In Thailand, rice is the staple food. Soups, curries, stir-fries and such are served as side dishes to the rice, which is usually the center of the Thai meal; in fact, the words kin kao, Thai call to the dinner table, mean “eat rice.”
Flavor of Thailand in your kitchen
The North of the country favors glutinous rice, while fluffy rice is preferred elsewhere, being basmati or jasmine, indigenous to Thailand, the choice. Thai curries are superb. There are, again, differences between the regions. Pork is the favored meat in the Northern curries, whilst coconut milk and lamb find a place in the Southern curries, although chicken is still the meat of choice.
Thailand is culturally close to India and China and this shows in its cuisine. A Thai meal aims to balance the five fundamental flavors: hot, sweet, sour, salty and bitter, serving a selection of complementary dishes, all at the same time. Using your hands to make little balls of rice to dip in the sauce is good manners, but taking the fork to the mouth is bad ton. Food can be eaten with fork and spoon, but the fork is only used to push food into the spoon. Chopsticks are exclusively reserved for noodle dishes.
This list guarantees a well stocked pantry full of Thai flavor.
Coriander - Known as phak chii. Fresh coriander leaves are very important a Thai kitchen. Coriander belongs to the parsley family, but it has a sweeter flavor than parsley, with just a citrus hint suggestive of oranges. Fresh coriander is available in bunches, packs or in the pot. The leaves keep only a few days in the fridge. The light brown coriander seeds are used in curries and to flavor vegetables.
Coconut milk – Known as ka-thi. Usually canned, but it can be prepared from coconut cream. Coconut milk is a sweet, thick, white liquid obtained from the grated flesh of mature coconuts, after the flesh has been soaked in lukewarm water and processed. Coconut milk is a standard component in curries, desserts and drinks.
Coconut cream is a richer version. The clear juice found inside young coconuts is also known as coconut milk, or coconut water, and is used mainly in tropical drinks.
Curry powder - A variable blend of spices, can be bought or made to suit your taste.
Curry paste – In the jar and handy, but you can make your own one easily in the pan. The most popular are the fiercely hot red curry paste, and the milder green curry paste.
Dried shrimp – You have to get used to the taste. Good it has a very long shelf life because it is not used very often. There is also a paste form.
Fish sauce - Goes by the names of nam pla, nuoc mam, and others. This is a truly essential flavor. It is used only in small quantities; happily, it keeps forever.
Galangal – Thai ginger, a root from the ginger family. It is very hard to find. Ginger is a suitable substitute.
Ginger – Dried or, much better, fresh. Fresh ginger keeps refrigerated for a couple of weeks.
Lemon grass – The most used herb in Thai cooking. Infuses a subtle lemony flavor when chopped or crushed. Add the soft heart to soups, salads, or curries. Use the stalk for soups, broths or tea; discard before serving. Dried or fresh -choose green, un-blemished stalks and store up to two weeks in the fridge.
Lime - Really essential; lime juice is used for everything. Limes have more acid than lemons. The grated rind and peel is also used. For Thai people something dull is “like a lime without juice.”
Lime leaves - Best fresh. These are acceptable dried and keep for longer, but best fresh. Kaffir lime leaves, the ones used in Thai cooking, have a unique shape and it looks like two leaves joined end to end.
Mint - Another key herb to south eastern Asian cuisine.
Palm sugar – Palm sugar is the authentic flavor. But use brown sugar without any compunction because only a professional taster can tell the difference between the two. Palm sugar is also called jaggery.
Rice noodles – Long shelf life, like all pasta, so it is easy to have them around. Very quick to cook; noodles could be considered Asian fast food.
Shallots - They are the luxury version of onions. Keep for weeks refrigerated and even at room temperature.
Soy sauce – Made by fermenting boiled soy beans with roasted wheat or barley, and extremely important in all Asian cooking. It keeps for months in a cool, dark place.
Tamarind paste - You can buy it or make your own. It is pleasantly sour and this sourness is not duplicated by any substitute, but a pinch of lime juice will work.
Thai basil – Delicate, distinctive basil flavor. Not easy to find but easy to grow. It doesn’t keep long.
Thai chili – Tiny, hot and fiery. The punch does not dissipate with cooking. Dried Thai chiles look like beak. Substitute for any other hot chili, but they are great to have around when you can find them fresh.
© Allabor 2006, reprinted by permission