Shopping for Thai Ingredients

Selection of ingredients typical for Thai cuisine, spices, seeds, herbs, aubergines, lemon grass, galangal, makrut lime, chile peppers

Hugh Johnson / Getty Images

While you might be lucky enough to live near a Thai food store, for most of us shopping for Thai ingredients means visiting our local Asian market or grocery store. Follow this virtual tour and gain some valuable tips to help you find everything you'll need to cook authentic Thai food.

Fresh Produce Section

Here you can find the vegetables called for in your recipe. As the names of items will probably be written in Chinese, you will need to have a mental picture of what you're looking for. Fresh fruit can also be found in this section, including limes, mangoes, pineapple, papaya—both ripe and green, and various other tropical fruits. Note that often it is best to buy mangoes here rather than in a grocery store if you wish to achieve an authentic taste; although you might pay a little more, you will find the taste well worth the price.

Shopping Tip No. 1: When purchasing mangoes, look for yellow skin and mangoes that are fragrant when held up to your face. The flesh should be soft, but not mushy. Remember that mangoes will continue to ripen until you eat them. To slow this process, they can be safely stored in the refrigerator until needed.

The fresh produce section will also provide you with the fresh herbs called for in your recipes, such as coriander and basil.

Shopping Tip No. 2: When choosing basil, look for purplish, pointed leaves for Thai holy basil, and rounded, bright green leaves for sweet basil. The third type of basil, Lemon Basil, is easily identifiable by its lemony scent. Just rub one of the leaves between your fingers, and you'll be able to distinguish it.

Another fresh herb you will find here is garlic, and there may be many types to choose from. Look for bulbs that are still tight, and make sure the cloves aren't too large. The smaller the cloves, the stronger the taste, which is why most Thai chefs avoid what is known as Elephant Garlic (very large cloves), as its mildness will easily be overshadowed by the other spices in any Thai paste or sauce.

You will also find fresh ginger in the produce section, but you may not be able to find its cousin, galangal. Remember, galangal looks almost the same as ginger, except its skin is white (often with a yellowish or reddish hue to it). If you do not see it in this section of the store, look for galangal in the freezer (galangal is usually sold frozen in clear packets). The same goes for fresh turmeric.

Lemongrass is easy enough to recognize by its long, thin stalks and lemony scent. It will definitely be found in the fresh produce section alongside the vegetables and/or fresh herbs.

There will be some fresh mushrooms available here, but buying dried is generally a better value and just as nutritious (some health food experts say they are even more nutritious!).

Shallots and spring onions can also be picked up in this section.

Often Asian stores will shelve their fresh noodles in this section. Check the due date before purchasing, however, as rice noodles especially do not remain fresh (soft) for long.

Dry Goods Section

As you walk along the aisles and aisles of dry goods, take in the array of products available. Often you will discover foods you would never have dreamed of -- this can be a fun (and tasty) way of experiencing Asian culture firsthand.

Along these aisles you will be able to find the following Thai ingredients:

  • Mushrooms (dried in large packets or bags)
  • Green peppercorn (pickled in a jar)
  • Rice—Thai jasmine, black, and sweet (sticky) rice
  • Dried noodles of all variety
  • Dried spices, such as white pepper, turmeric, coriander seeds, and sometimes makrut lime leaves
  • All sauces, such as light and dark soy sauce, fish sauce (look for a tall, colorful bottle), chili sauce, rice vinegar, etc.
  • Coconut milk
  • Flours and starches, such as rice flour, arrowroot powder, and tapioca starch/powder

In addition to ingredients, you will probably find an aisle or two devoted to cooking tools, utensils, appliances, and even dishes, teapots, and cups.

Freezer Section

Some of the greatest culinary discoveries can be found in the freezer section. Look here for the following Thai ingredients:

  • Banana leaves (in large, clear plastic bags)
  • Pandan leaves (packaged the same as banana leaves). You will be able to distinguish these by their bright green color and long leaves about an inch in width. Also, you should be able to smell their sweet scent through the packaging.
  • Fresh galangal and turmeric (as stated above)
  • Makrut lime leaves (in flat, clear packaging). They are very green in color and consist of several pod-shaped leaves joined together.

Shopping Tip: It is recommended to buy frozen makrut lime leaves rather than dried, as they have more flavor and aroma.

The Bakery

Many Asian stores have a fresh bakery attached where you can buy a quick snack or desserts/snacks to take home. Take a minute to stop by and have a look around—the smell (and taste) of these baked goods will keep you coming back for more.


  • These bakeries will usually sell Chinese baked goods, although occasionally they offer desserts influenced by Thai cuisine. Look for cakes or desserts with sticky rice and coconut as key ingredients, and you’ll be on the right track.