What Makes Thailand’s World-Famous Pad Krapow so Craveable?

What Makes Thailand’s World-Famous Pad Krapow so Craveable?

There's a special herb that makes the widely-eaten Basil Meat Rice a one-plate wonder, with as many as 15 different variations of it, and some say even more

There are few things that say "I'm in Thailand!" better than a piping hot plate of spicy, nostril-tingling Pad Krapow. And in Bangkok’s intoxicating street food scene, the stir-fried basil meat rice is widely eaten, plate-after-plate, by locals and tourists, any meal of the day.  

It’s no exaggeration - there are there are at least 15 different Krapow rice plates that you can feast on, including the popular Krapow Gai (Basil Chicken), Krapow Moo (Basil Pork), or the cult-favourite, Krapow Khai Yiao Ma (Century Eggs).  

What then, makes it such a winner? 

Basil-cally, the key to a good Krapow dish lies in Thai hot basil

Holy "hot" basil plant, with jagged leaves and purple-red stems 

Well, that's the answer: hot basil. That's the only type of basil Thais use to make delicious Krapow. Also called bai krapow, or holy basil, its heavenly smell is most distinct in the nostril-tingling, aromatic spicy whiff in the world-famous stir-fry. 

The red-purple stemmed leaves of holy basil leave a peppery, numbing flavour to the Krapow meat and rice one-plate meal. It’s also hot when fresh - that's how it got its name. When stir-fried under fierce heat, as how a Krapow dish is normally made, its juices seep out and flavour everything with strong spicy heat. And the more you cook it, the stronger the flavour builds. That's why it's often eaten with rice to soak up all the addictive juices, and a crisp runny egg on the side to mellow out all the heat.

Now, before you go hunting for the herb, know that they're a part of a big basil family - it's a close cousin of the Thai sweet basil, and not so far off from the Mediterranean basil that's used in pasta and pesto, among others. The hot basil though, has two variants with widespread use in Thai food:

  • White Hot Basil (Krapow Khao) – broad leaves, with milder, peppery clove notes you can use for seafood. Good to stave off colds, relieve nasal congestion. 

  • Red Hot Basil – broad leaves, with stronger, well-rounded, peppery clove notes that go especially well with meats. Good to stave off colds, relieve nasal congestion. 

Others, like Thai sweet basil and lemon basil are also commonly used in Thai cooking:

  • Thai Sweet Basil – sharper, narrower leaves with sweet, liquorice tasting notes, used to give curries, seafood soups, and salads a sweeter, balmy flavour.

  • Lemon Basil – soft fuzzy stemmed leaves with lemongrass-lemon-lime notes. It’s an essential ingredient for a delicious Southern style fish curry known as Khanom Jeen. Nam Ya. In the North, its holds equal importance in a pork curry noodle soup, or Khanom Jeen Nam Ngiao.

Outside of Southeast Asia, your local supermarket likely stocks the more common Thai sweet basil. Specialty stores, or online grocers though, might have the hot variant. 

And don't forget Thai garlic and bird's eye chillies too

A mix of Thai garlic bulbs and chillies

But there’s more to making a good Krapow stir-fry – you’ll also need a whack of Thai garlic and chopped chillies. You see, they infuse the wok with a different kind of heat. Basil gives warmth, whereas garlic and bird's eye chillies give sharpness. The small red chillies are explosively fiery and fruity, and about 15 times hotter than the Mexican Jalapeno pepper.

Thai garlic too, with a dusty purple-beige exterior and intense, bold and buttery taste when fried, gives the rice and meat a garlicky edge. The petite bulbs, usually grown in the region of Chiang Mai, Lamphun, and Mae Hong Son, are unlike their Western cousins that are usually plumper and uniformly white. 

Finally, for earthy balance, bruise a Thai coriander root 

The leaves and stems of Thai coriander, also called cilantro, gives a fresh, citrusy scent. Its roots impart a more earthy flavour

Finally, this might be harder to get in your local supermarket - Thai coriander root. You might know it most famously in Thai Tom Yum, but it works excellently here as well. It has an earthy, deeply aromatic flavour different from the leaves and stems, which are more widely available and slightly sweetly scented. In Krapow dishes, they are usually first bruised in a mortar and pestle with garlic, white peppercorns and more to get a peppery blend. 

Learn to cook Krapow Gai (Basil Chicken Stir-Fry) from Thailand's top chef

Chef TThitid Tassanakajohnon "Ton", posing in front of his one-star Michelin restaurant, Le Du, in the Bangkok capital. His contemporary Thai restaurant was named after the Thai word for "seasons". 

Now that you've read it all, join Michelin-starred Chef Ton, as he shows you how to make his favourite Thai food, including top tips and substitutions, in Missing Thailand, Missing Thai Food. That's live from his Bangkok kitchen, Thursdays 6.30pm 13 - 27 August on Asian Food Network’s Facebook page. Save the recipe here and catch his lip-smacking Krapow Gai (Basil Chicken Stir-Fry) cook-a-long on 13 August, 6.30pm BKK; 7.30pm SG/HK.

A cityscape of Bangkok's Chinatown. Yaowarat is the largest Chinatown in the world. It's just one of many popular tourist districts in Thailand. 

Meanwhile, if you're already daydreaming of your next flight out to Thailand, get a head start with our guide on what to do, see and eat. Plus, plan your trip and get the latest Covid-19 travel advice on the dos and don'ts in Thailand at tourismthailand.org

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