To Thai For

Simple yet complex, Thai food hits all the notes: sour, sweet, bitter and salty!

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Food is a central part of most social occasions in Thailand, where dishes are typically shared in groups. In fact, many Thai people believe that eating alone is bad luck. Thais are also known to eat slow, mindfully and thoroughly enjoying their food. 

CHARACTERISTICS

Thai food is known for its wonderful balance of flavors. A typical meal includes five main flavors: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and spicy. It is quite rare that all five are not present in a dish. A variety of meat and fish is eaten in Thailand, plus many vegetables and noodles, but by far it’s rice that is offered the most. Named after the sweet-smelling jasmine flower, Jasmine rice is grown in Thailand – a long grain rice with a delicate floral and buttery scent. 

Common herbs include cilantro and a unique kind of basil named ‘Thai holy basil’ which is spicy and peppery with a clove-like taste. Lemon basil is also used often in Thai cooking. These types of basil can be hard to find in many parts of the world so sweet basil makes the most suitable substitute. Dessert largely consists of fresh tropical fruit, since there are thousands of kinds grown in the country, including pineapple, guava and mango. Coconut and bean-based sweets are also common 

Named after the sweet-smelling jasmine flower, Jasmine rice is grown in Thailand.

APPROACH AND INFLUENCE

The most important Thai cooking tool is the steel wok, used for stir-fries, curries and many noodle dishes like Pad Thai. Like many Asian cuisines, Thai cooks take a very minimalist approach to tools and utensils. Other than the wok, the only other tools used frequently are pestle and mortars and bamboo steamers. Placed over water inside a wok, these are useful for steaming various ingredients, from fish to vegetables.

Given that many Thai kitchens or “restaurants” are set up roadside and on beaches, it makes sense that equipment is kept to a minimum. The street food scene in Thailand is second to none, in terms of quality and variety. In fact, Bangkok is often noted as the street food capital of the world!

Ingredients in Thailand are treated with the utmost respect. As with the belief that eating alone is bad luck, so is throwing away food. As a way to show their respect for food, Thai cooks are known around the world for their presentation; platters are decorated with flower-carved vegetables and fruits and numerous bright colored ingredients are displayed. 

Garlic is a relative of the onion family and China produces the vast majority of the world’s supply. Garlic is used in almost every savory dish you can think of, from soups and stews to marinades and condiments like gremolata, a classic Italian recipe that consists of parsley, garlic and lemon typically paired with fish and veal. While most recipes call for cloves, one of the best ways to enjoy garlic is to roast the whole bulb before removing its cloves and adding it to mashed potatoes or hummus. 

It's important to remember that garlic burns easily so, generally, it’s a good idea to wait to add it until about half-way through the cooking process (for example, in stir-fries) or just before you add a liquid element, such as stock, to a pan, which will bring down the temperature and prevent burning. Cooking will also help to mellow out garlic’s spicy, pungent flavor.

Like many Asian cuisines, Thai cooks take a very minimalist approach to tools and utensils.

Thai food is heavily influenced by Indian flavors, which is especially evident in its famous green, red, and yellow curries. Though Indian spices are often incorporated in their pastes, their curries are unique thanks to local staples like lemongrass and galangal, a close relative of ginger. Thailand’s neighboring countries (Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia) also have a significant influence on this complex cuisine. 

SAMBAL OELEK AND FISH SAUCE

A staple in Thai cuisine, sambal oelek is a chile paste, beloved for its flavor. It consists of crushed raw red chiles, vinegar and salt and is used both as a condiment and an ingredient in cooking. Enthusiasts of the paste swear that it tastes as though you are cooking with fresh chiles. In terms of heat, you will want to use very little if you’re not a fan of spice. One tablespoon is about the equivalent of one chopped jalapeño.

Fish sauce is another condiment that is frequently used in Thai cooking. A little goes a long way when it comes to this pungent concoction, made from fermented anchovies or other strong-flavored, oily fish. It makes a great substitute for soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce and, when used in small amounts it imparts a rich, savory flavor to sauces and marinades for meat. Some people, however, find it too strong in taste, which makes it a polarizing ingredient. Because ingredients like fish sauce and shrimp paste are used so plentifully in Thai cuisine, it can be very challenging to find pure vegetarian offerings in restaurants and eateries.

There is much to discover in the culinary world of Thailand and it’s an exciting food scene to learn about. The delicate balance of flavors, emphasis on presentation, attention to detail and association with social gatherings are just a few of the reasons to love Thai food.