An Introduction to Thai Cuisine
If you haven’t found the time to take that exotic backpacking journey around Thailand, never fear. You can sample a true Thai adventure, courtesy of your taste buds, in the comfort of your own kitchen. Once you get hooked on the flavors of Thai cuisine, there’s no turning back.
“What’s not to like? There’s sweet, there’s salty, there’s hot—it has all the great food elements,” says Andy Ricker, the executive chef and owner of Pok Pok, in Portland, Oregon, and Pok Pok Ny, in Brooklyn. “American food puts things together that taste similar, while the flavors of Southeast Asia tend to be different flavors at the same time and not all combined to make one homogenous flavor. It’s like beef stew compared with yum kai dao [a fried-egg salad], where separate elements are all brought together—protein, bright lime, salty fish sauce, hot chilies, stringent onions, cool lettuce—all happening in one place. It’s about bright, disparate flavors in one dish.”
The best part? Just because it’s complex doesn’t mean it has to be complicated to make. “Thai food is very simple,” says Hong Thaimee, the executive chef at Ngam, in New York City. “All you need to make green curry at home is green curry paste, your protein of choice, coconut milk, and your garnish, like Thai basil. You can wow people with the flavors while finding all the basic ingredients at your local supermarket.” And contrary to popular belief, not all Thai food is spicy. Some dishes may have a final element of heat, but they’re often sweet and sour at the same time—perfect for those eaters who like to keep their taste buds guessing.
Curries (green, red, or yellow) are some of the most popular Thai dishes. They involve starting from a paste made with a mortar and pestle, which are staples in any Thai kitchen. The tools are used to bruise herbs instead of chopping them, which increases the aromatic oil, maximizing the flavors of the ingredients. If you want to make your own curry but don’t have a mortar and pestle on hand, Thaimee suggests hitting your herbs gently with a rolling pin to bruise them and release their essential oils.
And where there’s curry, there’s always rice. “In Thailand, rice is the center of the universe, not just the food. The importance of it can’t be overemphasized,” says Ricker. “Curries were developed as very flavorful dishes. You eat a little bit of curry with a lot of rice—rice is the main point.” The most popular accompaniments in Thai cooking are jasmine rice, which can be made in a rice cooker, and sticky rice, which is a bit more complicated and time-intensive. You’ll also find rice in meat salads like spicy larb (a mixture of minced meat, chili, mint, and vegetables), alongside grilled meats—Thai cooks love to marinate and grill—and even in sweet dishes, such as coconut sticky rice with mango.
A word to the wise: When you’re ready to tackle Thai cuisine in your kitchen, resist the urge to start with pad thai. The ubiquitous stir-fried noodle dish has a lot of ingredients and a somewhat lengthy prep time, so it may not be the best way to ease your way into Thai cooking at home. Instead, start with a fried-egg salad, which contains equal parts lime juice and simple syrup, along with chilies, garlic, sliced onions, Chinese celery, and lettuce. Chop your fried eggs, add them to the salad, and sprinkle some cilantro on top. Or start with a classic Thai hot and sour soup, which is like a more intense version of the Chinese staple. Either way, you’ll end up with a plate or bowl full of deliciousness that’s both familiar and exotic at the same time.
“Thai cuisine is very unlike anything you’re probably used to cooking or eating,” Ricker says. “Taking something unfamiliar and almost unpleasant—like shrimp paste—and adding it to a dish to enhance the flavor is pretty remarkable. The flavors captured my palate and imagination. For me, it’s just completely delicious.”