From the moment I arrived there for my first visit in 1989 (well, after I recovered from the shock of the heat) my interest in and adoration of all things Thai has only increased. This very blog grew out of our Thai sabbatical in 2005, and I still look back on our time living there as very happy indeed. Idyllic even.
So it's in that spirit that I've decided to start an occasional series on Thai food. I hope I can entice and encourage more people to try cooking or at least sampling dishes in restaurants, and spur myself on to perfect the dishes in my repertoire and add some new ones too. It really is a stunning cuisine in so many ways, and so much more than the standard curry and noodles that people tend to try here. Like any other country there are things you only ever see in people's homes, regional specialities and dishes which when prepared with care and fresh ingredients are a world away from the commonly seen fast food/restaurant versions.
I have been enjoying reading this in my spare time recently and learning more about some foods I have never cooked or had outside of Thailand and along with this and this, as well as the class cook book from my stints at the fabulous Thai cooking school I spent time at in Chiang Mai, I have a good selection of recipes. But of course the internet is, as always a complete gold mine and I often use this site and this one too for inspiration.
And there's nothing at all wrong with just launching into it - even badly prepared Thai food tastes pretty good! A lot of dishes are very forgiving, and to my palate the flavours and ingredients are so good I'm happy to try it any old way. So even though I might talk about about how it's traditionally done, or the challenge of really perfecting the flavour balance, a fear of getting it wrong shouldn't prevent anyone from having a go.
In fact with Thai food that should be the mantra. Thai food by its nature is responsive and adaptive - forget the science of baking or the precision techniques of fine dining. Recipes are a broad base from which to begin, but the pinnacle of taste is achieved by the subtle balancing of flavours that can only be done by tasting and adjusting and tasting again until the hot, sour, salty and sweet taste buds are all singing to the same tune. Since every chili packs its own degree of punch, every lime yields it's own quantity and sweetness of juice and every brand of fish sauce has a different amount of salt, the quantities in recipes can only ever be a guide. And your palate can only develop and improve by repeated tasting!
While on the topic of fiddling I wanted to put in a word about chili. Thai food is considered by many to be unmanageably pet (chili hot) but if you struggle with chili there's a few things to be said about it. Firstly, there are many really good dishes which use little or no chili, so if you seek them out you can gain an appreciation for the flavours of the cuisine without freaking yourself out. Secondly, your tolerance for heat from prik (chili) increases rapidly with exposure so if you build up from mai pet (no chili) to pet nit noi (a little chili) by the time you get to some of the more challenging dishes you should be well ready. Chili also comes in many forms - fresh, dried, roasted, ground, in pastes and so on - and you may find some forms more tolerable than others. And its important to note that many of the really fiery dishes are designed to be eaten slowly and in small portions, well diluted with lots of kao (rice) and other less spicy fare.
But really critically I want to say that prik plays an important part in balancing flavour in Thai food as well as adding heat and if a dish uses chili you can't just take it out and expect the dish to taste the same minus the heat. I find a lot of Thai food in Australia tastes very sweet for example compared to what you eat in Thailand. I suspect this is less because aussie cooks use more sugar than it is because they use less chili and fish sauce - by reducing the heat and or saltiness the sweetness becomes more pronounced. To reduce the heat and maintain balance, the other ingredients need to be reduced too, but in reducing the sources of flavourings, the overall intensity of flavour will be reduced too, so the more of the chili you can tolerate, the more delicious a dish will be.
That's enough theory for now. Lets get to some recipes - starting with what I had for dinner last night.
Laab (or larb or laarb depending on translation)
This is a real favourite at the moment (especially now that my 8 year old daughter has decided a bit of chili is worth it for flavour) - it is easy, uses readily available ingredients and since the chili is added late in the piece the heat can be easily modified. Traditionally this is served with a lot of heat and made from moo (pork), though gai (chicken) is also widely used. While it is quite meaty, the taste is fresh and light, classifying it more as a salad or accompaniment than main dish. It comes from the Isaan region of Thailand and neighbouring Lao where it can be expected to be served with kao neuw (sticky rice) and som tum, with extra coriander, mint and toasted rice scattered over the top.
300gms minced pork or chicken
1 small red shallot, finely sliced
2 spring onions, finely sliced.
half a bunch of coriander, roughly chopped
4 or 5 sprigs of mint, roughly chopped
2-3 tbs fish sauce
1-2 tbs uncooked jasmine rice for toasting
1/2 tbs dried chili flakes
Start by toasting the rice. In a dry non stick fry pan or wok toss the rice over a medium heat until browned all over. It should smell vaguely nutty. Coarsely grind the rice in some electric gadget or a mortal and pestle.
Sprinkle a tablespoon or so of lime juice over the raw mince and let stand for 5 or so minutes, then toss into a hot non stick fry pan without any oil. Stir the meat until well cooked and quite dry then place in a bowl big enough to hold all ingredients.
Toss in the other ingredients - starting with about two thirds of the recommended amounts of seasonings (herbs, chili, fish sauce and lime) - stir well and taste. Now try adding small additions of each of the remaining flavourings until you reach a good balance. You may need proportions quite different to the recipe - that's OK! Exercise the most caution around the fish sauce - it is very hard to balance out too much salt with other things so add it in small amounts and taste often.
The finished dish should really zing in your mouth, be fresh and light and acidic, you should not be tasting the meat (if you are the overall flavour intensity too low), nor should it taste too salty. If you are really looking to learn about the flavours, divide your mix into two bowls at the start and add different amounts to each to see what effect the seasonings have.
Let me know how you go - I assure you, you won't be dissappointed!
Let me know how you go - I assure you, you won't be dissappointed!