Basic principles of Thai cuisine

Updated: Jan 1, 2019

Let's start first with a little reassurance for those of you that are newbies at the art of Thai cuisine. Don't panic! Thai cooking is quite easy, and practice will make perfect. Try not to get overwhelmed by the many ingredients that you see is recipes, but most of all try to have fun with it.

So what makes Thai food smell and taste so wonderful?

Uniquely, Thai food is based on 4 pillars of taste, often referred to as the 4S of Thai food. (There is another, but I'll discuss this later in my blog)

Sour - Sweet - Salty - Spicy

Most Thai dishes will include each of these taste elements in some way, with one or two being dominant depending on the dish. Knowing what a dish is supposed to taste like is the first battle, but then again, experimentation can be fun too, so as long as you don't go crazy with the dominant flavours in your cooking, you should end up with something that will taste pretty good.

Striking the right balance means you need to have a sense of what the lead taste element should be in any specific Thai dish.

The lead taste element is referred to as "Rot Chad naam" (รสชาตินำ), while the secondary flavours or after tones are known as "Rot Chad Rong" (รสชาติรอง).

By way of examples, Tom Yum has spicy and sour as lead taste elements, with sweet and salty after tones. Massaman, on the other hand, has spicy and sweet as the lead elements.

TIP: Check out the recipes on our site where we give you some guidance on what are the lead flavours are so you can taste as you go.

What ingredients to use to achieve the right balance of the 4S flavours? Sour - You can use lime or lemon, young tamarind, green mango, sour pineapple, green papaya, bamboo. Sweet - Palm or coconut sugar, sweet pineapple. Salty - Shrimp Paste, Fish sauce, sea salt, shellfish, clams. Spicy - Chillies (red, green, fresh or dried), black or white peppercorns, long pepper

Introducing other Aromatic Herb and Spices.

Thai food differentiates itself from others by the extensive use of fresh herbs,

many with medicinal properties, that have been introduced into recipes over generations.

There are some key ingredients that give Thai food it's distinctive aroma, depth and layers of flavour.

Lemongrass, galangal, lime (rind and leaves), coriander leaves, sweet basil leaves and garlic are used in one way or another is all Thai dishes.

Other spices, including cardamom, nutmeg, cumin and coriander seeds are added to some pastes.

Introducing the 5th Element. Although sour, sweet, salty and spicy are by far the most common taste elements, it wouldn't be complete without including bitterness.


Normally, bitter things aren't pleasant to the taste, although this does vary from person to person. However, it is common for Thais to eat raw bitter green leaves (I love it), or include baby aubergines (eggplant) and bitter melon into some dishes for their medicinal properties, using the other taste elements to enhance and balance the flavour.

Another important ingredient that has a bitterness is turmeric. This has a range of benefits like detoxification of the body, helping weight loss, providing antibiotic, anti-parasitic and antiseptic properties. Pretty impressive!

So what makes Thai food taste so good?

Other than striking the right balance, using good quality fresh ingredients will bring out the very best of the flavours. Using organic or farm grown vegetables and meats will further enhance your experience. So my advice would be to always cook with fresh ingredients whenever possible.

So why use Mae Jum's Herb and Spice pastes?

I have created a range of pastes based on recipes passed down to me through generations of my family. I insist that only high-quality ingredients and fresh herbs and spices are used to recreate my recipes which I believe achieves the right balance you need to cook amazing Thai dishes.

When it comes to sweetness and saltiness, you have the final say by adding fish sauce and palm sugar to taste depending on what ingredients you have used, because as we've discussed, there are other ingredients you can use that will effect the balance.

TIP: Always use good quality coconut milk, it makes such a difference. I'll write a blog on this too, as it is quite important, please check it out.

Mae Jum produces high quality premium Thai Herb and Spice pastes. We do not include shrimp paste to preserve the fresh aromas of the herbs, so our products are suitable for vegans, vegetarians, and is also Halal certified. We never use artificial preservatives, additives or colouring, and our paste products are gluten-free.


THAI HERBS AND SPICES                          Simply Thai, Simply Delicious

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