(Nov. 24) Pungent and fiery hot, with an abundance of garlic and chilies and a striking blend of lime juice, fresh coriander, galangal root, ground peanuts, coconut milk and a myriad of other flavors — cuisine from Thailand possesses an air of the exotic that is reminiscent of the bright silk sarongs, sultry tropical nights and busy open-air food stalls of the land of its origin.
The unique combination of tastes that characterize Thai food developed over centuries and was heavily influenced by the food traditions of other Asian countries, especially China and India, says Bo Lohasawat Kline, Thai chef and owner of the Typhoon restaurant chain with five locations in the Seattle and Portland, Ore., areas. Thais took those traditions and added their own twist.
FOOD THAI STYLE
Part of the taste most associated with Thai cuisine is the use of stronger, more intense spices. Kline says one reason the fiery hot foods have historically been so popular in Thailand is that the stronger spices encourage perspiration, which is soothing in the tropical climate. Thai food also uses little oil, fat and flour, making it lighter than other Asian foods, and the cuisine is known for its use of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Thai cuisine also emphasizes the balance of tastes. “A main characteristic of Thai food is the harmony of all the flavors,” says Kasma Loha-unchit, Oakland, Calif.-based cooking instructor and author of two Thai cuisine books. “Sweet, salty, bitter, sour, pungent. … There are a lot more variables than in American food, which concentrates only on the salty and sweet.”
The emphasis on balance can be traced back to traditional Oriental medicine, which holds that the human body is made up of five essential elements that correspond to the five flavors available in natural foods, she says. When these flavors are in harmony, it is believed, the body is in good health.
The way in which this harmony is achieved varies. The spiciness often is balanced with fish sauce, says Stella Fong, an Asian food specialist and cooking instructor based in Billings, Mont. Lime juice often contributes the sour element, and palm sugar or coconut milk may be used to add sweetness to a Thai dish. Deep green vegetables and herbs often provide bitterness. Chilies are used for the pungency. Crushed peanuts blend the flavors.
Thai chefs often cook by taste rather than by a recipe. “That is one of the hardest things for non-Thai cooks to understand,” Fong says. “It is not usually 2 tablespoons of this and 4 tablespoons of that. You have to taste it and make sure it is balanced.”