Samui Wining & Dining
Flavour Fiesta

Herbs and spices and how they’re blended define the flavour of a country’s cuisine. Here, we look at Thai herbs.

18-(1)So we’ll leave the spices for a different story. But, what’s the difference between a herb and a spice, anyway? Well, generally speaking, herbs are the leaves and green bits of herbaceous (non-woody) plants, while spices come from other parts of the plant, such as roots, bark, flowers, fruit or seeds – although many people often (incorrectly) use the words ‘herb’ and ‘spice’ interchangeably. So pepper is a spice, as it’s the dried fruit of the pepper tree, and just to confuse things, salt is neither a spice nor a herb. It’s actually a mineral, so we’ll just call it a seasoning!

And to add yet another spanner in the works… some plants are both herbs and spices. Coriander leaves are a herb, while the seeds are used as a spice. Dill is another example. The seeds are a spice while dill weed is a herb derived from the plant's stems and leaves. And while garlic, shallots and ginger are widely used to flavour Thai food, they aren’t strictly herbs but are spices, but we’ll include them here, as they’re more often referred to as herbs – even though they’re not!

Ginger originated in China, where its function as a significant medicinal and culinary ingredient has been valued for thousands of years. So, herb or spice, the term used to describe ginger may seem like a petty debate. But, ginger appears on the herb list of the University of Maryland Medical Centre’s website. It appears on the spice list of the UCLA Medicinal Spices website.

However, despite the arbitrary terminology upheld by numerous agencies, particular characteristics categorise a plant as one or the other, making ginger root a spice – to be precise.

Right, so technicalities out of the way… herbs and spices are used primarily for adding flavour and aroma to food. And both are best used fresh, but can be saved by drying. They’re used for savoury (and sometimes sweet) purposes in cooking, and some have medicinal value too, and you’ll often find them used in the spas here on Samui. Herbs are often used in larger amounts than spices, as spices tend to be more potent and stronger flavoured.

So we’re eventually getting there… what are the herbs that are traditionally used in Thai cooking?

Well, first there’s sweet Thai basil – similar to the kind used in Italian pasta and various European tomato dishes. It’s used fresh as a vegetable in salads, and for flavouring.

A little different, but still the same family, is holy basil (kaprao). It’s also a sweet basil, but different in that the aroma and flavour are released only through cooking. It’s used in hot and spicy fried dishes – the most common of which is phad kaprao, which is pork, chicken or beef stir fried with kaprao as well as chillies, served with rice, and often with a fried egg on top.

Yet another variant is lemon-scented basil (maenglak), which is a kind of sweet basil with a somewhat peppery taste and strong lemon scent. It’s used as a vegetable in salads and as flavouring in some curries.

You’ve probably smelt this one walking past Samui’s many spas. Lemon grass (takrai) looks like coarse grass and has a refreshing lemony scent. The lower part of the stalk is used for flavouring mainly, but also used as an ingredient in curry paste and soups such as tom yum and tom kha. Lemongrass is also a common ingredient in natural sprays and creams used to repel insects.

Kaffir lime (makroot) is a knobbly dark green fruit the size of a large lime. The juice, peel and leaves are used in curry paste and cooking as flavouring. It’s similar to lemon, lemon peel and lemon verbena, and if possible, it should be added at the end, or after, cooking to retain its flavour, as the oil is volatile and dissipates quickly.

Mint (saranae) is also used in Thai cooking as flavouring in hot salads and northeastern Thai food. It’s often served as a side dish with other greens for eating with laab and other spicy dishes.


Pandanus leaf (bai toey) is a long and narrow green leaf, and is used in Thai desserts as flavouring and to add green colour. It can also be used as a wrap when deep-frying or grilling to add a special flavour.

Coriander/cilantro (phak chi) leaves and roots are frequently used in Thai cooking, and the leaves form a garnish on many dishes. The root is ground up when making curry pastes and the leaves and roots are essential for creating the distinctive flavour of tom yum. The dried seeds are seldom used in Thai cooking, except perhaps, when making Indian derived curries. And back to the herbs that aren’t really herbs – both Thai ginger (galangal) and garlic are both essential flavourings to Thai cooking. So if you’re keen to try a little Thai cooking of your own, head down to the local market and stock up on these herbs – or if you have green fingers, perhaps start your own herb garden. And only the purists will care if you plant a little ginger or garlic in your herb garden. As the saying goes, ‘A rose by any other name would surely smell as sweet.’ – or in this case, the garlic.

Rosanne Turner


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