I’ve never been to a Canadian restaurant. I’m sure that they exist, but I’m not sure what exactly they’d serve. The international culinary map is marked with such thick borders. We’re spoon-fed lentils from Morocco and finger our way into Ethiopia’s injera but don’t dare to sample from elsewhere in Africa. We plow our way through a Brazilian barbecue and feast on Peruvian chicken, but would struggle to find South America’s other offerings. Each continent has its culinary ambassadors and a country’s size is no judge of its membership into this élite world of global gastronomy (when was the last time you went to a Russian restaurant?). In Asia you have the big guns India and China fighting over the buffet sector, Korean BBQ hitting the middle road, and Japan and Thailand reaching for upmarket chic. Most countries whose food makes its way into our neighborhood shopping malls and big city streets are either rich and powerful or large and numerous. There are obvious exceptions to this rule and I have always wondered why these small counties food gets noticed. Are they that different from their neighbors?
If you asked me one year ago what my favorite food was (other than pizza), I would have said Thai food. It’s funny how you can come to love this one thing about a country so much and have no idea of its origins, preparation, or even ingredients. Why have I grown up eating Thai food and not Lao, Cambodian or Burmese? After a month overdosing on rice and noodles and an intense day of cooking instruction, I have discovered some of the answers.
Appropriately, my lesson began in the market. At a table lined with rice-filled bamboo baskets, we learned to differentiate the plain (red, brown, basmati, jasmine) from the sticky varieties – the refined from the unrefined. Across the way, behind buckets of premade curry pastes in a traffic light formation of red, yellow, and green, a primitive machine squawked as it pressed and pumped out cream from furry brown coconuts.
Most Thai dishes begin with oil. It is important to cook with the most tasteless oil available and we were shown palm and soy to use depending on the cooking temperature. Our instructor Tommy, an unusually buff Thai, warned us never to succumb to our Western tendencies and overpower Asian cuisine with olive oil. Teaching us where to shop in the curiously tidy market, Tommy led us around to another stall to locate Oyster, Mushroom and Fish sauce – the three main flavors in noodles and stir-fry. He assured us that a hint of fish sauce is essential in every Thai dish.
From the market, we drove sixteen kilometers north of Thailand’s second city, Chiang Mai, to the organic farm. It was at the farm that we would cook our dishes. Wandering through the effervescent garden, Tommy pointed out the staple ingredients. It was important to know the look, smell, and flavor of each item we used to tailor our dishes to our own personal taste.
“How do you call this?” Tommy asked, pointing to a lime. “Right,” he continued, “Thais can’t pronounce that word so we call it a lemon.” This made sense. I’d been ordering lemon juice all over Thailand and got lime every time. “Unlike the lemons you use back home, you cannot cook with a lime. It turns to vinegar. We use lime to flavor a dish once it has already been cooked.”
Thais use two kinds of lemons (limes), the traditional one found in our supermarkets and the lumpy Kaffir. Each has a different purpose. The traditional lime is utilized for its juice while the Kaffir’s leaves and skin add essential flavor to curries and noodles.
Around the garden we were introduced to roots and herbs both familiar and exotic – three types of basil (they favor holy), Thai ginger, ginseng, lemongrass, long bean, coriander, and most important – chili. Thais are known for the heat infused into everything they cook. Instead of salt and pepper, their tables have chili sauce and chili flakes. Instead of catsup, they use chili paste… and the food is already hot. The smallest chilies pack the most punch and the more you chop one up, the more the flavor disseminates. If you don’t want the dish too spicy but still want the flavor, Tommy recommended choosing a larger chili pepper and removing the seeds. In the end, the test of a well cooked meal is a spoonful with equal parts sweet, sour, salty, and spicy.
Thai men measure a woman’s prospects for marriage by her curry paste. She must be strong and sturdy enough to pound a paste out of spurting roots and spices. This is a tiresome task and I can attest that I would make a horrible Thai wife. Muddling a paste with the pestle was the first step in our five course class and it was also the hardest. Red curry is my absolute favorite Thai dish so I was doubly disappointed that it was my poorest result. The coconut milk should be cooked on medium to maintain a liquid base and mine was as thick as peanut butter. If you’d like to outdo me (and it won’t be hard) try the recipe at the end of this post.
In Thailand, there is no such thing as a low-carb diet. Carbs are all there is to eat. My five courses at cooking school included curry (with rice), coconut soup (with noodles), chicken stir-fry (over rice), spring rolls (with rice noodles), and mango (on a bed of sticky rice). Rice and noodles! In the month I spent in Thailand, each day’s big decision revolved around rice or noodles? If you are curious what I ate this holiday season as you sent a toast of wine atop your honeyed ham, the answer is rice or noodles (with a toast of whiskey, rice whiskey!).
Stir-fry is a typical dish for most of us, so I thought I had this one down. For me, stir-fry was a lazy process – a progression of vegetables based on cooking times. The thought had never occurred to me to chop each vegetable in such a way that together they would cook equally. In Thailand, this typical street food is fried on high for three minutes of dramatic flip-floppery by chefs who wield spatulas like weapons against popping oil and piping flame. What took me thirty minutes should take three. Stir-fry is a race against time and a talent I have yet to acquire. I have no advice on this one because, again, mine was a mild failure. If you’d like to try pad thai at home check out the recipe at the end of this post.
From the recipes below you may note to add the fresh herbs after the dish is cooked. This was one of the most important lessons Tommy taught us, vital to every cooked dish. He’d laugh and repeat, “Don’t worry. Everything is in your cookbook… except me!”
After gobbling down some mango sticky rice and cleansing our palates with fresh lemongrass tea, the class was over. We removed our red aprons, bagged up a stack of leftovers, and collected our recipe books with everything (except Tommy) inside.
This was my first cooking class, Thai or otherwise, and if I learned anything, it’s that I’ve been doing so many things wrong. I am top chef of the casserole and master of the oven, but Asian cuisine is all about the stovetop and this is a whole different field of expertise. It takes quick-thinking, a bit of flair, and a lot of rice and noodles.
As a populous democracy in an otherwise communist region, Thai food and culture has crossed its own borders and reached the world over with its fresh, unique, and accessible offerings. Maybe we don’t eat Lao, Cambodian, or Burmese cuisine because they too have started eating Thai. Once the nose-burning spices become bearable, they soon become desirable. Western food begins to taste dull. In Thailand, they don’t have many restaurants in our sense of the word. This concept was dreamt up by someone else. But, for us in the West, it makes a good platform for discovering this country’s amazing (and amazingly spicy) delicacies. We go out for Thai food but rarely endeavor to cook it at home… now’s your chance to take up the challenge…
***Unless you are an aspiring Thai wife, save yourself the trouble and buy red curry paste in the international section the supermarket!
1 cup of sliced eggplants (or other vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, or potato)
¼ cup of smaller pea-like eggplants
1/3 cup of sliced onion
70 grams of sliced chicken (substitute for another meat or tofu)
1 tsp. of sugar
1 tbsp. of fish sauce and soy sauce
3 kaffir lime leaves
2 stems of sweet basil
1 cup of coconut milk
1 cup of water
Pour the coconut milk in the pot and turn on to medium heat. Stir until oil appears. Add red curry paste and chicken and stir until almost done. Add your vegetables, water, sugar, fish sauce, soy sauce, salt and turn the heat up. Stir a little. When everything is cooked, turn the heat off and put the sweet basil and lime leaves in. Serve over rice.
80 grams of rice noodles
1 cup of bean sprouts
2 tbsp. of tofu cut into small pieces
1 tbsp. of chopped pickled white raddish
1 tbsp. of crushed roasted peanuts
2 tsp. of white vinegar mixed with 3tbsp. of water
1 tsp. of sugar
1 tsp. of fish or soy sauce
1 tsp. of leek or spring onion
1 tbsp. of shrimps (or chosen meat)
1 pinch of chili powder
3 tbsp. of oil
1 pinch of salt
3 cloves of crushed garlic
Heat up the oil on the wok on medium heat. Place tofu and fry until crunchy. Then, turn the heat down to low. Add garlic, pickled radish, shrimps, chili powder and stir until fragrant. Add vinegar mix and noodles and turn the heat up to medium. Stir-fry until the noodles are soft. Turn the heat down to low. Make a place by moving the noodles to another side of the wok. Add the egg and scramble. Add fish sauce, sugar, salt, crushed peanuts, bean sprouts, and leek (or spring onion) and turn the heat up to high. Stir-fry thoroughly until well mixed. Serve with a piece of lemon (lime) and fresh salad.