Crash Course in Thai Food
by Wen Zientek-Sico
Immerse yourself in the wonderful flavors of Thai cookery with this brief introduction to this most delicious of cuisines.
While we tend to lump all Asian cookery together as being similar, there are many unique differences and qualities that make each one a great stand alone cuisine that is worth exploring. Thai is no exception, and has a rich heritage of richly flavored dishes that seem to be just a bit more exotic than the more well known Japanese, Chinese, or Indian fare that most of us are familiar with.
When I think of Thai food I think of lemon-lime scents, lots of cilantro, the coolness of coconut milk, the fiery heat of chili peppers, and the marvelous flavor of one of the most versatile and useful commercial products you can buy, nam pla or fish sauce. And lots and lots of rice! Those actually are the main flavors in Thai cuisine, although there are many other spices and ingredients that are also very common. Fresh vegetables also play a large role in traditional Thai cookery. While most of the traditional ingredients are not available in most western areas, there are some excellent substitutes that impart the same flavor. Most recipes rely on the bounty of the waterways and shores that abound in Thailand. Fish and shellfish, both of the saltwater and freshwater varieties, are more frequently used in dishes than meat is. Beef, pork, and poultry are not very traditional parts of Thai cuisine, although they are used in small amounts in certain special recipes. Dessert is usually reserved for special occasions, and most meals end with a selection of fresh fruit.
Thai meals are very different than western meals. It is fairly common in Thailand to eat many small meals and snacks throughout the day. When an actual meal is served, it is usually served family style. All of the dishes are served at once, with no individual courses. The dishes are laid out on a table and everyone grabs small portions of what they want to eat. When they want more, they get more. The large helpings that are so common in many cultures are nonexistent for most Thai families. Normally a wide variety of dishes are served, and everyone enjoys a small sampling of each dish, rather than large portions of 2-3 dishes. A clear broth and large bowl are consistently served with every meal, but the rest of the dishes can include salads, sauces, noodle dishes, fried dumplings, spicy curries, and whole fish. Thais take great pride in the appearance of their food, and they are typically liberally garnished with carved, sliced, or styled fruits and vegetables.
Thai food is very basic at its heart, and very fast to prepare. Most dishes are cooked very quickly, and pretty much everything is stir-fried in a wok or steamed. There are no long sitting or marinating times. Everything is quickly prepared, cooked, and served in succession. All you really need to prepare Thai food is a wok and steaming basket. Other useful items are a rice steamer(most dishes revolve around rice and while you can steam it in your wok, it is easier and faster to use a rice steamer), a large cleaver or knife, and a wire basket or slotted spoon to handle and drain boiled noodles or fried foods. If you want to make your own spice mixtures and pastes, a mortar and pestle is also very useful to crush whole seeds and mix together spices and herbs.
The most common ingredients you will need for Thai recipes can be found at most well stocked grocery stores. Thai food, and cooking it at home, has become increasingly popular and even some fresh ingredients have been sneaking their way into average grocery stores. Many Asian, Middle Eastern, or other specialty markets carry some of the harder to find ingredients as well.
Here are the most common and important ingredients that you will need to cook Thai food at home:
Basil - Thai basil is different than the ordinary sweet basil you can find at most grocery stores. The flavor is a bit deeper and almost mustier. You can find Thai basil in many stores, or you can grow it from seed. Regular fresh basil works perfectly fine as a substitute.
Chile peppers - Thai peppers are tiny red peppers that are hotter than anything most grocery stores will carry. If you are lucky, you might be able to find some. If you aren't, any small hot pepper will work. I normally end up substituting small habanero peppers with excellent results.
Coconut - Thai food relies not only on fresh and dried unsweetened coconut, but on the milk and cream made from the coconut meat. Coconut milk is made from soaking the coconut meat and squeezing out the liquid. It is a pretty tedious process, and for most people canned coconut milk is an adequate substitute. Coconut cream is a thicker layer of liquid that is skimmed from coconut milk. Neither coconut milk or coconut cream is the liquid from inside a coconut, so don't even think about using that liquid in place of it in a recipe.
Cilantro - Both cilantro leaves and roots are frequently used in Thai recipes. Cilantro roots are very difficult to find in most areas, but cilantro stems or even a mixture of cilantro and curly leaf parsley can be used in place of the roots. There is no good substitute for fresh cilantro, but it is available in most places and stores very well. Place the stems in a vase or glass of water and refrigerate until ready to use.
Dried Mushrooms - These small black mushrooms are typically found in the oriental section of your local grocery store. They are quite pungent and woody and need to be thoroughly soaked before using. Any strong flavored dried mushroom can be substituted with good, but not overly traditional results.
Dried Shrimp - These salmon pink shrimp are available packaged in many ethnic markets and some grocery stores. They add texture, color, and salty flavor to many dishes.
Gingerroot - Very common in Thai cuisine, fresh gingerroot should be a staple in your kitchen. Powdered ginger cannot be substituted. You should be able to find fresh gingerroot in most areas.
Lemon Grass - I have been pleasantly surprised to see lemon grass in our local grocery stores over the past few years. It adds marvelous flavor to many dishes, and is even the main flavoring ingredients in some. Lemon grass stalks can be frozen and stored for up to six months. Freshly grated lemon zest can be used in place of lemon grass if needed. The finely grated zest of 1 small lemon is equal to one stalk of lemon grass.
Limes - While Thais generally use Kaffir limes and Kaffir lime leaves in their recipes, most markets do not carry them. Fresh limes and lime zest can be used instead with excellent results.
Mung Bean Noodles - A very trendy ingredient, also frequently called cellophane noodles, glass noodles, or bean threads, mung bean noodles can be found in many markets. These translucent noodles become very soft and gooey after soaking and cooking and are an important part of many dishes.
Nam Pla (Fish Sauce) - The quintessential flavoring ingredient for many Thai dishes, this sauce is indispensable. It is a very salty mild flavored thin brown liquid that adds wonderful flavor to many dishes.
Rice Stick Noodles - This thin, fragile pasta can be found in many gourmet or regional markets. Vermicelli or angel hair pasta can be used instead if desired with excellent results. Make sure to adjust the cooking times because rice stick noodles cook very, very quickly in comparison to regular pasta.
Shrimp Paste - This thick paste is packed with salty, fishy flavor. It is used in many seafood recipes and adds extra depth and flavor to recipes.
Calphalon Professional Hard Anodized Collector's Edition 4-Piece 12-Inch Flat Bottom Wok Set - The wok I use for all Thai cooking and stir-frying. You will see plenty of photos of it as we cover different cuisines, and it is still gorgeous after years of hard use. Perfect for stir-frying, steaming, frying, and almost every type of cooking, it is the second most used pan in our household.
2-Tier Bamboo Steamer - Inexpensive and practical, this traditional bamboo steamer is my choice for use in traditional recipes. Large enough to steam large numbers of dumplings (yum!) or tons of vegetables, but small enough to fit into most woks, it is the perfect size.
Zojirushi NRC-18W Deluxe 10-Cup Rice Cooker & Warmer - I usually try to only recommend items that I own, but this is one item I really wished I owned. I have used them many times, and they are marvelous. You can make huge quantities of rice quickly and easily, keep it warm for 12 hours, transport it easily to potlucks and other dinners and reheat it, and always serve rice that is perfectly cooked. This cooker prepares rice better than any other steamer or rice cooker I have ever tried. Can't afford the large deluxe model? Consider the smaller rice cooker. It is great for smaller batches of rice and will keep rice perfectly warm for five hours.
It Rains Fishes : Legends, Traditions and the Joys of Thai Cooking - My favorite book on Thai cuisine, this is what I think a regional cookbook should be like. Filled with wonderful stories, background information about the Thai culture, ingredients, and the way that the Thai prepare and eat food, it makes for a fascinating book to curl up with and devour. Filled with beautiful watercolors and drawings it is just a gorgeous book. The recipes are excellent as well, and while they are small in number, they really represent the basics of Thai cuisine. Kasma Loha-unchit is a teacher of Thai cuisine, and that teaching really shows in the recipes, which are extremely easy to follow, and the practical information and suggestions that fill the book.
Dancing Shrimp : Favorite Thai Recipes for Seafood - My second most favorite book about Thai food, Dancing Shrimp is about more than just incredible seafood recipes. Also written by the talented Kasma Loha-unchit, it includes fascinating and useful information about the Thai culture, ingredients, seafood, and much more. The book is engrossing to read and hard to put down. Many of the recipes are probably not practical for someone just learning how to cook Thai food, but the information is well worth the price of the book…and there are many recipes for someone who really wants to taste marvelous Thai food to experiment with.
Keo's Thai Cuisine - If you are looking for recipes, this is the book to buy. Filled with incredibly beautiful photographs and decadent recipes, this is widely considered to be the premiere resource on Thai cooking. All of the recipes are stunningly styled and photographs in this oversized book. The recipes are easy to follow and prepare, and the ingredients are easy to find. A great book for someone who loves to cook.
Thailand map courtesy Graphic Maps.