Thai cuisine is definitely a contender for best in the world, with award-winning restaurants popular around the globe, and more dishes than any other country appearing in a 2017 “World’s 50 Best Foods” poll. I would posit that the major property that has caused the world to fall in love with Thai cuisine is balance. Dishes often have intricate balances between soft, chewy and crunchy textures, sweet, salty, sour, bitter, spicy and umami flavours, and a delicate mixture of fresh aromatic herbs and vegetables with fried savoury meats and steaming hot carbohydrates. If all of that sounds complicated, it may be because it is. Unlike, for example, most Mediterranean cuisine, Thai cooking rejects simplicity, and rather seeks to draw together many seemingly discordant ingredients into a harmonious symphony of flavour. Hungry yet? The different regions of Thailand have distinct cuisines that influence and are influenced by their neighbouring countries, as well as the local environment. For instance, in the south, next to the ocean, there is a greater abundance of seafood and coconut milk than in the north. Thai people originally ate with their hands, sitting on floor mats, however in the 1800s forks and spoons were introduced and it is now common practice to eat with cutlery; contrary to popular belief, chopsticks are seldom used. This aids the practice of “khluk”, which necessitates taking small servings from different dishes and mixing them together on your plate. I’m so happy that finally I’ve found a name for such an integral concept to my life! Another wonderful idea the Thais came up with is the rule that one should serve a variety of dishes, ideally more than there are people at the table. Such a strong focus on variety in every meal sounds like heaven to me – no wonder I’ve always adored Thai food!
Tom yum soup and Thai beef salad
Tom yum/tom yam is a hot and sour soup, with “tom” describing the act of boiling, while “yam” refers to spicy and sour flavours. The broth is made with stock (often fish) added to a paste called nam prik pao, which contains roasted chillies, shallots and garlic. This is then combined with flavours of fresh lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, lime juice, fish sauce, chillies, coriander and galangal. Any sort of meat can be included, but shrimp is one of the most common, and was what I used for mine. The inclusion of vegetables is also flexible, and I chose spring onion, tomatoes and straw mushrooms. There are varieties of tom yum that contain coconut or evaporated milk, but I chose to leave them out of mine. I don’t recall trying this soup before I made it, but I now absolutely adore the taste – warming and comforting, with the spicy aromatic sour taste making it exotic and exciting at the same time. Thailand is famous for its wonderful salads, which never ever consist of lonely wilted lettuce leaves, and almost always feature raw or cooked meat or seafood, with dressings that are absolutely bursting with flavour. So important is the salad concept in Thailand that there are specific names for the four main varieties: yam (meaning “mix” of any conceivable ingredient flavoured with shallots, fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and chillies), tam (meaning “pounded” such as green papaya salad), lap (minced meat and dry roasted rice) and phla (made with uncooked or only slightly cooked protein). To be honest, I’m not very sure about which category my salad falls under: I think it might qualify as nam tok, (meaning “waterfall” – referring to the juices spilling from the cooking meat) which is a variety of “lap” where the beef is sliced rather than minced? The meat was a bit rare so maybe it could be “phla” as well? Then again, just about anything could be included in a “yam”? Well, regardless, I grilled a steak to medium rare and sliced it thinly, then, while it was still warm, tossed it through with mixed leaves, Thai basil, red onion, cucumber, capsicum, chillies, roasted peanut pieces, mint, coriander and lemongrass. To this I added a dressing of lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, shallots, garlic and chilli. I was incredibly impressed by this soup and salad combination – it was so tasty and filling, and surely not terribly calorific? Watchers-of-weight take heed!
Pla rad prik
Pla rad prik (literally meaning fish, to pour, chilli) is a whole fish, deep fried, and then served with a sweet and spicy sauce and garnish. It’s one of my favourite dishes from a very beautiful Thai restaurant located a couple of hours up the coast from where I live, which features outdoor seating around picturesque ponds, waterfalls and gardens. It has some of the most gourmet and delicious Thai food I’ve ever eaten, but the whole fried fish is possibly the most spectacular option of all. I used a snapper for my fish, first lightly coating it in flour, then deep frying in a wok half filled with vegetable oil. For the sauce, I combined minced coriander root, garlic, chillies, shallots, ginger, palm sugar, fish sauce and water, cooked until bubbling, then poured it over the fish along with lots of shallots and fresh lime juice. I adore this dish – the distinct textures of crunchy exterior, chewy shallots and soft juicy flesh and the contrasting flavours of spicy chillies, sour tamarind, sweet sugar, umami fish flesh and salty fish sauce creates a wonderful harmony of culinary experience. The only downside to this dish is that the oil is messy, and my house smelled like fish for more than a week afterwards… An excuse to go back to the restaurant and eat it there next time?
Green, red and Massaman curries
Thailand is famous for its curries, which are usually made with a base of finely ground ingredients in a paste, to which protein, vegetables and coconut milk are added to form a soupy consistency. I love Thai curries, and I couldn’t pick just one to cook this week, so I made three of my favourites instead! They are all iconic in their own ways and equally delicious, especially when eaten with lots of fluffy, aromatic jasmine rice, which is indigenous to Thailand. I made the curry pastes from scratch several months ago with some friends, and have had them frozen until now. In the past I’ve only ever used store-bought paste, and I must say, I could taste the difference. Thai green curry paste is made with green chillies, shallots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime, coriander root, cumin seeds, white pepper and salt, all ground together. After the paste is fried to release its flavours and aromas, coconut milk, mixed vegetables and a protein are then added, for which I used green beans, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, cashews and tofu. Red curry paste is made with dry red chillies, garlic, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, coriander root, cumin, lemongrass, shallots and pepper. The rest of the curry preparation is similar to the green, including coconut milk, a protein source (I used chicken) and assorted vegetables, for which I used red capsicum, baby corn and carrot. The final curry I made is the brown one in the photo, and called Massaman curry. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Massaman curry, because it’s the first proper meal I can remember making as a kid. I had already mastered toast and even soft-boiled eggs by this stage, but it was a whole new world when I learned to make a curry. I could then come home from school and make a nutritious and delicious dinner for my (hopefully) delighted parents, and in retrospect that early feeling of pride and satisfaction likely drove my lifelong interest in cooking. From memory, my childhood version (influenced no doubt by my ever trim and health conscious mother) was made with lean chicken, sweet potato, green beans and corn, which is not very traditional, but delicious and healthy all the same. The more traditional recipe that I made here contains large pieces of slow cooked beef, as well as potato, peanut and sweet spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, cumin, bay leaves and nutmeg, along with traditional Thai spices such as coriander seeds, lemongrass, galangal, white pepper, garlic, tamarind paste and fish sauce, all immersed in a rich sauce of coconut milk. It is thought that the word Massaman derives from “Mussulman”, which is an archaic form of the word Muslim. The connection may be via the Persian merchant Sheik Ahmad Qomi, a central figure of the Thai noble court in the 17th century, and crucial to the import of all of the sweet spices listed above. Massaman is sweetly immortalised in an 18th century poem of a Thai King, written in his youth to his future wife, which reads: “Massaman, a curry made by my beloved, is fragrant of cumin and strong spices. Any man who has swallowed the curry is bound to long for her”. Funnily enough, when I tasted this Massaman curry, I was indeed instantly transported to the lost memories of my sweet childhood cooking adventures, accompanied by a yearning for those happy and simple times, so perhaps it does have a particular property that prompts melancholic reminiscence?
Pad Thai, literally meaning “Thai stir fry” is the comfortable bastion of the panicked Westerner, quickly trying to locate something familiar and “not too foreign” on a Thai restaurant menu. Beloved by all, from the pickiest child to the most unadventurous of eaters, it comprises large flat rice noodles stir fried in a mild, slightly sweet sauce made with tamarind, fish sauce, dried shrimp, garlic, shallots, lime and palm sugar. Scrambled eggs, tofu, roasted chopped peanuts, bean sprouts and chilli are often added, along with meat or seafood, for which I used prawns. It’s thought that Pad Thai was introduced in the 1700s to the city of Ayutthaya by Chinese merchants, pedalling roadside carts of stir fried noodles. The dish was subsequently adapted to Thai ingredients and tastes, such as the addition of tamarind and fish sauce. Pad Thai was further popularised by the Thai government during World War II, when a rice shortage meant that rice noodles were promoted as an alternative, as the same volume could be produced with only 50% of the grain. The Thai people were instructed to eat the dish (with the slogan “noodle is your lunch”) because it would help their country’s ongoing food shortage, improve their health by adding variety to their diet, and also unite Thailand under a single national dish. The latter goal seems to be the seed of another story explaining how Pad Thai became the national dish: a competition was held in the early 1900s to find the best Thai meal, and Pad Thai emerged victorious. Whatever the truth, Pad Thai is now one of the most popular foods from Thailand, and has made it onto numerous lists of the world’s most delicious meals.