Story and Photography By Jam Sanitchat
Thai cuisine is a cohesion of clean, distinct flavors—sweet, sour, spicy, salty and bitter—derived from different herbs, spices and vegetables. No-fuss preparation is a hallmark of many Thai dishes, yet finding the right ingredients locally can present a challenge. As recently as a few years ago, the most commonly used Thai ingredients were found only in specialty markets, if at all, and freshness was an issue. But as Thai cuisine continues to grow in popularity, Thai spices, vegetables and herbs have begun to carve a noticeable niche in many of Austin’s farmers markets and nurseries.
And backyard gardeners are discovering how easy it is to grow a Thai garden at home. The weather in Central Texas and Thailand is very similar—most notably the heat and humidity. It doesn’t rain as much in Texas as it does in Thailand, though, and the winters here are much harsher. Because of this, some delicate Thai herbs will need protection in the summer and winter. Choosing a garden plot that gets more of the morning sun is best, but if afternoon sun dominates, shade tender herbs like basil and mint with a mesh tarp.
Common Asian plants like lemongrass and Kaffir lime trees are perennial and do well here, either potted or in the ground. Lemongrass is very easy to grow: simply place fresh lemongrass (available at stores) in a bowl of water for a few days. As soon as roots appear on the stalk, bury the whole thing in the garden. Lemongrass is fragrant but very mild, and lends itself to steeping. Make an aromatic tea from the leaves, and a flavorful soup from the stalk.
Kaffir lime trees are easy to grow as well. The leaves are refreshingly aromatic and very versatile—offering a touch of citrus flavor to soups, salads and stir-fry dishes. When used in a stir-fry recipe, the leaves are most often sliced into very thin slivers to evenly distribute their intense flavor; for soups and salads, they’re torn in half. The fruit of the tree is small with bumpy skin—the zest of which is used mainly in curry pastes. Kaffir limes are sour and bitter and are not used in today’s cooking, though the juice can be used to clean silver and copper.
Plants like Thai basil and chilies are annuals that do well in Austin’s climes. Thai chilies are small and much spicier than jalapeños or serranos. Like many peppers, they start off green and turn red as they mature on the plant. They’re used in soups, salads, stir-fry dishes and sauces. Dried Thai chilies are made from red chilies and are used in curry pastes and as a condiment. Be careful to grow different types of chilies far away from each other in the garden. They can cross-pollinate and you’ll end up with sweet Thai chilies and spicy bell peppers!
There are two kinds of basil most often used in Thai cuisine—sweet basil, or bai horapa, and holy basil, also known as kaphrao (or sometimes kra prow). Sweet basil is used more frequently because it stays fresh longer. Holy basil, often found in stir-fry dishes, has to be used the same day it’s harvested. (Austin Farmers’ Market customers know that Simmons Family Farms brings freshly harvested holy basil to the market every Saturday morning.)
A Thai garden wouldn’t be complete without galangal, the pleasantly loud member of the ginger family whose roots are famous for lending a bright, strong flavor to dishes—most often coconut soup. To grow galangal, buy fresh roots (available at grocery stores) and place them directly into the garden soil or pot. Soon, more roots will begin to shoot and green leaves will emerge above the soil. Simply unearth and cut a bit of root when needed for a dish. The roots will continue to grow and multiply.
Most Thai herbs and spices are dormant in the winter, but much of the Thai garden bounty can be preserved for use in the winter months. Kaffir lime leaves, galangal, lemongrass and Thai chilies freeze very well. Preserve Thai basil by picking and blanching the leaves (to preserve the color), then wrapping them in aluminum foil for the freezer.
Aside from herbs and spices, many Asian vegetables used in Thai cuisine also love the heat of Texas. Local nurseries carry a good selection of seeds or starter plants like Chinese broccoli, bok choy, a variety of Thai eggplants and winter and summer squashes—all great additions to curries and stir-fry dishes.
And finally, why not incorporate a bit of centuries-old Thai tradition into your garden landscape as well? Thais believe that a tamarind tree planted in front of the house will ensure proper respect from society for the homeowner and protect him or her from ill will. And a jackfruit tree planted behind the house will bring support from people when needed. Unfortunately, neither tree would make it through an Austin winter in the ground. But luckily the beliefs apply to potted plants, too!
Get garden beds ready for early spring planting, and visit local nurseries to find out what they’ll carry when it’s time to plant. Add some of these Thai plants to your plot and get ready to make your favorite Thai dishes fresher than ever.
HERBS AND SPICES
Kaffir lime leaves
Chinese chives/garlic chives
NURSERIES WITH STARTER PLANTS
MARKET VENDORS WITH THAI PRODUCTS
Animal Farm: Thai eggplants
Scott Arbor: Thai chilies
Simmons Family Farms: Thai basil, Thai eggplants, Thai chilies, Chinese broccoli
Tecolote Farm: Thai basil,long beans, Japanese radishes
Two Happy Children Farm: Thai eggplants, Thai chilies
Urban Roots: Thai chilies