Grow Your Own Thai Garden
If you love the unique spice and flavors in classic Thai dishes, try growing these plants in your home garden for extra zest in your recipes.
The people from Thailand’s neighboring countries may recognize certain spices or vegetables found on Thai menus, but the amalgamation of herbs, vegetables, and cooking methods make the food from Thailand different from all other Asian cuisine.
If you’ve dined at your local Thai restaurant, you probably love the clean complexity of foods such as green curry, slightly tart soups, or noodle dishes. This is due in large part to a Thai chef’s ability to perfectly blend the variety of tastes — salty, sweet, sour, bitter — into dishes that are distinctly and deliciously Thai.
Fortunately for gardeners, fabulous seed sources make growing some of the more exotic Thai plants possible. Though we’re not all lucky enough to grow in tropical climates, gardeners can take measures to extend the growing season in order to successfully grow most Thai vegetables. The eight plants below thrive in most zones and give Thai food its distinct flavor. Some of these plants can also be substituted for their Western counterparts in your favorite recipe.
1. Kaffir Lime
Photo by Fotolia/jojokrap
The kaffir lime is such an integral part of Thai cuisine that almost every family in rural Thailand has a tree. Every part of the tree has a culinary or household use. However, the small bumpy limes are coveted not for their tiny amount of juice, but for their rinds, which are often grated and an important ingredient in Thai curry paste.
The small citrus tree has a characteristically unusual look, with “double” leaves that look like hourglasses. These leaves are usually used whole to impart an aromatic and slightly citrusy fragrance in Thai soups, and then removed before serving, much like Westerners use bay leaves. Sometimes, fresh young leaves are snipped very thinly and used in a dish.
Kaffir lime trees will thrive in zones 9 and warmer. For gardeners in the north, trees should be planted in large pots with good drainage. Bring the kaffir lime tree out in the summer and be sure it gets plenty of moisture. When it gets cold, bring it back into the house to overwinter in front of a sunny window. Even small trees should produce more than enough leaves for use in your favorite Thai recipe.
Photo by T.J. Jones
Lemongrass is another citrusy-flavored herb that gives Thai food its distinctive taste. Lemongrass is relatively carefree in a sunny garden in a tropical zone. In colder zones, lemongrass can be grown in containers, or simply planted outside as an annual.
Plants can be started by seed, but it’s easy enough to take cuttings or find fresh green lemongrass stalks from an Asian grocer and root in a glass of water. Change the water every other day and roots should appear within two weeks. When roots are a couple inches long, the lemongrass stalks can be planted in a container or into the garden.
In the garden, lemongrass can grow to at least 3 feet tall and wide. Harvest as needed by cutting larger outside stalks at soil level. The part used in cooking is the light green or yellowish section near the bottom half of the stalk. Tough outside leaves or bruised leaves should be removed before cooking.
There are numerous cooking methods to use depending on the dish. To flavor soups, cut into 5-inch lengths and crush with a mallet before adding to the pot. To add to stir-fries, grate lemongrass or crush and then mince. For curries, slice tender lemongrass very thinly.
3. Bird's Eye Chili
Photo by Wendy Kiang-Spray
A major element that makes Thai food its own is its spiciness. The most famous type of Thai chili is a fiery little thing also known as a bird’s eye chili or mouse dropping chili. Possibly referring to their small size, these little inch-long pointed chilies might also be called bird’s eye chilies because they are a favorite food of birds. Not able to digest the seeds, they are passed whole, propagating more plants.
Bird’s eye chilies are hot — almost as hot as habanero peppers. They spice up many Thai dishes from curries to salads. They are also often sliced into thin rings, added to a little dish of fish sauce, and served as a condiment to flavor a meal.
In a tropical climate, they are perennial plants, but in colder regions, it is best to start seeds indoors in the early spring and transplant to the garden when the soil warms. Bird’s eye chilies can be treated as annuals, or alternatively, grown in pots and brought indoors for the winter. Thai chilies are easy to grow and produce an abundance of peppers. There is always enough to harvest and dry for use throughout the year.
4. Winged Bean
Photo by Jere Gettle
Gardeners looking for something really out of the ordinary should try growing the winged bean. This bean stands out from the other green beans due to the addition of four ruffley edges that run lengthwise along each bean.
The taste is often described as similar to asparagus or other green peas. In Southeast Asia, the bean thrives as a perennial plant and is a steady source of food with just about every part of the plant being edible.
In milder zones, this pole bean can be fussy. Though the winged bean is a vigorous grower, the plant is not a fan of cold weather. It enjoys warm temperatures but short days. Growing varieties such as ‘Hunan’ that produce better in temperate zones is one way to increase yield. Also, pruning after the plant produces its twelfth leaf will encourage the plant to send out side shoots and may increase the number of beans to pick.
This beautiful pole bean is tall and will need a structure to climb. Beans should be harvested when young and about 4 to 6 inches long. Any beans left on the vine past this phase can be shelled for its fresh peas inside or dried for later use. Try this delicious bean in stir fries, sautéed, or simply blanched and thrown in an Asian-inspired salad.
5. Thai Pumpkin
Photo by Jere Gettle
The probable winner of every ugly vegetable contest, the Thai pumpkin holds a secret within its slightly flattened, bumpy, grayish-dark green, blotchy exterior. The flesh of these 8- to 10-pound pumpkins is a beautiful yellow-orange; it tastes sweeter; and has a lower water content than Western jack o’lantern-type pumpkins.
In Thailand, pumpkins are added to curries and stir fries, but are most often found in desserts. In one Thai specialty — sankaya — a coconutty egg custard filling is poured into a seeded pumpkin and then steamed whole until the custard is set and the pumpkin is tender. When done, the pumpkin is cut into wedges to serve.
Thai pumpkins are as easy to grow as any other type of pumpkin. They need sun, abundant space to ramble, and lots of water. In zones with a shorter season, start seeds indoors and transplant carefully when the soil is workable. In other zones, sow seeds directly outdoors. Because roots grow deeply in the ground when the plant takes off, take care to prepare a good planting hole. Good drainage is important so pumpkins are often planted in hills.
After cutting mature pumpkins from the vines, allow to cure in a warm area for about 2 weeks before storing pumpkins in a cooler area. Hard rinds allow these pumpkins to be stored for months.
6. Thai Basil
Photo by Karen Keb
There are two types of basil that are commonly used in Thai cuisine, and both have distinct tastes that differ from the Italian sweet basil with which we typically make our pestos. The stems of the more commonly used Thai sweet basil are a deep reddish color and the leaves are smaller and more pointed than the Western sweet basil.
Thai sweet basil is very fragrant and has hints of anise. It’s often used in green and red curries. They are also used in large amounts in stir fries, cooked almost like a vegetable rather than an herb.
Thai holy basil is another important ingredient in Thai cooking, and is often used in dishes that include garlic, spices, and chili peppers. Thai holy basil, sometimes known as hot basil, differs from the Thai sweet basil in that the leaves are smaller, jagged, and have a minty or peppery bite, which is even more pronounced when cooked. Holy basil is an integral ingredient in the famous dish drunken noodles.
Both types of basils thrive in Thailand where they are grown as perennials. In milder climates, Thai basils do well but may need to be treated as annuals. Start seeds indoors in the early spring and transplant into the garden when the soil warms. Harvest leaves as needed just like any Western sweet basil. Because holy basil wilts quickly and does not store well, harvest just before using.
7. Thai Eggplant
Photo by Wendy Kiang-Spray
I first tried Thai eggplant some 20 years ago in a spicy and fragrant soup in an Asian fusion restaurant. Not knowing what they were, we descriptively referred to the whole fruits in the soup as “little pumpkins.”
Eggplants are eaten around the world and come in a variety of shapes and sizes from the tiny pea eggplants to the large purple globes available in our supermarkets. Most of these eggplants taste fairly similar.
Thai eggplants are a beautiful round variety, often just larger than a ping pong ball, and are green and white streaked. With a unique size and shape, along with tender skin and a taste that is described as more delicate than any other eggplant, the Thai eggplant is a popular choice for any stir-fried, sautéed, pickled, grilled, battered and fried, or mashed dish.
Thai eggplants love a long hot summer and are best started indoors in the early spring and transplanted in the garden when the soil warms. A little bottom heat will help the famously slow-to-germinate seeds get going. Flea beetles can be a problem with the Thai eggplant just like any other eggplant, but using a floating row cover or planting in a container up off the ground are pesticide-free tricks that can help.
Photo by Karen Keb
Roselle, a species of hibiscus, is not only an ornamental plant producing large, pale-yellowish flowers with dark spots at the centers, but is also a plant beloved for the calyces and edible leaves.
In Burma and parts of India, roselle leaves are widely eaten and are steamed, stir-fried with garlic, shrimp, and spices or cooked into soups. In Thailand and other countries, the calyces are harvested and often made into a jam or juice. A popular drink is made by cutting out the seed capsules from the calyces and boiling with water and then sweetened. Some people choose to add a squeeze of lime to the cooled roselle juice. The sweet tart flavor of this vibrant red roselle juice is a refreshing drink on a hot summer afternoon.
Roselle thrives in hot and humid climates, but can be grown in parts of the United States. In cooler zones with shorter seasons, there may not be enough hot summer days to produce fruits, but plants can be grown and harvested for leaves. In the warmer zones of the United States, seeds should be started in the early spring and transplanted to the garden in early summer. The eye-catching flowers will appear in the early fall. After the flower petals drop, the calyces that remain will begin to grow, ripen and be ready to harvest around December.
For a unique Thai dessert, try: Sankaya: Thai Pumpkin Custard Recipe
Wendy Kiang-Spray is a gardener, cook, and high-school counselor. She blogs at www.greenishthumb.net and is working on her first book on cooking with Asian vegetables.