Culinary Cultures: All About Thai Cuisine Basics

For the new cook and the practiced chef, an introduction to Thai food preparation. Includes ingredients, dishes, and tips for cooking.

Thai food is an increasingly popular fare served in storefront cafes and elegant restaurants throughout the country. Its aromatic and often spicy flavors are delicious testament to Thailand's unique culture and environment. Thai food is not always hot, although many of its most famous dishes, including red and green curries, are very spicy and not for the timid.

The hot and humid Thai environment influenced its cuisine in a number of ways. Historically, food preservation was a problem in many tropical countries. Early gourmets soon learned that salt preserves, and citrus and chili peppers were strong anti-bacterials. Chilies especially were very important in making sure that the beef, chicken, or prawns in a curry or a rice or noodle dish didn't give people food poisoning. Modern beverages such as Thai iced tea developed in part because condensed milk would not spoil. While such concerns are minimized by today's more sanitary food preparation, the necessity of ancient food curing resulted in meals that also taste fantastic.

When dining out, you will see the unmistakable influence of Thailand's neighbors in many dishes, especially China and India. Also, the interaction of different religions is made manifest in dishes such as Massaman, a yellow vegetarian curry adapted by the Muslim population of what once was known as Siam. Whether it is hot or mild, sour or sweet, however, authentic Thai food and drink is always a treat for the senses.

There are a few basics that need to be understood to enhance your enjoyment of this great cuisine. The first is the philosophy of Thai cooking. There is a reason why this food tastes the way it does beyond the availability of certain meats, foods, and spices. The cornerstone of Thai cooking is the relationship of five fundamental tastes derived from ancient Chinese cooking: bitter, sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. The relationship between these sensory building blocks can be seen, for example, in red curry (Gaeng Ped Neua) that is made with red chili paste (spicy), coconut milk (sweet), fish sauce (salty) and lemongrass or lime leaves (sour) among its ingredients. Thai sweet pork (Moo Wan) utilizes a palm sugar sauce (sweet) punctuated with fish sauce (salty) that results in a dish tasting very much like ham. Understanding these building blocks will enhance your enjoyment of Thai food and your navigation of the menu at your favorite Thai restaurant.

Classic Thai presentation is a multi-dish affair involving appetizers, soups, a rice or noodle dish, curry, and ultimately a sweet dessert. These are not courses in the traditional western sense and are often served all at once. The servings are meant to be shared. As is the case with many cuisines, it is difficult to order a complete meal at a restaurant because many of these dishes are now designed to be meals unto themselves. Usually, fixed price menus provide a way to sample the full treatment of a classical Thai meal and the interaction between the various dishes and the five cornerstones. If you can find a restaurant that offers this, it is well worth the visit.

Regardless of the menu, however, if your appetite allows it is a good idea to at least sample the range of flavors that Thai cooking presents. Spring rolls dipped in fish sauce, or a satay with its distinctive peanut flavor is a good start before ordering a red or green curry or a rice or noodle dish with spicy meats. Since all Thai food is derived from the five basic building blocks, thoughts of compatibility are not necessary. In other words, there is a culinary bridge that links a beef satay with a green curry with prawns, for example. While you might not consider ordering a beef carpaccio as an appetizer if you have a hankering for linguini with clams, the sweetness of the beef satay peanut sauce and the coconut in the green seafood curry are from the same building block. Order away!

When choosing a beverage, remember that Thai food does not easily lend itself to wines. On the other hand, traditional Thai beverages retain the same building blocks as do its food and offer a satisfying complement to your lunch or dinner. Thai iced tea is a remarkable drink, even in its most simple form. The combination of strong black tea sweetened by condensed milk is consistent with the philosophy of Thai food (sweet and bitter) and is compatible with a wide range of dishes. Other drinks that utilize sweet fruits are equally compatible if you have a taste for daiquiris made from exotic fruits such as guava or lilikoi (passion fruit). If you enjoy the hot stuff, whether in curry or a spicy chili-laden rice or noodle dish, an ice-cold Thai beer is always recommended.

Dessert at Thai restaurants can either be simple or elaborate. Coconut ice cream and various tropical fruit infused sorbets or sherbets can be found on most menus. Fried bananas are also commonplace. A restaurant with a more authentic and extensive menu will offer additional fare such as Sungkaya a steamed coconut custard or various dishes using lychee fruit.

As is the case with many foods from the Orient, there are unique herbs and spices that are central to Thai cooking. Finding them is not always easy, although the upsurge of interest in Thai cooking has made many of these products readily available. If you are prepared to do some easy substitutions, you can still capture the essence of wonderful Thai cooking at home. Remember the building blocks and be creative and soon you'll be fixing wonderful Thai dishes in the comfort of your own kitchen.

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