(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.”
An authentic Thai meal usually includes several dishes served family-style with rice. The meal generally is not divided into separate courses, but all dishes are served simultaneously, with the exception of dessert. Additionally, in traditional Thai culture, no foods are reserved for particular times of the day. “In the past when it was an agrarian society, people would always eat a very hearty breakfast,” Loha-unchit says. “So there is no difference between breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Thai food began increasing in popularity in the U.S. in the 1980s, she says. She attributes this popularity to the fact that Thai cuisine is light, healthy and full of flavor.
“We open up another element of taste to Americans,” Typhoon’s Kline says. “Once you expose them to the extreme tastes, it is hard to go back.”
A VEGETABLE LOVERS’ PARADISE
Vegetables are more important in Thai cuisine than in most Western food traditions, Loha-unchit says. The vegetable is not considered a separate dish added to the meal. It is an integral part of almost every menu item, whether it’s curry, stir-fry or soup.
Thai cuisine also is more diverse in the kinds of vegetables used than Western cuisine because Thailand does not have mass production in agriculture. “When you go from one town to the next, you get what the local people grow. So there is a lot more variety,” she says.
Common vegetables used in Thai cuisine are Thai and cherry eggplant, mushrooms, chives, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, watercress, Chinese cabbage, Chinese broccoli, spinach, daikon or Asian radish, Chinese long beans, winged beans and water chestnuts.
Thai cuisine also makes use of a wide variety of herbs, especially garlic, lemon grass, chilies, turmeric and galangal ginger, basil and kaffir lime.
The vegetables usually are flash-fried to keep their texture and crispness, or pounded into curries and often are served with seafood or other small chunks of meat, Kline says.
Minh Truong, owner of the Royal Siam in Chelsea, N.Y., serves scallops and shrimp with mushrooms, zucchini and shrimp chili paste. He also offers frog legs in a red curry sauce with onion, chilies and coconut milk.
Rangsan Sutcharit, owner and executive chef at Amarind’s in Chicago, offers diners a spicy curry pork with loin meat, ground chili, peanuts, lime leaves and green beans. Another menu item features deep-fried deboned chicken wings stuffed with shiitake mushrooms, shrimp, and chicken.
Brian Freerksen, executive chef at Baleen, an Asian-influenced restaurant in Mission Bay, Calif., serves hot and sour seafood wonton soup made with fresh wontons stuffed with fish, ginger and garlic in a standard hot and sour base with mushrooms and green onions.
Vegetables also are abundant in Thai salads, which play a big part in Thai cuisine. Truong with Royal Siam makes his yum pla muk salad with sliced squid soaked in lime juice mixed with chili pepper, onion, tomato, cucumber, coriander and lettuce. His Thai salad includes lettuce, cucumber, tomato, bean sprouts and dried bean curd served with a peanut-based dressing.
Miang kum, a signature dish at Typhoon, features diced ginger, shallots, chilies, lime, shrimp, toasted coconut and peanuts served on a platter with spinach leaves. Diners usually combine a small amount of each of each item and wrap them in the spinach leaves.
FRUIT—A FRESH FINISH AND MORE
In Thai cuisine, fruit mainly is served as dessert. Fruit helps cleanse the palate after the spicy meal, Fong says. Mangoes, melons, grapes, pomelos and mangosteen are most popular.
Many Thai restaurants in the U.S., however, serve dessert to cater to the American sweet tooth. Fruit usually plays a major role in these dishes. Sutcharit serves a fresh mango custard when mangoes are in season for special groups and occasions.
Truong serves deep-fried banana crepes topped with honey and sesame seeds.
Freerksen with Baleen says he often uses star fruit as a garnish on a variety of desserts.
Additionally, fruit is used in salads, especially immature green fruit. Truong with Royal Siam offers a green papaya salad. He shreds unripe papaya and uses a mortar and pestle to bruise it just enough to pick up the seasonings. He adds intense hot and sour seasonings including ample chili and garlic. Sometimes he adds long beans, fish, shrimp, pickled crab or olives, he says.
A popular green mango salad features shredded unripe mango mixed with various sauces and fried fish, Loha-unchit says. “It has a natural tart flavor. “You don’t even have to use lime juice.”
Coconuts also are important in Thai cuisine. Thais often drink the coconut juice by inserting a straw straight into the shell of the young fruit, Fong says. They also grate, soak and strain the meat from the harder, more mature coconuts to make coconut milk. This milk is then used in a variety of dishes and especially as a base for sauces.