Thai Food: An Overview
by Puangpen Prescott
Puangpen Prescott, a Thai American, shares a brief overview about Thai cooking, both from a Thai and Thai American perspective.
Thai Food: An Overview
Thai food is known for its complexity in the use of spices and herbs. There are many flavors and textures in a Thai meal. Breakfast is the simplest and the least spicy of the three meals. It typically consists of rice, egg dishes and a simple soup. Lunch and dinner are more elaborately prepared. Thai cooks strive to balance the flavor of the varieties of fresh ingredients and spices that are available to them. The result is amazingly complex taste. Usually if you have a spicy dish such as a curry dish then you would have two or three milder dishes to off set and compliment the flavor of the spices. Every meal will have rice. Meats are used sparingly as flavoring rather than the core ingredients.
When a Thai family or a group of Thais sit down for a meal, each person has a plate for rice and portion of the accompanying dishes, which are shared by every one in the group. Each dish will have a community spoon that every one uses to scoop it to his plate over the rice. Contrary to what some people think, Thais eat their meals with fork and spoon and not chopsticks. A person will only take enough of a dish for one or two bites at a time and then go on to the next dish. It is considered rude to take more than that out of a dish at one time. Ice water is a typical drink for an ordinary everyday meal. When a person lines the fork and spoon up next to each other on his plate, it means that he is done eating.
Coconut milk is used in curry (gang) dishes and desserts. Nam Prig gang or what is known to foreigners as curry paste is made by pounding the spices in a stone mortar and pestle, though a modern cook can use an electric blender and a cook far away from home can use canned paste. Fish sauce, soy sauce, sea salt, black and white pepper besides varieties of spices are used for seasoning. As the name implies, coconut milk is from coconut. How do you get milk from coconut? When I was a little girl, you cracked open mature coconuts into halves and scraped the snow white meat with an iron tool called "gratai" meaning rabbit. The sharp jagged iron head is fitted onto a small wood bench where one can sit and carefully scrape away at the coconut meat leaving the brown shell undisturbed. About a half cup of lukewarm water is then pour into the shredded coconut. You then squeeze the milky liquid out. This first round yields the creamiest liquid, thus you get coconut cream. The subsequent one will be thinner and that is how you get coconut milk. One could also buy already shredded coconut at a market. My mother preferred that we did it ourselves. She said it was fresher this way. Now I use coconut milk that comes in a can. It is readily available in an Asian supermarket. Look for the ones that come from Thailand.
How do they make fish sauce? I am often asked that question. One day, about two years ago my daughter, Joy came home from school and asked me if I knew that fish sauce was used by the Romans. No, I said but I know how it is made in Thailand. She was taking an archeology class on the region of Palestine and the area around the Mediterranean. Terracotta jugs were unearthed and were found to have inscription that said 'fish sauce' on them. I don't know how the Romans made their fish sauce but Thai fish sauce is made from anchovies and sea salt. The newly harvested fish are put in earthen jugs. A layer of salt, then fish, then salt and a bamboo screen with a heavy rock on top. The jugs are put out in the sun for about a year. From time to time the jugs are opened to let the sun in. You can imagine the smell. After a year, the salty brown liquid is ready for use. If you find the smell of fish sauce offensive, you can use the minimum and substitute salt to taste. Soy sauce should not be used in place of fish sauce in a recipe. If you live in a big U.S. city with a large Asian population, you can easily find fish sauce in a supermarket.
Thai herbs and spices can be found in Asian markets. Fresh lemon grass, galangal root or Thai ginger, Kaffir lime leaves are no longer hard to find even as far north in the U.S. as Minnesota. Only three or four inches of lemon grass from the root up, is used in cooking. It can be grown outdoor in the summer and brought indoors in the winter. The tougher outer layer is peeled away and discarded along with the green top. Galangal root has a pinkish thin layer of skin that should be peel off before use. Kaffir lime leaves and dried skin are also used in curry dishes. Cilantro is easily found in supermarkets. Unfortunately, the root, which is also a critical ingredient in many Thai recipes are cut away and discarded before they reach the supermarkets. I suggest you grow your own in order to get the roots. The seeds are easily found in packets in many nurseries or mail order houses.
Puangpen Prescott has a Thai-American Family Site which includes many different interesting articles about the Thai lifestyle, cuisine, history, festivals, and lots of excellent Thai recipes.