Thai cooking as now enjoyed all over the world is a blend of Asian and European influences adopted through centuries of trade and diplomatic exchanges. Thais have traditionally lived close to the land and the waters, and original Thai cooking reflected that. Main ingredients were rice, fish, vegetable and herbs. Very little meat was used, and traditionally beef or buffalo meat was eschewed since the animals were the mainstays of farm life.
Thais grilled, baked and stewed their food, until the Chinese introduced the techniques of cooking with hot oil. European merchants, diplomats and missionaries also contributed a lot to the cuisine, starting right after their arrivals in the 16th Century. And we all have the Portuguese to thank for introducing chilies to Thai kitchens. Curries and spices, on the other hand, were brought here by the Indians. Over the years Thai cooks have added their own ingenuity, substituting hard-to-find ingredients with what’s available locally and adapting the recipes to suit Thai palates.
A Royal Treat
Thai cooking has four regional variations plus the highly refined “Royal” cuisine. Sometimes translated into English as Palace Cuisine, this is a heritage from the days of absolute monarchy, when only the best was served at the Royal table. Every dish must be pleasing to both the eye and the palate. Not only must the ingredients be carefully selected and the cooking techniques perfected, the presentation must also be creative. Today Royal cuisine can be sampled at some restaurants whose chefs are descended from, or were trained by, former palace chefs. Look for the key word “Royal” or “Palace” in their names.
Some cooking schools offer classes on this refined art, but if you don’t have the time or the inclination, you can opt for just a vegetable and fruit carving class. Most schools and restaurants offering cooking classes can arrange such a course, which can take anywhere from an afternoon to a whole week. After a few basic sessions and some practice at home, you should be able to wow your dinner guests with your new skills.
A Thai Meal
A Thai meal is traditionally a communal affair, with two or more people sharing several dishes, all served at the same time and eaten with steamed rice. The dishes are: Snacks and Hors d’oeuvres.These savory tidbits can be eaten alone or as side dishes. Traditional favorites include stuffed dumpling, satay, crisp-fried rice noodles topped with sweet-and-spicy sauce, and spring rolls. Creative presentation is a big part of Thai snack-making, and a professional cook worth his salt will strive to make them as much as feast for the eye as for the palate.
hai salads, called yam, are sour, sweet and salty. A simple dressing works equally well for meat, seafood, vegetable and fruit salads. This is made from fish sauce, lime juice and a dash of sugar. The heat comes from fiery little bird chilies, but just how hot a salad should be depends on the texture and flavor of the meat, vegetable or fruit used. Fresh herbs such as marsh mint, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and cilantro are usually used as garnish.
Usually served with vegetables, meat or fish, chili dips are very versatile. A dip can be a main dish or side dish, added to a pan of fried rice to flavor it, or drizzled on chips to jazz them up. A cook can whip up a bowl of dip from chilies, garlic, onion and shrimp paste or whatever ingredient is available—dried or fermented fish, sour tamarind, dried shrimp, etc.
Thai soups generally are very flavorful. Meat or vegetable is cooked in broth or coconut cream with a “soup base,” usually a blend of spices and herbs, which gives the soup its flavor. A soup is served not at first course but together with other dishes. This way you can wash down the fiery heat of the more spicy dishes with it.
The heart of all Thai curries is the curry pastes, which, unlike Indian curry, are made from fresh herbs and spices. The paste is cooked in coconut cream before meat or vegetable is added. Main ingredients in most curries are chili, garlic, shallot, galangal, coriander root and krachai (a small brownish orange, indigenous root. Canned curry pastes are available at markets and grocery stores, but freshly-made pastes make more delicious curries.
Fried rice or noodle dishes make quick, satisfying meals. You can improvise with different types of meat, vegetables and spices. When cooking the rice, use a little less water so it won’t become soggy when you fry it. Separate the noodles before adding it to the oil. Add the meat and sauce, then the rice or noodles, and stir frequently over high heat.
Ideal for washing down the spices, Thai desserts are sweet but not intensely so. Banana or flour dumplings in sweetened coconut cream and season fruit in sugar syrup topped with crushed ice are some of the easy-to-make favorites. Thais also eat a lot of candied fruit—banana and breadfruit being two of the most popular--alone or topped with coconut cream.
Setting Up a Thai Kitchen
You need a few utensils to start. A wooden chopping block, a set of knives, a set of mortar and pestle (an electric blender will also do), a Chinese-style frying pan or wok, a soup pot and a brass pan for desserts should be enough for daily cooking and an occasional dinner party. Spoon and fork are the only cutlery you need. Thai cooks always have at hands dried chilies, garlic, shallot, shrimp paste, and a good bottle of fish sauce.