While Leela Punyaratabandhu's "Simple Thai Food: Classic Recipes from the Thai Home Kitchen" — one of our favorite resources on the cuisine, to be sure — is "simple" by name, it certainly doesn't shy away from bold flavors and time-honored techniques.
In the book, Punyaratabandhu shares a selection of her family's most-beloved Thai recipes, many of which don't require anything more than supplies you've already got in your pantry. However, a few dishes do require stocking a few special ingredients — common pantry items in Thai cuisine, but maybe ones that are a bit harder to find elsewhere. And yes, while in the age of near-instant online ordering, sometimes you need to satisfy your Thai craving even sooner.
We get that — and luckily, Punyaratabandhu does too. She offers numerous ingredient substitutions throughout the book, especially when it comes to condiments, like fish sauce and tamarind pulp, and sometimes harder-to-find produce, such as long beans and water morning glory. After all, she writes, "cuisine exists to serve us, not the other way around, and cooking should be enjoyable."
With that in mind, here are several easy-to-find substitutes for Thai ingredients. We're starting with fish sauce, because it's one of the most-reached-for Thai staples around — aka, you'll probably encounter it in most Thai recipes out there. But if you don't have it, fear not! We've got you covered.
What is fish sauce?
In order to find the best substitute for fish sauce, you need to learn what it is. Fish sauce is made from fermenting salted fish (usually anchovies) in barrels for at least a year. It's been a staple ingredient in Thai, Vietnamese, and other southeastern Asian cuisines for thousands of years. "The longer the fermentation, the less fishy and the nuttier — and more umami-rich — the flavor," writes Christopher Kimball in "Milk Street: The New Rules." The highest quality fish sauce is the result of the first pressing; this is the kind you'd put on the table for drizzling as a finishing sauce. The second press is used as an ingredient in dipping sauce; it's less important for the flavor to be super concentrated because it will likely be mixed with other ingredients such as lime juice, sugar, garlic, ginger, and chile peppers. The third press is seen as the worst quality (though it's certainly not bad); that just means it's best for cooking stir-fries, fried rice, and Phở.
Where to find fish sauce
You won't find fish sauce in the seafood department. Instead, it will be lined up alongside glass bottles of soy sauce, tamari, sriracha, and sambal oelek in the "Asian" or "International" sections of the grocery store. (We put those words in quotation marks because it's obviously unfair to lump ingredients from dozens of different countries on just a few shelves without any specific qualifier beyond calling the area "ethnic," but it remains how most American grocery stores are organized.)
Fish sauce substitute
While fish sauce (aka a liquid condiment made of fish or krill that have been salted and fermented for two years or more) commonly found in even your average supermarket now, vegetarians and vegans avoid it for obvious reasons, as do many with shellfish allergies. So how do you get the punchy umami kick without turning to the bottled stuff? Here are our go-to fish sauce substitutes:
1. Mushroomy, umami broth
Cook's Illustrated discovered that a salty broth made from mushrooms, salt, and soy sauce could be used in a 1:1 ratio with the real deal.
2. Soy sauce + minced anchovy
Alternatively, for one tablespoon of fish sauce, you can use a tablespoon of soy sauce mixed with a finely-minced anchovy fillet (scaled up or down, depending on your recipe needs).
3. Soy sauce + vinegar + a pinch of salt
Soy sauce is plenty sweet and umami-fied, but needs a little bit of pucker to make it an adequate fish sauce substitute. Try mixing equal parts of soy sauce and vinegar (white, cider, wine or champagne, or rice all work — just not balsamic) together, and adding a little pinch of salt, then use it in the same proportion as fish sauce.
4. Liquid or coconut aminos + a pinch of salt
Made from soybeans treated with an acidic solution, or fermented coconut sap, respectively, liquid and coconut aminos have a salty, sweet, and umami-inflected flavor that's somewhat reminiscent of fish sauce — it's not exact, though, and the underlying brininess of fish sauce won't be present using this option. Use aminos in a 1:1 ratio, and be sure to add a pinch of salt to taste.
5. Vinegar + wakame powder + pinch of salt
Wakame powder, aka a variety of edible seaweed that's been dried and crushed finely, pretty closely approximates the briny flavor of fish sauce. Mixed together with any vinegar of your choosing (except — you guessed it — balsamic) plus a pinch of salt, this sub will be pretty dang close to the original. It will also, however, be dark green and murky in color, so keep this in mind based on the recipe you're hoping to use it in (you might want to keep it out of dipping sauces or clear broths, for example).
6. Vegan Fish Sauce
This recipe combines a number of the tricks and substitution suggestions above. It's also a little more involved than the others, but well worth it — it tastes just like fish sauce. All this said, we recommend making a big batch so you can add dashes and drizzles for many pans of pad Thai to come!
The Thai pantry
Along with fish sauce, these three ingredients are staples in Thai cooking, but you might not have them on hand. Learn how to substitute palm sugar, Makrut Lime leaves, and Green Papaya.
While Punyaratabandhu recommends buying palm sugar in its soft, pasty form, it's often sold in giant blocks or wheels, which need to be grated. If real palm sugar eludes you, use light brown sugar. And as one Food52 reader points out on the Hotline, dried and hardened brown sugar can be grated or melted just the same. Readily-available coconut sugar is also an option.
Makrut lime leaves
These are "not even close to being interchangeable in the minds of Thai cooks," writes Punyaratabandhu — but we're going to tell you to do it anyway because these leaves are among the most difficult Thai ingredients to source. Dried leaves are stripped of the natural oils that make them so unique in the first place, but Punyaratabandhu does point out that frozen, fresh leaves are available online. Alternatively, many chefs find that lemon verbena delivers a similar flavor profile, as does lime zest to taste.
This fruit is a staple in Thai cuisine, where it's mostly treated as a vegetable. Some markets, points out Punyaratabandhu, even sell it pre-grated, by the pound, which can save you a lot of trouble — and your knuckles. If you can't find green papaya, swap in regular papaya in a pinch, but it must be wholly unripe and rock hard.