible, but adds great flavor to food and drinks. I love lemongrass flavored tea both iced and hot. Lemongrass is a key ingredient in Tom Yam soup.
พริกขี้หนู (Phrik khi nu) or Chili is literally translated as mouth-dropping chili. Chili is a very common spice used throughout South East Asia and Thai Chili is very spicy. Consume at your own risk!
You should also be familiar with a few pastes/condiments that are frequently used and include many of the favorite Thai spices:
กะปิ (Kapi) or shrimp paste can be smelled a mile away. It’s made by fermenting ground shrimp and salt. It is used to add flavor to many dishes.
น้ำปลา (Nam pla) or fish sauce is used extensively in Thai cooking. You’ll also recognize the smell, but depending on its use, you may not notice the flavor. Believe it or not, there’s a more pungent version of fish sauce called Pla Ra or ปลาร้า and one smell of that will send your senses into overdrive. Fish Sauce is used to add saltiness flavor to most soup bases and many other dishes.
ซีอิ้วดำ or ซีอิ้วขาว (Si-io dam or Si-io khao) is soy sauce! The first is dark soy and second is light soy and it’s pronounced (soya dam or soya cow). Soy sauce is also commonly used throughout Thailand.
มะนาว (Manao) – a very common fruit yet many of the locals will not know it by its English name, lime. Thai’s serve lime with almost every noodle and rice dish and you may find yourself asking for more manao (pronounced man ow)
ฝรั่ง (fah rang) – Farang – besides a derogatory slang word to refer to “white” tourists, and the name of a defunct Thailand Ice Hockey Team (yeah, I had no idea there was Ice Hockey in Thailand either), farang is what we call guava.
ข้าว (cow) – Khao – you might be familiar with the word Khao because it’s common in may city names (Khao Lak for example). Khao is a word you should learn as it’s a staple in the Thai diet, it means rice.
There are dozens, actually thousands, of words you could learn, but learning just a few will help you get along in Thailand, especially when ordering food.
Images from Wikipedia