Thailand

Thailand

By
Charmaine Solomon
Contains
52 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742701448
Photographer
Alan Benson

Thailand

Thai cooking, like that of the whole of South-East Asia, is very much a taste-and-add affair. While the results are splendid, it is very difficult to obtain exact recipes because most Thai cooks don’t use them. It is best to watch the cook closely, noting every move and taking careful and copious notes.

During my first most enjoyable stay in Thailand I was fortunate to meet and speak with some outstandingly good Thai cooks and learn some of their recipes. One was Mom Luang Terb Xoomsai, a charming and worldly member of the Thai nobility who was famous for her good cooking. Between trips abroad to represent Thailand at food festivals and exhibitions she ran a catering firm and the SEATO canteen.

I lunched at the canteen as her guest, and chose to taste the Thai dishes rather than the European style food that was also provided. After lunch we sat and talked, then she took me into the kitchen to show me how various things were done. All in all, I have seldom spent so edifying an afternoon.

She pointed out that, like every country, Thailand has a classic cuisine and a peasant cuisine. She uses both, depending on the occasion. The meals in the canteen are, she said, of the peasant style (but delicious, just delicious) and when she catered for parties something grander was usually required. An example of this, being prepared then for a special party the next day, was lug chup, which translates as ‘small magic’ — and that’s exactly what it was.

Tiny moulded fruits looking like marzipan fruit, but more delicate, they shone with a glaze that could have been a thin sugar coating at the brilliantly clear hard-crack stage. However, the fruits were not marzipan but mung bean paste, sweetened with sugar and coloured and flavoured with fresh fruits and vegetables. ‘I would not touch them if they had artificial colouring and flavouring,’ vowed Terb Xoomsai. Nor was the glaze sugar (which would melt in Thailand’s humid climate); the fruits had been dipped in an agar-agar solution to give them a clear and completely non-sticky coating. Tiny natural calyxes from fruits were attached and the whole effect was one of delicacy and beauty.

I also met chef Miki Pichit, chef de cuisine at the Oriental Hotel, one of Bangkok’s oldest and most famous hotels. I had been overwhelmed by his presentation of Thai food at the lavish banquet held to mark the Loy Krathong festival, the biggest celebration of the year. It takes place on the full of the twelfth moon and symbolises the passing of the old and the coming of the new lunar year.

Lotus-shaped krathongs or floats made from flowers, leaves, coloured paper and (a modern touch) polystyrene foam to keep them afloat, are sent down the Chao Phraya River, each with lighted candles and incense sticks in them. The lights flickering on the water are a pretty sight, but not many survive more than a short distance downstream where scores of little boys wait in boats to snatch them from the water and profit from the baht coins tucked into them by devotees hoping to propitiate the gods.

Because the hotel is right on the river, there is a spectacular celebration held there each year attended by tourists and local society alike. Tableaux presented on an open-air stage tell stories of the grandeur of ancient Siam. Beautiful girls in breathtaking costumes dance traditional dances. There is music and singing, and an interpreter with a microphone translates for the benefit of farangs, or foreigners.

Every conceivable dish was displayed at the banquet, both Western and Thai style. Smoked salmon and ham vied for attention with kaeng (dishes with gravy) of every kind and such a selection of krueng kieng (side dishes) that discretion and diets were cast to the winds. Among the most delicious and curious dishes I tasted was a finely pounded paste of fresh fish seasoned with the ever-present Thai flavouring combination of coriander roots, peppercorns and garlic ground together. This was steamed in banana leaves that had been cut and curved to look like a flower. I met this combination again at a very exclusive Thai restaurant, when it was steamed in the shape of tiny fish, each one no larger than a thumb, and presented on lettuce leaves as though swimming around the dish.

The sweets of every shape, flavour and hue were as dazzling to the eye as was the display of fireworks on the river. I could not help but wonder how many hours of work had gone into the making of hundreds of tiny baskets made from bai toey (pandanus leaves), each holding a mere mouthful of sweets made variously from glutinous rice, yams, agar-agar jelly, mung bean paste, mung bean flour and, of course, the richness of coconut milk and the sweetness of palm sugar. I particularly enjoyed the ice cream made from fresh coconut milk. Delicately sweet, ice-cold, creamy but not too rich, it was the perfect ending to a perfect meal. A chef stood by the old-fashioned ice-cream churn, scooping out servings for guests who still had some space left to taste it.

On a tour of the hotel kitchens I met chef Silaprachai, a specialist in fruit carving. If you have not seen fruit as carved by the Thais, you cannot imagine the impact of huge pyramids of melons, papayas, lamoot (sapodilla), mandarins, pomelos, champoos (rose apple/jambul) and rambutan all sculpted to resemble flowers. The melons in particular, being large enough to decorate in more elaborate fashion, bore classic designs cut into the skin and in some instances were carved to look like birds, each feather separate and perfect.

It amazes the visitor to Thailand to see the care that goes into even the smallest detail. Even the krathongs, to be admired for a few hours and then floated down the river, were formed with such dexterity and attention to detail. Each ‘petal’ of the lotus shapes, approximately a handspan in length, was composed of hundreds of tiny red rose petals, each one rolled separately to form a flaring cone and arranged in perfectly symmetrical rows. These ‘petals’ were then edged with tight white buds of a jasmine-like flower.

Serving and eating a Thai meal

As in the rest of South-East Asia, Thailand’s staple food is rice. The words for rice and food are synonymous and everything else is called ‘with the rice’.

Thailand is one of the greatest rice-growing countries in the world and exports of rice account for almost half of the country’s export revenue. There are as many, if not more, ceremonial rituals attached to the planting and harvesting of rice in Thailand as there are in other Asian countries, where rice represents life and is revered as such.

To cook rice in the Thai manner, choose jasmine rice, a naturally fragrant long-grain rice or, if unavailable, another long-grain variety of polished white rice. Thai cooks wash the rice several times, but there is no need to do this if the rice is clean, for washing carries away soluble nutrients. It is then cooked by the absorption method.

Another method is to soak the rice overnight, then to drain and steam it. This takes much longer than cooking it directly in the water, but gives a very fluffy and grainy result. However, it must be served directly when it is ready, because it will go hard and dry if left to stand. This method is almost always used with glutinous rice, a special variety much prized in northern Thailand, Laos and other countries in the area. Except in Laos, it is used exclusively in the making of sweets.

A Thai meal is based on rice, but the number and variety of dishes served with the rice is limited only by the cook’s time, imagination, patience and budget. It is customary to have a soup, two or more kaeng and as many krueng kieng as possible. These can be prepared beforehand and served at room temperature. There is not, in Thailand, the Western compulsion to have everything piping hot. Just cook the rice at the last moment so it will be steaming fresh and all will be well.

Modern Thais eat mostly with spoon and fork, though for those who can manage the old-fashioned way, with the fingers, the food does seem to taste even better. Everything is served at once and diners take this or that according to individual taste, combining or tasting separately each dish against the bland background of rice. Rice in Thailand is never cooked with salt. Seasonings and sauces added later make it inadvisable to cook rice with salt, because the sauces are so strong and salty.

Utensils

You don’t need anything very special in the way of equipment to cook Thai food. But, like the cooking of many Asian countries, Thai food uses ground spices and fresh herbs for flavouring and a food processor helps. So does a mortar and pestle for pounding small quantities.

A wok is, once again, the classic shape for the stir-frying technique that is employed in many dishes, so if you enjoy cooking Chinese, Thai, Indonesian or other Asian food, it will be a wise investment.

Fresh ingredients

In addition to the shelf ingredients listed opposite, try to grow lemongrass in your garden. The dried, powdered version pales in comparison. Coriander is essential to Thai food if you are in an area where you cannot buy it, grow some from seed. Fresh kaffir lime leaves add a unique and distinctive flavour to many Thai dishes. Cut into hair-fine strands and sprinkled on top of salads or finished dishes, pounded with other ingredients to make fragrant spice pastes or simmered whole in curries, their contribution cannot be underestimated. Tender leaves from other citrus may be substituted, but the effect is not the same. In addition to these key fresh ingredients, there are three varieties of Thai basil, kaprow, horapa and manglak, which are widely used and pack a real flavour punch. Get to know them and, if you are an aficionado of Thai cuisine, consider growing them. Likewise, fresh Thai chillies (the smaller and thinner the chilli, the hotter it will be).

Your Thai shelf

—black peppercorns, whole

—cardamom, whole pods or ground

—cellophane noodles

—chillies, dried red or powder

—cinnamon, sticks or ground

—cloves, whole or ground

—coconut, desiccated

—coconut milk and cream

—coriander, ground

—cumin, ground

—dried bean curd sheets

—dried prawn powder

—dried shrimp

—dried shrimp paste

—fish sauce

—galangal, fresh or brined

—ginger, red pickled

—glutinous rice

—green curry paste

—green peppercorns, in brine

—jasmine or other long-grain rice

—kencur powder

—laos powder

—lily buds, dried

—masaman curry paste

—mung bean flour

—palm sugar or soft or dark brown sugar

—paprika

—peanut oil or other vegetable oil

—peanuts, raw

—red curry paste

—rice vermicelli

—shiitake mushrooms, dried

—soy sauce, light and dark

—tamarind pulp

—tapioca flour

—Thai chilli sauce

—turmeric, ground

—wood fungus, dried

—yellow bean sauce

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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