Showing posts with label thai cooking. Show all posts
Showing posts with label thai cooking. Show all posts

Friday, 21 March 2014


It was delicious, easy and just as good as left overs for lunch today. This will definitely be getting onto the regular rotation list, despite not being kid friendly. There's no way to adapt this to reduce the heat - it is afterall essentially meat and beans fried in chilli paste.
The heat was softened a little by making the som tum (green papaya salad) with no chilli at all and serving it with gai yang (grilled chicken), also a dish with no chilli, and sticky rice, but it is an assault on the palate in the best possible way. Rich and zingy with lime leaves, my mouth is still watering at the thought.
I'm looking forward to trying it with prawn or chicken in place of pork, though I'm finding it hard to believe it could be better than this. I've also seen versions with a little coconut cream or maybe even coconut meat, grated in, that give the dish a different texture so I might try some of those variations too.

Pad prik khing moo (stir fried pork in chilli paste)

3 tbs peanut oil

Prik khing curry paste - I used the small 125gm tin pictured above, though this dish is so good I think I'll try making my own next time.

1 pork fillet - mine was about 430gm - thin sliced against the grain

1 bunch of snake beans cut in 3-4cm length - I am sure green beans would be good too. I've seen this dish with varying proportions of meat to beans so you know, whatever you like goes.

1tbs palm sugar

3 tbs fish sauce

2 tbs chopped roasted peanuts

8 kaffir lime leaves very finely sliced

Heat the oil in a wok or heavy pan on medium heat. Add paste and fry, turning often, for up to 5 minutes. It should smell really pungent and mouth watering. It it gets to sticking on the bottom of the pan you can add a little water, but keep this as minimal as possible.

Add the meat and turn through the paste, stirring well. Cook for up to 5 minutes, or until meat is almost done.

Add beans, stirring, and cook for a few minutes until beans start to soften a little. Add a little water if needed.

Add leaves, half the sugar and half the fish sauce, stir well and taste. Continue adding the sugar and sauce a little at a time until the flavour is dominantly salty but not bitter. Sprinkle through nuts and serve with rice and a cooling salad.

Friday, 15 November 2013

kao pad

It's been a while since I posted a Thai recipe, but this Thai style fried rice is a perfect one to share. It's easy, its flexible and universally liked. I was about to post it, exactly as I make it but thought I should do a little research in my various Thai cookbooks first to see if I was committing any acts of culinary treason.

As is so often the case with Thai food, the experts differ quite a lot, which I think means my version is definitely acceptable. It also reinforces that this is a guide only - variation is a part of the deal - and you should be using what you have on hand with total confidence!

Kao Pad
2 cups of uncooked jasmine rice
3 tablespoons peanut oil
3 or more cloves of garlic, smashed
2 eggs, beaten
6 or so spring onions, sliced
300-500gms sliced chicken breast/pork/tofu or a combination
Peas, shucked corn (optional and non traditional)
Corriander (optional)
Soy and/or fish sauce
white pepper (optional)
Cucumber, sliced
Chilli sauce or chilli slices in vinegar
Lime wedges

Cook the rice using the absorption method - put the rice with 3 cups of water in a pot with a tightly fitting lid and bring to a boil over high heat. As soon as it boils, turn the heat to the lowest possible setting, simmer for about 8 minutes until rice is tender but not too soft. No need to stir or lift the lid for any reason during cooking, it just makes you lose steam. Turn rice out into a large open container, allow it to cool and lose steam, then cover and refrigerate until it is completely cold. While Thai cooking guru David Thompson advocates using warm rice he is very much a rebel in so doing - conventional wisdom (and my experience) says the colder rice is much easier to handle when frying.

Traditional Thai fried rice does not include a lot of veggies - but I include some to make the dish healthier. Having said that, it veers from the traditional dish completely if there's too much veg in there, so I usually limit it to some peas and corn, baby corn if I have it.

Heat the oil in a reasonable size wok and add the garlic, toss for a few seconds then add the meat. I have been known to pre-marinade the meat for extra flavour (soy, sweet soy and sherry is a good combo but completely untraditional), and if the meat is sliced thicker I may cook it first and set it to one side, cook the rest of the dish and then add it back to the pan at the last minute to keep it tender. Either way works just fine.

Add the rice and peas/corn if using. Keep the rice moving so it doesn't stick and use your stirrer to gently break up lumps. if it seems too dry add a few drizzles of oil down the sides of the wok. After a minute or two, push the rice to one side and pour the egg onto the exposed side of the wok, spreading it as you go to a thinnish layer. Flip the rice on top then stir it through - some egg will have cooked omelet style, the rest will form a coat on the rice. David Thompson advocates adding the egg before the rice to create more of the omelet effect because he thinks the rice gets too gluey if you add the eggs to the rice. It's a personal preference so try it both ways.

Lastly, stir through the spring onions and season with soy and/or fish sauce. Serve with a garnish of cool cucumber slices, a wedge of lime and a scattering of coriander leaves. A little optional heat is also looked upon favourably, so a good chilli sauce or some chilli slices floating in vinegar are nice to have at the table.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011


This dish is so simple I hesitate to even call it a dish. It's embarrassingly simple, more an idea than a recipe really. But gosh, it tastes really good. It's a meat only dish - served as part of a mixed array in a shared meal.

Everyone likes this dish - it isn't spicy and although it has a strong flavour it is not sharp or bitter or especially garlicky or in any way challenging. My kids adore it almost as much as me.

I first had this when my Thai friend Aor cooked it at my house and on her next visit to Australia, some 4 years later asked if I would like her to cook it again. Clearly I had made my feelings about her cooking known.

When she went back to Thailand I was keen to reproduce it so I asked her for the 'recipe' and this is what she sent:

Subject: garlic chicken
fried garlic first then put chicken in, then put oyster oil, soy bean sauce, Maggi dipping sauce (if you have), pepper, sugar a bit. That's it perfect. Yummy...Let's do it.

I love this - its so quintessentially Thai. It's not about the quantities, there's even flexibility about the ingredients you have. It's all about the yummy taste and the just doing it! With exclamation marks because it's perfect! And fun! Arroy mark mark!

So with only slightly more precision, here's how I make it.

Garlic Chicken

Peanut oil, 1 tablespoon

Finely chopped garlic - lots. As much as you can be bothered chopping. I probably ideally use 7 or 8 cloves but you could use less or more as you felt inclined.

300-500 gms sliced chicken breast (thigh is also good but the sauce component is quite juicy so the drier breast does well.)

Oyster sauce, maybe 2 or 3 tablespoons

Soy sauce, about 2 tablespoons

White pepper, a few shakes

Sugar - maybe a teaspoon

Heat the oil in a small wok or fry pan and toss in garlic. Don't turn the heat up so high that the garlic burns, and keep stirring.

After a minute or two add the chicken. Keep it moving in the pan, you might want to turn the heat up a little here.

When the meat is just cooked through add the sauces and salt and pepper, adjusting for taste. You may alter the ratios quite a lot to get the flavour you like best - that's OK!

Serve with rice and veggies or salad.

Sunday, 7 August 2011


It's not all about the pointy sticks afterall, there's some actual sewing going on too. 

Albeit this one is sewing for knitting tools. Uber dag, and in machine knitting circles, that's something. Made from scraps purloined from the Crumpler shop.

This one only just escaped the scrap heap - a saga of poorly chosen pattern, pressing on despite the clearest instinct that things were not going right, buying additional fabric to allow set in sleeves to become raglans and all manner of other stupidness. Should be good now but. Awesome printed fulled wool knit from Tessuti. Of Course.

And arrrrr a wee bit of pirate kit.

And an impromptu dish inspired by the unlikely appearance of green mangoes at the local supermarket. Green mango salad accompanies two of my favourite Thai dishes that I've never seen outside of Thailand, fried cotton fish and smashed catfish salad. I tossed this one with palm sugar, fish sauce, lime and chilli, spring onions and peanuts and then set it on tuna and brown rice. Bloody delicious.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011


Tom is soup in Thai, and the Thais make several soups that are right up there with my all time favorites. Tom yum goong was the first Thai soup I ever had and it was a revelation of sour, salty spiciness.

But I think my most favourite is tom ka gai - soup with coconut and chicken. It's fresh and tangy with an easily adjusted level of heat and I've never served it to anyone who hasn't liked it. Plus it's dead easy and quick to prepare. Its an all round winner.

As with all Thai food, a bit of variation in your ingredients keeps things interesting - but the quality of the final dish is all about the balance of the flavours - sweet, sour, salty, spicy. Add flavourings in increments and taste often.

Tom Ka Gai - soup with coconut and chicken
2 cups coconut milk
2 cups chicken stock
3 stalks of lemongrass cut into 4cm lengths and bruised
40gm fresh galangal, sliced (if fresh is a problem, frozen is better than dried)
Handful of fresh baby corn cut into 3cm lengths - if you can't get fresh skip the corn because tinned is an abomination
1 medium white onion, cut in bite size pieces (say, eighths)
100gms mushrooms (ideally straw, but next best is oyster then thin sliced button)
3 or 4 kaffir lime leaves torn into quarters
1 medium tomato cut into bite size pieces
200gms thin sliced chicken breast
1 cup coconut cream
2 plus tbsp fish sauce
2 plus tbsp lime juice
1 or more green chillies*
Handful of coriander leaves

Heat coconut milk and stock in a large pot until just boiling.
Add lemongrass, galangal, corn and onion. Let heat for a few minutes.
Add mushrooms and lime leaves and heat for a few more minutes.
Add chicken and tomato and heat until chicken is cooked.
Add coconut cream and just bring to the boil and remove from heat.
Add fish sauce, lime juice and chillies and serve with coriander leaves.

*The degree of heat released by the chillies depends on how much they are cut or bruised. They can be sliced for maximum heat, just steeped for minimum heat or bashed a bit with the back of the spoon for something in between. In general, the smaller the chillies are, the more intense the heat - use tiny 'mouse shit' chillies for power heat, or larger milder ones for a softer flavour. If you have kids or chillie haters, serve them first then add the chillies after.

Monday, 18 April 2011



Stir fried chicken with cashew nuts like pad thai is one of those Thai dishes you see in every take away and tourist cafe. It can be bland and soggy, like the worst kind of Chinese food. But at it's best it's a lovely mellow dish, quick to make and easy to eat, well complimented by some steamed or stir fried greens or a crunchy cabbage salad.


You can take this dish from completely chili free right up to chili laden, depending on your preference. With kids in tow I usually make this dish with capsicum rather than chili, then toss in a few whole dried chilies which don't really add heat, just flavor and are easily avoided by the smalls. If I had miraculously cryogenically frozen the kids I'd use loads of fresh mild green and red chilies (or a moderate amount of the hotter kind cut in smaller slivers) as well as a handful of the dried kind.


The whole dish is greatly improved by using fresh roasted cashews. Stale nuts are a blight on the kitchen and since the nuts are a central ingredient here it's important they taste good. If you buy them unroasted (or if you like them extra crisp) toss them in a dry pan till they are nicely browned just before you start cooking. It is fine to use salted nuts.

Stir fried chicken with cashews

2 tbs peanut oil

1 onion, sliced

3 or 4 cloves of garlic, smashed or roughly chopped (not too fine!)

400gms of sliced boneless, skinless chicken - I prefer thigh but breast works well too

Sliced or diced capsicum or chili or a mix of both - say half each red and green capsicum or 2 large mild chilies or 2 small hot chilies

4 or 5 spring onions cut in 3cm lengths

3-4 dried whole chilies

2 tbs oyster sauce

2 tbs soy sauce

2 tbs water or chicken stock (if required)

1/4 cup roasted cashews

Heat the wok on high then add the oil and then the onion and garlic. Toss briefly until garlic starts to brown.


Add chicken and stir until browned.

Add capsicum and/or fresh chili and toss for a minute or two.


Add spring onions, dried chilies, sauces and a little stock or water if you like more moisture. Mix well until sauce is boiling.

Remove from heat and toss cashews through.


All photos in this post kindly supplied by Ellen!

Monday, 21 March 2011


I will start by saying that compared to the other dishes I've written about so far, I find this dish, Pad Thai (Thai style fried noodles) quite hard to get right. It's not a taste thing, it's a technique thing.

As best I can tell, based on my experience, a good wok is a key component. I have an excellent but small wok, and recently added a larger wok to my kitchen. It's a good wok, don't get me wrong - heavy steel with a big wooden handle all the way from Hong Kong - but it's young, and the food that comes out of it still tastes like new wok to me. And it's hard to get it hot enough on my domestic wok burner.

I get how to season a wok, and my little wok is completely black and pretty much a non stick wonder from the build up of hard set oil. It's not sticky or yukky or rusty and everything that comes out of it tastes like wok food should. But despite the careful seasoning of the new wok, it's just not yet matured enough to withstand the addition of things like water into the cooking without taking on some of the metallic wok taste.

The second key component - and really I know this and yet I continue to push it past the point of sensible - is keeping the serving size small. Pad Thai is a lunch dish, a hawker dish, a one plate meal dish. It is not made in bulk to feed the masses, and there is a reason for this. Unless you have an industrial wok burner on your stove, a seriously big restaurant style one, you simply can't get enough heat to cook a large quantity before the noodles on top go claggy.

Which brings me to the third critical issue for success - the noodles. Of course in Thailand, fresh rice noodles are freely available in every market. They taste better, they have different texture and they cook differently and faster than the dried kind. You toss then straight into the wok, with perhaps a dash of water to make a little steam if they are a bit dry, but basically they just need heating.

Dried noodles on the other hand need to be re hydrated as well as simply warmed, and the manner in which this is done will determine how firm and al dente (to borrow and Italianism) they are, and how well they avoid the gluggy thing. At cooking class we simply tossed the noodles, un soaked, into the wok and added water, a little a time until they were perfectly well cooked.

But this absolutely will not work with a larger quantity (ask me how I know this). Before learning this I had always pre soaked the noodles in cold water and then added them to the wok once softened (but still firm). I know from the really delicious version I made in class that wok cooking the noodles is a better option than pre soaking, but it also feel a bit like a high wire act.

Pad Thai (Thai style fried noodles)
1 tbs vegetable oil.
Extra firm tofu (usually in vac pack plastic rather than in water), small block (a little bigger than a matchbox) per serve, cut into Julienne
1 red shallot finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic finely chopped
Thin flat rice noodles - fresh is best, but more likely dried, a handful per serve
1 tbs Thai preserved turnip, chopped (omit if you can't find it)
2 tbs tamarind puree
1.5 tbs shaved palm or regular sugar
1 tbs fish sauce
1/2 tsp ground dried chili (optional)
1 egg
1 tbs dried shrimp and/or a few fresh raw prawns (the latter gives you the luxe version of pad thai)
1/2 cup bean shoots
A bunch of chinese (garlic) chives in 3cm lengths.
2 tbs peanuts, chopped
Half a lime

If you are going to pre soak noodles, put them in cool water first and set aside. Boil the kettle too so if you are adding in a bit of water for noodles later it will be hot already.

Get everything ready because you are going to work fast on the wok and don't want to stop stirring long enough to measure anything out.

Heat the wok, add the oil and add the shallots, garlic and tofu. Toss for a minute or so.

That's Yui there in my cooking class - Hi Yui!
Add noodles to the wok and a bit of water if necessary. Even if pre soaked they should still be firmer than you would like to eat them. They will want to stick so keep them moving and only add small amounts of water at a time - don't let moisture build up in the pan.

Add turnip, tamarind, fish sauce, sugar and chili (if you are using any). Toss.

Push everything to one side and crack the egg into the bottom of the wok. Using the wok stirrer, scramble the egg up and when mostly cooked, toss the noodles on top and stir in.

Add shrimp, half the bean shoots and half the chives and toss well. Taste to make sure the balance is right - add more tamarind, sugar or fish sauce if required.

Noodles should now be al dente. Pour noodles onto a plate and serve with peanuts, remaining bean shoots and chives and lime.

Saturday, 19 March 2011


Yum nua, spicy beef salad, is wonderful mix of warm juicy steak, light, crisp vegetables and sour spicy dressing. It is not dissimilar to laab in flavour or in the place it occupies in a meal, though it tends to be a more substantial dish due to the increased amount of vegetables involved.

I will start by saying in all my travels I have never eaten this dish in Thailand. I know it is well referenced in authentic Thai cookbooks and is well known outside of Thailand too, but beef is a much less available (and delectable) commodity in Thailand than other forms of meat so perhaps I've just blocked it out of consideration.

I make beef salad in a fairly lackadaisical manner, depending a lot on what I have on hand - and so long as the dressing has the characteristic sour, spicy and salty it always tastes good.

Of late I have also taken to making yum nua without the beef altogether and using kangaroo fillet instead. Roo is perfect in terms of texture and flavour and while as inauthentic as it could be, our Thai friends approve. Roo is also healthier to eat than beef, and better environmentally.

The method for making this dish is to toss and assemble everything together before serving, but I have on occasion served individual components for self assembly to allow for the smalls to skip the spicy salad and D to skip the cucumber. Taking a more pragmatic approach allows me to eat the food I really like more often without needing to prepare a second meal for those who don't like the heat, the meat or anything else - go for what works I say!

Yum nua (spicy beef salad)
Beef steak or kangaroo fillet - you will be eating this rare so buy a good cut, about 200gms per person for a main meal (less if it is part of a banquet). If you want to you can pre marinade the meat in a little soy sauce, garlic or similar.
Salad greens - mixed leaves or cos roughly chopped
Mint leaves - a few sprigs per serve, chopped
Coriander leaves - a small handful per serve, chopped
Cherry tomatoes - halved
Baby carrots - finely julienned or thin sliced
Lebanese cucumber - halved and sliced thinly on the diagonal
Red onion or red shallot - thinly sliced
Crispy fried shallots - a sprinkle over the top before serving
Toasted rice - a tablespoon or so (see here for an explanation of toasted rice)
Small red chillies, finely sliced - amount is optional. Can also use dried flakes if you don't have fresh on hand, or a combination of the 2 kinds of chili.
2-3 limes, juiced
3 tbs fish sauce
*some recipes also use mashed or finely chopped garlic and some palm sugar in the dressing, and add finely sliced spring onions to the salad

Grill, barbcue or fry the meat on a very high heat until well sealed but still rare, then rest in a warm place for 10 minutes or more. The resting and acidic juices in the dressing will diminish the rareness of the meat so be careful not to overcook!

While the meat rests toss all ingredients except chili, lime, fish sauce and shallots. Mix the lime juice, fish sauce and chili (starting with 2/3 of amount so you can top up afterwards) on a plate. Thinly slice warm beef or roo across the grain and place into dressing on plate.

Toss the meat into the other ingredients and mix well. Taste for flavour, add more fish sauce, lime juice and chili as required. Sprinkle with shallots and garnish with extra coriander leaves and mint sprigs.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011


Gai (chicken) is the most common of meats in Thailand alongside pork. It appears in curry and stir fry, ground in salads and it's most commonplace food on the run version - gai yang, or grilled chicken. This is another Isaan regional dish, but available all over Thailand, sold at hawker markets and by mobile sellers at train and bus stations. While the practice of travelling with unrefrigerated, cooked meat in the hot and humid Thai climate can make gai yang a bit of a bacteria risk, eaten fresh from the grill of a hawker stand this makes an excellent meal. It is most commonly served with sweet chili sauce, sticky rice and som tum (green papaya salad).

Gai yang really is just grilled marinated chicken - so it's nowhere close to being hard to make, and is universally liked. It's not spicy, and left overs are easy to use in sandwiches and salads. My friend Maria once diced up some left overs from this dish and tossed it up with the cabbage and cucumber that had been the garnish from the previous night's dinner, added fish sauce, sweet chili sauce and lime and it was a stunningly good salad. I seem to recall scoffing rather a lot of it.

In Thailand a whole quarter of a chicken is used, skinned, flattened out and wedged between split bamboo. This provides both the tongs and a 'handle' with which to eat it all in one. Brilliant. The bones in these pieces definitely add flavour and moisture to the meat while grilling, but boneless thigh fillets can also be used if you intend to chop it up to serve or if kids are involved and bones make it all too hard.

The marinade varies a lot from maker to maker and when I asked my Thai cooking teacher Yui about a recipe she said that everyone makes it their own way - it's not a dish with a recipe! Instead she gave me a list of ingredients people might use, but warned me to be careful of the sugar content because it makes it harder to cook the meat all the way through before the marinade burns. In that spirit I don't tend to measure the ingredients or get too worried if I am missing an ingredient or two, or if I toss in something new now and again.

Gai yang is ideally cooked over charcoal or wood fires to impart the characteristic flavour that brings South East Asia instantly to mind. In reality, I generally use the barbecue, or at a pinch the griller part of the oven.

Gai Yang (grilled or barbecued chicken*)

Skinless chicken pieces - drumsticks, chicken 'chops', maryland, thigh fillets etc. I usually do about a kilo at a time, but you can easily do more or less.
Coriander roots - this is quite literally the root bits at the bottom of the stems on a bunch of coriander (it is very annoying how often supermarket ones come already de-rooted!). I'd use the roots from the whole bunch.
Garlic - about 4 cloves, give or take.
Soy - I like the dark kind for this dish, a couple of tablespoons.
Pepper - ground black or white, about half a teaspoon.
Lemongrass - 2 stalks, white part only, roughly chopped.
Oyster sauce - 3 or 4 tablespoons.
Fish sauce - 1 or 2 tablespoons.
Tumeric - a small fresh grated knob or a few pinches of dried ground.
Ginger - a small fresh grated knob.
Palm sugar/white sugar/plum sauce - not too much or it burns.
(and remember don't worry if you don't use all these things!)

The marinade can be made in a mortar and pestle, but I usually smash it all up with the stab blender. Increase the amount of soy, fish or oyster sauce if there isn't enough liquid to make a runny paste.

Toss the raw chicken pieces through the marinade and let sit for at least a few hours, though overnight to 24 hours is way better.

Cook on a hot grill or barbecue and serve with sticky rice, sweet chili sauce and a garnish of shredded cabbage and sliced cucumber.

*this dish is also excellent made with pork, and quite possibly fish as well.

Sunday, 13 March 2011


Thais do good fish. I, on the other hand have never been super confident with cooking pla (fish), but recently I have been doing my best to conquer my fears. Mostly because it seems like a lot of restaurants where you can get Thai fish dishes use really ordinary fish, and it just isn't the same.

This dish, fish with tamarind sauce, is generally served with a whole fried fish, though as I have done here you can also use fillets. It's not as spectacular in the looks department, but much more achievable on a weeknight, and more palatable if you have smalls who find looking at a whole fish a bit creepy.

When we lived in Northern Thailand we had this dish a lot, most often at the Tha Nam (river front) sitting upstairs in an old open sided teak house overlooking the water. The dish was made with tub tim, a local river fish, and it was divine. So so divine. It was worth the considerable hassle to get there (it is well out of the city centre) to eat the fantastic food and listen to the music ensemble that not only played, but let a very enthusiastic just turned 3 Maliwan (Amy) play an instrument or two too.

I make no claims to this dish being as good as theirs, but I will happily say it is an achievable thing to make at home and it is well like by all members of the family. I serve it with rice and stir fried veggies, but it would also be excellent with som tum or another salad. You can also use the tamarind sauce very successfully on grilled chicken.

Crispy fish with tamarind sauce
Fish, either whole or fillets. For the 4 of us I used about 600gms of snapper fillets.
Oil for frying (peanut gives the best flavour)
1 small red shallot, finely diced
1-3 small red chilies, seeded, deveined and finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
3 tbs palm sugar
2-3 tbs fish sauce
1.5 tbs tamarind puree

Make the sauce first. In a small amount of oil and low heat, soften the garlic, shallot and chili. Add the sugar, fish sauce and tamarind and gently heat until the sugar is well dissolved. Raise the heat and cook the sauce rapidly, stirring constantly until it thickens and darkens a little. Taste (being very careful not to burn your mouth because I always do), and add more tamarind, fish sauce, or sugar as required. It should be sour first, sweet and salty second. Turn off heat and cook fish.

In Thailand the fish is most definitely deep fried. If you are looking to reduce the oil you can shallow fry it, but you need to cook it quite a long time to get the outside really crisp. The outside should be quite hard. Drain and pat well with paper towel.

Spoon warm sauce over fish and serve scattered with coriander leaves. Scoff liberally.

Friday, 11 March 2011

som tum

[I am posting this recipe earlier than I had planned so I don't yet have photos - I will come back and add them next time I make this dish. In the mean time you can go look at this search in Flickr for some other people's photos.]

Som tum (green papaya salad) is one of my favourite salads. It is crunchy and crisp and salty and sour and full of stuff that's good for you, and not much stuff that isn't. In Thailand it is traditionally served with sticky rice and gai yang (grilled chicken) or laab in the Isaan region and in Lao, but nowadays can be found all over Thailand from specialist som tum hawkers at lunch time. I ate it a lot when we lived there. A lot.

Som tum (or tam is it is sometimes translated) is made in a large, tall mortar and pestle with deft skill. The papaya is held in one hand and then cut into very fine matchsticks using repeated blows of a large machete like knife (I've tried doing it and while I escaped injury, I can tell you, I certainly didn't achieve the desired effect!!). The papaya and other ingredients are then lightly pounded to mix the flavours and break up any fibrous bits in the papaya. The heat from the chili is controlled by the degree of pounding - the more the chili is broken up the hotter the salad will be. I don't have a large mortar and pestle so I tend to grate the papaya, and just add the flavourings to the mortar and pestle and mix it together in the bowl.

There are variations on the basic dish which can include the addition of fresh cooked prawns or crab, and a very bland version where the dried prawns are excluded, though I think this last is generally for the benefit of foreigners with a dislike for strong flavour and usually means they leave out most or all of the chili too.

A green papaya is an under ripe version of the fruit we generally call paw paw here - not a little under ripe either. Although my Thai friend says it should be a little yellow to be best do not think you can buy a regular papaya from the grocer that just isn't fully ripe. Source a proper hard green papaya from the Asian grocer and leave it on the window sill for a day or two.

Again, in Thailand this dish is generally served pretty spicy and diluted with lots of rice.

Som Tum (green papaya salad)
1.5 cups of peeled, seeded and grated green papaya (about half a smallish one or a quarter of a big one)
8 cherry tomatoes, quartered or a whole tomato cut into chunks
2 whole cloves of garlic peeled
1 tbs dried shrimp
4 snake beans* cut into 3cm sticks
2 tbs salted peanuts
1 lime,  juiced
1.5 tbs palm sugar
1.5 tbs fish sauce
2 small red chilies

Put the grated papaya and tomato into a bowl. In the mortar and pestle pound the garlic and shrimp into it is broken up but not mushy. Add the beans and peanuts and pound a bit more. Add the sugar, fish sauce and lime - starting with about two thirds the amounts. mix well. Add the chilies and pound - just once or twice for a mild flavour, harder for more heat. Tip the mix into the bowl and stir to combine. Taste and top up sugar, lime and fish sauce to balance.

*you can use green beans, but they are not the same at all. Green beans are shorter and much juicier, as well as tasting different. The drier pulpier texture of snake beans absorbs the flavours way better, especially with a little pounding in the mortar and pestle. And since you have to go to the Asian grocer to get the green papaya get some snake beans while you are there.

Thursday, 10 March 2011


Even though Thai currys are well known and popular outside Thailand, not many people make them at home. But they are very easy and taste infinitely better than the bought versions. Trust me on this!

Curry comes in many forms, based on regional specialities and ethnic influences and available ingredients, and I'm going to start the curry recipes off with Masaman, a curry which grew out of the influence of Indian migrants in Thailand. I'm doing this one first because it is not spicy, making it a perfect family curry and a good intro to cooking them since you won't have to worry if you are making it too pet (chili hot).

Coconut milk based curry share much in the technique, as well as the serving principles in Thai cooking, so I'll refer back to this post when I cover other varieties.

Curry is designed to be eaten as part of a balanced banquet in the traditional Thai way. It tends to be quite rich and creamy and is often made with few or no vegetables - that's because curry is served with other dishes that provide the vegetable part of the diet. The Western habit of chucking all our food needs into a single bowl results in curry that is quite unlike the traditional Thai version. Personally I would rather a small serve of a delicious, intense, rich curry beside the larger serve of rice, wok tossed vegetables, crunchy salads and garnishes than the insipid mush I am often served here. But maybe that's just me.

When I first started cooking Thai curry I think the single biggest leap for me was to give up the fry off the garlic and onion and curry paste in oil step I had always used when making Indian style curry. In Thailand the aromatic paste is 'fried' (somewhat wetly) in heated coconut cream, and other ingredients are added to this liquid base, rather than browned off. While this may seem counter intuitive, it actually makes the whole process much quicker and adds to the delightfully piquant undertones of Thai curry.

A curry can be cooked in a wok or a good sized saucepan, depending on what else is happening on the stove top. It is important, particularly in the early stages of cooking, to keep stirring - coconut milk and cream burn easily and tastes yuk. And while I'm talking about coconut milk and cream let's share a few definitions.

First up there is something that comes out of the middle of a (young) coconut that you drink. It is not creamy or white and you don't cook with it. I'll call that coconut juice. Personally, I do not care for it.

The stuff you cook with is extracted from the white flesh of the mature coconut and is called cream or milk depending on the water content. The first pressing of the coconut flesh, in which no water or other agents have been added, yields coconut cream. It has a higher fat content, a lower water content and not surprisingly, the most flavour. In cooking it is often used early (where we might use a cooking oil) and then because heating changes the flavour of coconut cream and milk more may be added at the very end for flavour (where we might use butter to finish off a sauce or risotto). After the flesh has been pressed once, water is added to the fibre and a second pressing takes place, yielding coconut milk. The freshly extracted stuff sold in the markets all over Thailand (you can find the stall easy enough - there's a guy and a big machine and a pile of brown hairy coconut shells as big as a car) is as gloriously different from the tinned version as you can imagine, but realistically as unavailable to most of us as milk straight from the cow, and for pretty similar reasons.

In theory the distinction between cream and milk is clear (if the ingredients on the side of the can say 100% coconut, it's cream and if the ingredients say coconut and water, it's milk). In reality processing introduces other variables that make the distinction a bit fuzzy. My advice is to try different brands until you feel confident about the difference and then stick with one, and if you want milk when you have cream - just add water. My personal choice is ayam brand, although I think their milk is a little too creamy so I sometimes cut it down with water, or use another brand in concert.

Curry pastes can definitely be made at home if have the time to devote to this quite intensive task - I have done so many times. But for my money, it isn't worth the effort. Most things are better home made, but personally, I don't think I will eat enough curry in this lifetime to get really good at it, and when you can now very easily buy excellent quality ones for almost nothing, it seems foolhardy to bother. In terms of brands, I prefer Mae Ploy (and my Thai family agreed when they came to visit us and we shopped together). They sell small quantities too, with sachet versions, which are good for at least a couple of currys selling for less than a dollar at pretty much every Asian grocer around (and quite a few supermarkets too).

As with all Thai cooking, tasting and seasoning adjustments at the end are critical - start by adding less than the recommended amount and then taste, adjust, taste, adjust.

Also, on the topic of quantities, this curry would serve up to 8 people, as part of a banquet of dishes. If you are relying on the dish heavily (say just a curry, rice and a salad or veggies) it would feed more like 4 people. The balance between 'bits' (meat, veggies etc) and sauce is also variable - sometimes a curry is almost soup like with far more liquid and more milky than creamy, other times the flavour is more densely concentrated and the balance between liquid and solid more slanted to the solid. The latter form is more in keeping with my understanding what is traditional, the latter an adaptation for farang (foreigner) tastes, or possibly a way of keeping costs down and stretch meat and precious cream further.

Masaman Curry
300gms meat (chicken, beef, pork) sliced quite thinly
1 cup of coconut cream
1.5 cups of coconut milk
2 tbs masaman curry paste
1 small onion cut into large chunks
2 medium sized potatoes, cooked, skinned and cut into a large dice
1 tbs tamarind puree
2 tbs fish sauce
2.5 tbs palm sugar
1 cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
4 whole cardamon pods
2 tbs salted peanuts

Heat the coconut cream to a simmer over a medium low heat until the oil begins to separate and forms glistening puddles on the surface. Don't rush this step or underestimate its importance.

Tip in the curry paste, slightly increase the heat and mix through, stirring all the time. Heat for 2 minutes.

Add the meat and stir through until the meat is almost cooked through. Add onion, potato, peanuts, cardamon, bay, cinnamon and coconut milk, bring to a simmer and heat for 5 or 10 minutes, or until meat is tender.

Just prior to serving add the tamarind, fish sauce and sugar. Adjust seasonings as required to achieve a balanced palate. If you want to you can carefully find and remove the cinnamon, bay leaves and cardamon.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011


It occurs to me I may be gotten things round the wrong way when I didn't start my posts about Thai cooking with a post about kao (rice). The devotion to rice is difficult for most of us of European extraction to understand - in modern day Australia in particular there are really no foods that occupy such a singularly central role.

So important is the role of rice that it works its way into everyday language expression - go to dinner (bai gin kao) is literally go eat rice. Emotions are subject to rice too - I'm so sad I couldn't eat sticky rice. When Thai farmers build a new dwelling they start with the rice house and then build their own dwelling. Rice is life.

While some Europeans rely very heavily for example on bread as part of a meal, there remain whole parts of the cuisine untouched by it. And while a slice or two may be considered an essential addition to the dinner table it does not occupy the lion's share of things when all is said and done.

Given that rice forms the largest part of most meals, it is important to cook it right. In most parts of Thailand Jasmine is the rice of choice - it is long grain and early harvested but unlike it's very popular cousin, Basmati, Jasmine is not aged before sale. Rice is sold in markets in Thailand graded by freshness and quality, with 'spring' rice being most highly valued.

Minimising the contact with water is the key to good rice - boiling it in loads of water is guaranteed to make a Thai recoil in horror. Apparently the very best Jasmine rice is steamed - though I only ever steam sticky rice (more on that below) and cook my Jasmine by the absorption method. This is how I was taught and this method has never failed me.

Steamed Jasmine Rice

1 cup of rice
1.5 cups of water

This is what I would use for 2 adults. This is generous by aussie standards, though the smaller the quantity of rice you make, the more wastage per person you get from the bits that stick to the bottom of the pan so I would say 2 cups would feed 5 adults.

Rice cooks best with an even heat and a well sealed lid so the heavier the post base and the tighter the lid, the better the result. I use a stainless steel saucepan, but an enamel cast iron pot is even better.

Put the rice and the water in the pot, put on the lid and put it on as high a heat as you can. As soon as the water starts to boil, turn the heat as low as you can*. Do not open the lid, do not stir, do not mess about with it. It should take about 10 minutes on the low heat, though the age of the rice will affect the timing.

After this time, take it off the heat, stir with a fork to fluff it up (NOT scraping any stuck bits off the bottom - leave them there because they are hard and not nice to eat) and test for doneness. If it's good replace the lid until time to serve. If a little underdone replace the lid and wait, the warmth of the rice and pot will keep the cooking going. If it is very underdone and very dry, add a little more boiling water, replace the lid and replace on low heat for a few more minutes.

* [You can also take it off the heat completely after boiling and let it sit for up to half an hour or so while you prepare the rest of the meal. When you are almost ready to eat, stir the rice well, add a dash more water if required and then put it onto a low heat to finish the cooking - usually only for a few minutes once up to heat]

Steamed Sticky Rice

Sticky rice is just about my most favourite form of rice. It's chewy and flavoursome and best of all, you eat it with your hands! It is the rice of the Isaan region of Thailand and Lao - it's the rice the poorer people eat. It is a different variety and is sometimes sold labelled as glutinous (rather than sticky) but isn't the same as the glutinous rice I have seen used elsewhere, which is short grain. Here is the packet of the brand I often get.

Because sticky rice is steamed, the ratio of water to rice isn't important and I never measure! I guess you would still use about a cup for 2 adults, or maybe less since it doesn't stick to the pot.

Soak the rice for at least a few hours (I usually do it overnight or for the day). Cook over steam for about 10 minutes - or less. Cooking time depends on soaking time, age of rice etc, but it can be quite quick. It shouldn't be at all crunchy, but it will still have texture.

I use this traditional sticky rice steamer which came home from Thailand with us. You can use any steamer, lined with cheesecloth or muslin.

Monday, 7 March 2011


It's no secret to regular readers that I am in love with all things Thai.

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
2-4 limes
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!