Thai Cooking With Perfect Balance
Learning to cook a different cuisine than you are familiar with takes a bit of experimenting, and Thai cooking is no exception. Many of us learned about the delicious world of Thai cuisine when we have our first bowl of Pad Thai. This traditional meal has many variations now, but started as a simple dish with locally found ingredients. What sets Thai and Vietnamese food apart from other regions is the very specific blend of flavors that must include a balance of these four taste centers – salty, spicy, sour, and sweet. How do we create these tastes at home?
- Choosing the Right Ingredients
Like many ethnic cuisines, the first step is the simplest; the right ingredients. In Thai and Vietnamese cooking the ingredients really start with the spices. So many other cuisines have the protein, vegetables, fruit, and starch as the most important ingredient. And, although there are definite regional and ethnic ingredients like that in Thai cooking, it’s the seasonings that make this cuisine unique.
In traditional Thai kitchens, the cook begins by making a paste, called nam phrik, of these essential seasonings, often with the old fashioned pestle and mortar, but certainly the same can be done with a food processor. You can also buy pre-made seasoned pastes if you prefer.
You’ll begin your homemade paste with onions and garlic, or shallots, then add chilies. That’s the base. To that you will start adding in your herbs. Often, whole herbs are used because you’ll be crushing them up. This makes for a very aromatic kitchen! A blend of coriander, ginger, cumin, cinnamon, curry powder, and turmeric can then be added. If you can find kaffir lime leaves to add, your recipe will be quite authentic. And don’t forget the fresh basil. I believe with these spices and herbs you have touched all the taste buds necessary now.
Once you have the paste you want, to create the sauce for a recipe, it is a matter of adding the other standard ingredients, such as lime juice, soy sauce, fish sauce, and fish stock. You’ll also want to keep the peanut butter and chopped peanuts handy. And if you have a supply of lemon grass, be sure to include them, as well.
Many Thai dishes use fresh fish and seafood because of the proximity to the ocean and other waterways. But, chicken and duck are also a favorite protein in Thai cooking. Beef and pork are also found in Thai cooking, but often slow cooked to become more tender. Jasmine rice is the ‘vehicle’ of many Thai dishes, as well as the familiar rice noodles we know from our Pad Thai meals.
- So Many Variations
As with many cuisines, the regions of Thailand are vast and varied, and have been influenced by many factions. Because Thailand has been ruled by royals throughout the centuries, there was a class distinction in cooking methods and the foods that were served. Eating dinner in a palace differed greatly from eating dinner at a farm.
Then, as Thailand became better known to Americans during the 1960s and 1970s, this interesting and unique cuisine suddenly became a topic to explore. Of course, now you find Thai restaurants in every populated area in America, as well as some not so populated.
But, of all the variations of Thai cuisine, there is one thing that remains the same; you must impart all of the four flavors in order to produce a desirable dish. Those four flavors again are; salty, spicy, sour, and sweet.
- Bringing it Home
One of the best ways to incorporate Thai cooking into your own kitchen is to prepare the meat for the dish. Most of the dishes associated with Thai cooking are either stir-fried or cooked fast, but that doesn’t mean your slow cooker can’t be put to use.
Cook beef, pork, or chicken in the slow cooker and season with the paste you made with all those aromatic spices and other ingredients. Slow cook the meat in your slow cooker until it falls off the bone.
Now when you’re ready to make a delicious Thai dish, you have meat or poultry that’s flavored perfectly and tender. All you need to do is serve it over rice or noodles with some freshly sauteed vegetables. Sprinkle on a few chopped peanuts, chop up some lemon grass, and you have a meal that echoes centuries of Thai cuisine perfection. Remember, it all starts with the basic seasonings that hit all four of the taste centers. From there, the sky’s the limit!
You don’t have to be a chef in a Thai restaurant to put together those same great flavors right at home. Stock your pantry and refrigerator with a few basics, and let your imagination inspire you to put the flavors of Thailand on your very own table.