Flavour of: Bangkok – Aromatic herbs and spices

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Galangal, turmeric, lemongrass: Bangkok’s gastronomic scene is identifiable by its use of local aromatics. We take a closer look at five of its most distinctive herbs and spices 

One single tour of Bangkok’s intensely crowded streets, or a night walk through the web of alleys that vibrate with energy in the Thai capital city, and you’ll be hit by it: the aromatic power of local ingredients. Herbs and spices are showcased in street markets (even floating ones!) or directly implemented in delicious, traditional recipes. Thai food culture is soaked in flavour, and a key role is played by this specific, and extremely rich, category.  

Aromatic herbs and spices are the essence of historical recipes that come to life thanks to these roots, plants, powders, barks and seeds. Showcasing a remarkably wide range of nuances, from the fresh, zesty bite of lemongrass all the way to the warmth provided by chilli, Thai spices and herbs will surely grant you a memorable tasting experience. 

Left: Chef David Thompson – Right: Niks Anuman

And it is not just about the flavours: Thai ingredients are strongly connected to the deep spiritual identity the nation has. “Every country has some characteristics that seem to shine in every aspect,” Bangkok resident chef David Thompson, owner of the Michelin starred Aksorn, recounts. “Here it’s food. Stomach and soul are the two things Thais attend with equal diligence. The markets are clean, the monks are a substantial presence in the country, and this is not casual. Food is a way to improve in life, both physically and psychologically: here, it is a staple to a degree people don’t understand.”  

For a dive into Thai flavour heritage, here are five aromatic herbs and spices you absolutely should try. 


Closely related to (and resembling) ginger, galangal comes from the same botanical family. Its root is known to have been used since ancient times, mostly for healing purposes. As Niks Anuman-Rajadhon, owner of Bangkok’s drinking establishments like Teens of Thailand, Tax Bar, Asia Today and Independence, says: “In old medicinal world, it was considered the fire element, hence it should pair with cool flavors such as chrysanthemum, bael fruit or pandan.”  

Wonderfully dense in its aroma, galangal provides freshness and a lemony hint, together with an interesting flavour evolution: hot at the first bite, it develops into a more bitter taste. For this reason, it works brilliantly with sweet ingredients, both in drinks and dishes.  

Makrut lime  

Makrut is a prodigious citrus that hides a boatload of flavour, both inside and out. Its rugged skin releases an explosive, zingy aroma, with intense notes of green that bring bergamot to mind. “The juice is a bit sweeter and somehow soapy compared to regular lime,” Thompson explains, “with creamier hints from the skin.”  

Essential oil from the zest will release some powerful, tangy and colourful notes, and do not forget the leaves, as Anuman- Rajadhon points out: “If you burn or torch them, you will get a coconut organoleptic profile. Amazing stuff.”  


“The Western approach is more rational, whilst Thai is more instinctual. Traditional Thai cooking is like jazz,” Thompson states. And very few other ingredients could explain this statement than Thai lemongrass: zesty, fresh, far from the woody sensation given by the varieties that can be found in Europe. Deeply rooted in local tradition, lemongrass is a staple in the national food and drink culture with a floral profile that showcases “the floral-ness of the citrus notes, with an intense natural Asian light piney perfume,” Anuman- Rajadhon describes.  

With its piercing aroma and layered taste, lemongrass can qualify as the most distinctive, long-lasting flavor you could ever find in Thailand. 


There are tens of different species of chilli used in Thailand gastronomy, each of them expressing its proper flavour profile. According to Anuman- Rajadhon, the chilli padi is probably the most famous, used by many Thais fresh in their fish sauce.  

“It bursts through with burnt flavours until your mind will guide you to find more nuances in its heat,” he explains. Heat is what causes the warmth, and from that comes the lightly smoky note that characterises this variety, which stays sharp and vivid compared to other ones. Karen chili, for example, is much heavier on the smoke, “and it burns hard”, Anuman notes. “Its most popular use is in the dried version, but please remember to wash your hands after sprinkling it.” 


Another sibling belonging to the ginger family (though the orange version happens to be earthier, says Thompson), turmeric is impossible to get confused with anything else. It’s an authentic, ultimate example of what some ‘eastern aroma’ could be, as Anuman points out: very distinctive in its lightly peppery, musky-wood fragrance, it is perfect as a base for soups or part of a pressed juice. “My all-time favorite is chicken with turmeric soup: you just smash the turmeric with a mortar and throw it in,” though beware of the lingering effect it can have on your finger