Thai people regard food as a celebration. Indeed, the food of Thailand is a joy to the senses, combining the aroma of lemon grass with the pungency of brilliant red chillies and the magical flavors of coconut milk and fresh basil. Exotic cuisines are increasingly popular in the West, and enthusiastic cooks are keen to reproduce them in their own kitchens.
Buddhism is the religion of Thailand, so fish, shellfish and vegetables constitute the main part of the Thai diet. However, despite Buddhist law, there is also an extensive range of meat-based recipes. Salads are central to this cuisine. There are many varieties, some using exotic fruits such as mangoes, pineapple and papaya, as well as raw vegetables. A small quantity of shredded meat, such as pork, is sometimes added. Thai salad dressings are a delicious blend of fish sauce, brown sugar and lime juice. Coconut plays an very important role. Coconut milk flavored with ginger, lemon grass, chilies and basil leaves, forms the basis for most Thai curries. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of rice to Thai cuisine.
Thai Cooking Essentials for American Kitchens
Thai cooking is about freshness and balance of flavors. Each dish must have the right combination of four primary tastes: sweet, sour, hot and salty. If you lived in Thailand you could purchase freshly made curry pastes, coconut milk, and rice noodles in open-air markets. Fortunately, most American supermarkets stock jarred curry paste, canned coconut milk, and dried noodles. More exotic items can be purchased at Asian markets or on-line. This is a list of "must haves" for making Thai dishes.
Asian Eggplant This long, slender variety may be sold purple or marbled purple and white. It is sweeter than the larger common variety and does not need to be peeled or salted.
Bamboo Shoots Cut from an edible species of bamboo plant when it is a tender little plant. They are available canned and sliced. Rinse thoroughly to remove metallic taste.
Basil Several varieties of basil are used in Asian cooking. The Thai basil has an anise-mint flavor and purple stems. There is also holy basil, which has a sharp, spicy-hot flavor. Ordinary sweet basil is quite close in flavor to Thai basil and is a readily available substitute.
Bean Sprouts The crisp, delicate sprouts of mung beans are extremely perishable. Purchase bean sprouts that have their buds attached and smell and look fresh, not musty or slimy. Refrigerate spouts and use within a few days.
Cellophane Noodles These clear thin noodles, sold in tangled bunches, are also called bean threads or glass noodles. They are made from mung bean flour, and like rice noodles, must be soaked before using.
Chili Oil This fiery oil is made by infusing vegetable oil with hot chili peppers.
Chili Paste or Chili-Garlic Paste A seasoning paste made of hot red chili peppers and garlic.
Chili Peppers Both fresh and dried chili peppers are used. The Thai bird’s-eye pepper is a small red chili that packs more heat than any other pepper except the habanero. For American cooks, Serrano chili peppers or jalapeno peppers are fine substitutes. Dried chili peppers are even hotter than fresh ones and can be slightly tamed by removing the seeds. In many recipes dried red pepper flakes are called for instead of whole chilies.
Cilantro (coriander) The coriander plant produces both the bright green, fresh-tasting leaves (cilantro) and the seeds which are coriander. The root is used as well. Cilantro is sometimes called Chinese parsley and is used in virtually every Asian cuisine.
Coconut Milk Unsweetened canned coconut milk is available in the ethnic section of most supermarkets. Do no confuse it with cream of coconut, which is a sweetened product used in drinks like pina coladas. Nor is coconut milk the liquid inside a fresh coconut; this is coconut water.
Fish Sauce This condiment is used in Southeast Asian cooking as soy sauce is in Chinese cuisine. Don't be put off by this condiment's funky aroma. It diminishes with cooking. Fish sauce helps balance and complete many dishes.
Ginger Fresh ginger is a bumpy, beige-colored root. It may be stored in the refrigerator for several weeks. Ground dried ginger is from the same plant, but is not an acceptable substitute as the flavor is quite different.
Green Curry Paste Made from green chili peppers, this paste is even hotter than the red. Other ingredients are very similar to those in red curry past.
Lemon Grass The flowery perfume of lemon grass is one of the most delightful elements of Thai cooking. Minced finely, lemon grass is part of many curry pastes. The stalks are also cut into large pieces and used to flavor foods, then removed before serving, rather like a bay leaf. To use fresh lemon grass, cut off the moist portion at the rood end. Throw away the dry, fibrous stalk and the outer leaves. The tender white portion may then be minced and used.
Masaman Curry Paste This complex curry paste includes cinnamon and nutmeg, along with the usual garlic, ginger and red chili peppers.
Red Curry Paste This usually includes fresh red chili peppers, lemon grass, shallots, garlic, ginger, coriander and cumin. Red curry paste is quite spicy, so start by using a small amount and adjust to taste.
Rice Noodles These semi-translucent dried noodles come in many sizes and have many names, including rice stick noodles, rice-flour noodles and pho noodles. Widths range from string thin to 1 inch wide. All rice noodles must be soaked or boiled before using and all may be used interchangeably provided soaking and cooking times are adjusted.
Rice Papers Look for packages containing stacks of thin translucent rounds, 6 to 8 inches in diameter. Rice papers look fragile, but are actually fairly easy to handle. After soaking they become soft, flexible and a bit stretchy.
Rice Vinegar Asian rice vinegar is milder than Western vinegars. The kind labeled "seasoned rice vinegar" is used for sushi rice. Look for plain rice vinegar for other recipes.
Sesame Oil Asian sesame oil is made from pressed toasted sesame seeds, so it is dark in color. It should be used only as a flavoring agent, not as a cooking oil since it will burn easily.
Shiitake Mushrooms The meaty flesh of the shiitake has a bull-bodied, savory flavor. Shiitakes are available both dried and fresh. Remove the tough stems before using. Dried shiitakes must be soaked for 30 minutes to rehydrate.
Soy Sauce An extremely important seasoning in all Asian cuisines, soy sauce was developed more than 3,000 years ago. There are many brands and varieties, so choose one that suits your taste.
Tofu (bean curd) This high-protein, low-cholesterol food made from soybeans is bland by itself, but has an amazing ability to absorb flavors. Tofu is available in blocks with different textures from soft (silken tofu) to extra firm. Once the package is opened, tofu must be rinsed and refrigerated. It is best to use within a few days.