The Simplicity of Thai Cuisine
I often wonder where I would be if I hadn’t been lucky enough to experience Thai food. The first time was many years ago in a tiny storefront restaurant with my older brother, a former US Navy man. It actually changed my life.
I often look back on that experience fondly, recalling the freshness of the cooking, the simplicity of preparation and, of course, the uniqueness of the sauces—Wow! The dark nuance of basil, vegetables, the spiced layers of the red curry duck, the subtleties of great pad Thai…I could literally drink those sauces. Fortunately, there were even better things to drink, including the Singha beer and Thai iced coffee!
How had I missed this my entire life? From that moment on, wherever we lived, I made it my mission to find the best Thai restaurant and immediately make myself a regular. Mostly good and sometimes great, I made a strong case for frequenting those favorite haunts as much as possible. Selfish, but true!
The traditional taste of great Thai lies in the perfect balance of the four key tastes recognized by the human tongue: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. This balance is evident in some of the most recognizable dishes such as Pad Thai, Thai Green Curry Vegetables, and Basil Duck. Heat from fresh chili peppers (aka Thai bird pepper and Thai hot)—often recommended by the wait staff and frequently grown by the chefs and restaurateurs themselves—serve as the spark that keeps the dishes and condiments interesting.
Thai cooking is distinct for its combinations of aromatic spices and ingredients: The Thai basil, ginger, chili pepper, mint and lemongrass; the garlic, the fish sauce, coconut milk and, of course, the curry pastes. Combined correctly, these individual actors can produce something simply mystifying, yet its aroma beckons as though your palette always knew this taste experience was out there somewhere but was just waiting for a proper introduction.
Rice is a huge staple of Thai cuisine, accompanying almost any dish prepared with a sauce. Such complex dishes pair beautifully with fragrant Jasmine rice, simply, perfectly steamed and dished from a tin-plated vessel, as they do with thin rice-flour noodles, another popular foil for dancing Thai flavors.
It’s difficult to overstate the important role fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs play in so many Thai preparations. Interesting combinations of sprouts, eggplants, beans, various peppers, squashes, tomatoes, broccoli and all kinds of onions; melons, pineapple, coconut, mangoes and papayas, to name a few. All of these contribute to the healthful, lighter qualities associated with Thai cuisine.
Here is a fail-safe recipe I hope you’ll try at home. The ingredients are pictured above. You can get everything at Publix, with the exception of perhaps the palm sugar, which you can get at any Asian market. If you do make it, please take a picture, send it to us at email@example.com and we will publish it in a future edition of Around the Table! -Chef Robert