What's cooking, teacher?
The amazing characteristics and flavors of Thai food
The food of Thailand is startlingly bold and imaginative. Carefully crafted to appeal to all senses, it combines beautiful presentation with fragrant aromas, contrasting yet complementing flavors and textures, and often fearsome chili-heat.
Although Thai food appears unique it is in fact one of the world's great fusion cuisines. The country may never have been colonized, but Thai cooks certainly absorbed foreign influences. As in much of Asia, Chinese culinary techniques are very strong, particularly in the form of noodle dishes, soups, and stir-frying to steaming. Indian spices give fresh-tasting Thai curries their deeper, toasty notes, while the flavors of Southeast Asia are tasted in satay and coconut curries. Even Thai chilies are not indigenous, but were introduced by the Portuguese in the 16 th century.
Thai cooks, many of them attached to the Royal Court, transformed these new ingredients and cooking techniques into something distinctly Thai by combining them with ancient seasoning of garlic, pepper, coriander root, lemongrass, pungent herbs, sour kaffir lime, tamarind, galangal, Asian shallots, coconut, palm sugar, fish sauce, and shrimp pastes.
These flavors are not, by any means, subtle, but Thai cooking blends them into graceful dishes where no one taste overpowers the other. Above all, Thai cooks value balance, and it is the combination of sweet, sour, salty and hot tastes that makes the food vibrant. With seasoning so important, it is no surprise that the mastery of Thai cooking lies in the labor---intensive creation of its curry and soup pastes, which heavily contrasts with the cuisine's quick cooking techniques.
So many flavors
The incredible aroma of a hot bowl of Tom Yum says much about Thai food. One of its distinctive characteristics is the use of fresh seasonings to impart a lemony essence and floral flavors. In Thai cooking, garlic and shallots, along with the aromatic root seasonings of ginger, turmeric, and the peppery galangal, is the foundations of many dishes. Fish sauce and shrimp paste add a salty taste, chili some heat, and coconut and palm sugar bring sweetness. But it is the sour yet refreshing citrus notes of lime, kaffir lime leaves, and lemongrass that balance the dish.
Although Thai cuisine is often described as lemony, in fact, lemons do not grow at all in a tropical climate. Instead, the juice of small, sour Thai lime is often added to cut the sweetness and oiliness of dishes. An alternative to a sour Thai taste can come from tamarind or vinegar. The bitter juice of the kaffir lime is very rarely used in Thai cooking, but its leaves and bumpy rind are used for their musty, limey fragrance and to hide the smell of the fish sauce or shrimp paste. Lemongrass, bruised with the back of a chef's knife to release the oils and yet add more fragrance into the curry pastes and soups.
Food in Thai society
A visit to bustling, cosmopolitan Bangkok can make Thailand appear very urban, but in many ways the country remains predominantly an agricultural society. The food most people eat everyday therefore reflects the simple, labor- intensive lifestyle of the paddy fields. Many families cook in an outside kitchen; the simplest meal is rice, grilled fish and a chili dipping sauce (nam phrik), and chili relish.
The central plains of Thailand are dominated by rice paddy fields, and the fertile land of the country's heart beat allows many families there to be essentially self-supporting. Even a small farm can provide rice, vegetables, a few herbs, fruit, fish from the canals (klongs), and frogs and insects from the fields. With enough to sustain themselves there is little need to hunt, with the diet supplemented by a little meat from pigs, chickens and ducks. all over Thailand there is a plentiful supply of food; fish from the southern coastline, rice in the north, and Thais can pick corn, coconuts, pineapples, and harvest rice.
Like many Asians, the Thais consider a meal a meal only if it is served with rice (khao). Rice and food are synonymous and, with the exception of snacks, Thai dishes are generally thought of in terms of the flavors and nutrients they add to plain rice. Rice makes up the biggest proportion of the meal, a first mouthful is savored before any of the other dishes are tasted, and then just a little of each dish is added to flavor it.
The long-grain jasmine rice grown in Thailand is one of the most highly regarded in the world, the Thais themselves calling cooked rice (khao suay), ‘beautiful rice'. Treated simply, the rice is usually steamed to a fluffy yet not sticky texture and releases a delicate aroma, though not a floral one, the jasmine referring to the appearance not the fragrance of the rice. It provides a neutral palate to balance the power of Thai dishes.
Thailand is also one of the few countries to value sticky long-grain rice. The rest of Asia rarely uses sticky rice, and then mostly for sweet dessert, snack dishes. Only in the relatively infertile mountains of northern Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos where it flourishes is this ancient grain used as a staple.
Black sticky rice is also popular and while other cuisines shun black food, the Thais have embraced this earthy tasting rice, which combines so well with sugar to become a sweet dessert dish.
Setting up a basic kitchen.
At the time of writing, I am living in Phnom Penh and have been here for just over a year. Bangkok was my home for 10 years and I lived in a studio apartment with no kitchen. So, what I did was set up a small, compact cooking area.
All you need is an electric hot plate, not the glass top ones; they only work with certain size pans and pots.
A small rice cooker.
A non-stick deep frying pan (the same shape as a wok).
A ceramic pot with a lid and bamboo steamer to fit.
An electric blender with a spice grinder attachment.
A sieve and some basic cooking utensils.
A GOOD quality electric power adaptor.
This is all I have at home now and I cook great, healthy meals most nights of the week. The cost is not that much, about 3,500 Baht and you will be on your way to cooking dishes that would cost you an arm and a leg in a restaurant in Bangkok.
For an example, I have cooked in the last 2 weeks dishes like Indian Madras curry, Thai stir-fried garlic prawns, Japanese egg nori rolls, Chinese steamed fish with black beans, Persian chicken curry, Thai mango sorbet, and Thai beef Massaman curry.
In my next blog I am going to be talking about cooking tricks, tips and preparing meals in advance.
I hope you enjoyed the read. Please pay a visit to my 'History of Asian Food' website for a great selection of Asian recipes. Kind regards, Paul Muir.
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"Many people, Thais included, tell me there is no point cooking at home for just one or two people - it doesn't make sense financially"
I don't buy that argument at all Richard. You eat far better when you cook at home compared to the plastic bags of street food, and the cost isn't that much more.
By Philip, Samut Prakarn (26th October 2015)
Interesting first article Paul, looking forward to the next one.
I really enjoy cooking and now I have a kitchen I plan to do a lot more. So far it is the dishes from home that I have been cooking but I would like to be able to cook some Thai food. How difficult would you say it is to cook Thai food compared to western food?
Many people, Thais included, tell me there is no point cooking at home for just one or two people - it doesn't make sense financially. I guess compared to a mid/high end restaurant you can save some money cooking at home but most people get food from the 40 / 50 Baht stalls on the way home.
By Richard, Nawamin (26th October 2015)