Articles on Thai Food, Cooking and Culture
:: Tips for Cooking Authentic Thai FoodPublished on August 31st, 2008 by Napatr Lindsley
Abstract: Have fun cooking to your taste and trying out cooking ideas with others! The article starts with general tips on cooking authentic Thai food, showing how it is important to focus on ingredients and preparation. Second, more specific tips are offered for making fried rice, curries, stir-fried dishes, desserts, and cooking with coconut milk.
Like Thai Food? Love to cook? Perhaps your first attempt did not turn out like in the picture or taste like at the restaurant. Well, do not give up on cooking Thai food. Some Thai dishes may seem difficult because of a long list of ingredients and instructions. Thai cooking is all about ingredients and preparation. In Thailand, frozen or canned food is not very common. Thais love fresh ingredients. Thailand is one of the lucky countries in the world that has abundant vegetables, exotic fruit, seafood, etc. There is a well-known verse in Thailand describing abundant food resources: "Nai Nam Mee Pla Nai Na Mee Khao" which means "In river, there is fish, in the field, there is rice." This article will start with some general tips and then move in to specific tips for each food category.
Ingredients are the most important part of authentic Thai cooking. If you live in Thailand or in Southeast Asia, finding fresh Thai ingredients is easy. But if you live somewhere else, finding fresh ingredients can be difficult or troublesome especially for those who do not live in a city. If you decide to make Thai dishes, first invest a little of your time getting to know the ingredients. Then find the nearest Asian grocery store. If you like, call to see if they carry ingredients you are looking for. For instance, if you are looking for "Winter Melon", not all Asian grocery stores carry it. If you prefer, buying online can safe you driving time. If you cannot find fresh ingredients, try frozen and canned foods. In my opinion, most frozen products are the next best thing to fresh food. For instance, stir-fried shredded ginger with pork has two main ingredients: shredded ginger and pork. Shredded ginger? Sounds like lots of work to use fresh ginger. One might try a jar or can, but the taste and aroma of the ginger are not the same as the fresh version. It is not difficult to make shredded ginger if you have the right peeler. Try your best to find fresh produce, as it will be a good start to cooking authentic Thai dishes.
Thais use a wok and pot in most dishes with the exception of desserts. For desserts, it is not required but it is recommended to use a bronze wok (Ka Ta Thong Lueng). Other common equipment includes a mortar and pestle. In Thailand, gas stoves are the most commonly used. Electric stoves are uncommon and not very popular because heat may not be distributed evenly. Regarding the mortar and pestle, it depends on one's desire. If you are going to cook Thai dishes very often, a mortar and pestle can become handy in your kitchen. Otherwise, using typical kitchen tools like a knife and cutting board can accomplish the same goal. Food processors or blenders are another option when it comes to making pastes.
Preparation is also one of the keys to authentic Thai cooking. As mentioned above, Thai food focuses largely on ingredients and preparation. Preparation in particular is essential to authentic Thai food. You may spend more time preparing ingredients than you actually spend cooking. For instance, it may take about 30 minutes to prepare all ingredients for Tom Kha Gai but you only spend about 15 minutes cooking. A typical Thai dinner consists of 4-5 communal dishes. It may take up to 2 hours to prepare all ingredients, but only 1 hour to make. A few reasons follow regarding why Thais spend more time on preparation. Thais like their meat in bite size pieces. Fresh vegetables require time to wash, cut and maybe pad dry. Pounding spices and fresh herbs is also common for many dishes. Some desserts like Ta Go (sweet on the bottom layer with salty coconut topping in a pandanus basket) require lots of time in preparation starting from cleaning and cutting leaves and then making baskets. Depending on the amount of Ta Go you are making, it can take up to hours just to make those tiny baskets. Don't be discouraged by this because after preparation, the wonderful dishes are right around the corner!
Cooking to Your Taste
The art of Thai cooking has placed emphasis on the harmonious blending of various ingredients, particularly as the individual ingredients can vary by freshness and so on. Without harmony the taste and the dish fall short. The five elements of taste in Thai food are: sweet, salty, sour, spicy and bitter. When cooking Thai dishes, one may follow a recipe, but use it as a guideline when it comes to taste. Taste varies for each individual, sometimes in response to variables such as ingredient quality or occasion, and thus the tastes of the recipe author may or may not reflect one's own taste. Following a recipe is a good idea, but when it comes to taste follow your own preference. Know your ingredients and start adding flavorful items in small amounts. For instance, when it comes to curry pastes and fish sauce, some brands are saltier than others. Most Thai dishes can be fixed to some extent. If it is too sweet, adding a little bit of fish sauce will fix the problem and vice versa. If it is too sour, add a little bit of water; sugar or fish sauce will help.
Thai food and coconut milk almost always go together. Many dishes require Hua Ka Ti (first pressed coconut milk or creamy coconut milk) and/or Hang Ka Ti (second or third pressed milk or water-like coconut milk). To make fresh coconut milk, finely grated coconut meat is still steeped in warm water, not hot water. It is then squeezed until dry. The white fluid from the first press is called "Hua Ka Ti". Warm water is then added again to make the second and third pressed coconut milk, which is called "Hang Ka Ti." Finely grated coconut meat is generally used about 3 times and then discarded. Freshly pressed coconut milk has a better taste and aroma than commercial coconut milk in a can.
If you use canned coconut milk, you will need to have a can at a cold temperature because cold temperatures help separate the creamy coconut part and the water-like part. The creamy coconut milk will float to the top of the can. During hot weather, you may want to leave a can of coconut milk in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight.
Good fried rice is not difficult to make. The most important part is the steamed rice. The rice should be cooked but firm, not mushy and soft. If steamed rice is soft and mushy, when it is stir-fried it will all stick together. Good rice in fried rice should be easy to break up and the grains should stay intact. So to make the steamed rice, make sure you use a little less water than normal so that the rice is dryer than normal. Keeping rice in a refrigerator for 2-3 days is another alternative, but if your rice is mushy and soft after those 2-3 days, the fried rice will also still clump together. Other keys to making good fried rice are using a wok and high heat. Heat must be evenly distributed and consistently hot all thel time. A wok is recommended for making fried rice but not required.
There are two main types of Thai curries: coconut-based and non-coconut based. Those which use coconut milk mostly have similar initial steps which include separating the coconut oil and mixing curry paste into coconut milk. These first 2 steps are keys to perfecting your curry dishes. For instance, if you are making green curry, red curry, matsaman, or kaeng kari, the very first step is bringing Hua Ka Ti (first pressed milk or creamy coconut milk) to a boil until the oil starts to separate. You do not want to boil too long because you will break Hua Ka Ti and it will look like little white balls. After adding curry paste into the coconut milk, stir until the green or red oil separates and floats to the top. Frequently stirring curry paste is required because you do not want to burn the paste. Curry paste may stick to a cooking spoon, so make sure to remove it from the spoon. During this process, if Hua Ka Ti is getting dry, add 3-4 tablespoons of Hua Ka Ti at a time to keep the curry paste from burning. After adding vegetables, do not overcook them.
Most stir-fried dishes take a short time to cook, especially stir-fried vegetables. The main key to most stir-fired dishes is heat. Heat must be evenly distributed throughout the wok or pan. Most recipes will suggest to heat up vegetable oil. In this step, one must make sure that the oil is hot and spread all over the wok (up to the side) or pan. In some dishes, after adding meat and/or vegetables, the pan or wok starts to get drier, so one may add a little bit of water so that the food won't get burned. For vegetables, make sure they are not overcooked.
Thai desserts are not too difficult to make. Some may be easier than others. Some require more patience and time than others. Many Thai desserts require one to use the same ingredients, and substitutes are not recommended. For instance, if Khanom Ta Go asks for mung bean flour, other flour substitutes usually won't work well. Khanom Bua Loy requires sticky rice flour, and one may not use multipurpose flour or tapioca flour or some other types of flour. In some desserts like potato in ginger syrup, one can use mixed types of potatoes. Khanom Kaeng Buat can consist of taro, potato and/or pumpkin. When making Thai desserts, read instructions carefully.
Ingredients and preparation are the keys to cooking authentic Thai food. Some of the first few dishes in particular may require patience. However, once you have gotten to know Thai ingredients more and more, you will find how easy it is to cook authentic Thai food. As for Thai desserts, some are very simple and easy to make and you can perfect them the first time you try. Some desserts may take practice and time to develop certain skills. Do not be discouraged by recipe directions or how beautiful a picture of a dish might be. When you decide to cook authentic Thai food, gather up some friends and enjoy your cooking. Have fun!