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Beginning Thai Cooking with Kasma, Class #1

Michael Babcock, Sunday, July 1st, 2012

My wife, Kasma Loha-unchit, has been teaching Thai cooking to U.S. students since 1985. This blog talks about her first beginning class in an evening series of four classes. Kasma prefers to teach a series of classes because it’s impossible to give an adequate introduction to Thai food in just one class.

Kasma teaching

Kasma teaching

Living with Kasma, I tend to take great Thai food for granted. When I met Kasma, she had been teaching classes for 6 years so they’ve always been part of our life together. I attended her beginning series back in 1992 and subsequently attended the Intermediate series and several of the Advanced classes.

(Click images to see larger version.)

These days, I mostly show up when the class sits down to eat: I like to think of this as giving a disinterested third-party opinion about the food; really, the food is just too good not to come eat.

Thai Ingredients

Various ingredients

Although I can cook a number of Thai dishes reasonably well – I don’t even need the recipes for some of them – recently I decided to sit in on the beginning series again, knowing that there’s a lot for me to remember and a lot more to learn.

All of the classes start out with Kasma going over the recipes and introducing any new ingredients or techniques in the recipes. In the beginning series the introduction can take a bit longer because there are so many more things to introduce and go over. I had forgotten how much information Kasma gives you: we’ve had several students who have taken the beginning series more than once, for good reason!

Students Tasting

A coconut milk tasting

Coconut Milk

The coconut milk

One of the best parts about Kasma’s classes are that you learn how to use ingredients that are available locally. In the very first class students taste eight or nine different brands of coconut milk to get a sense for what is available and to learn which are the good brands. The correct brand of many ingredients can make a large difference in the finished taste and one of Kasma’s strengths is introducing students to the best brands that she knows. Students learn to cook authentic Thai food with the ingredient they can purchase in the United States.

Prepping Food

Students prepping food

Kasma Cutting

Kasma demonstrating

All classes are at least partially hands on. Students do virtually all of the food preparation – the chopping, de-shelling shrimp and so on. Kasma supervises (somehow not seeming to miss anything as the 13 students work) and steps into demonstrate as needed.


Ingredients for one dish

Kasma Cooking

Cooking Massaman Curry

Once all of the ingredients are ready, they are gathered by the stove to be cooked. Kasma tends to do more of the cooking in the first class; as the series progresses, students do more and more of the cooking. She’ll often ask for volunteers and then supervise as the student does the actual cooking. One good think about Kasma’s classes is that all the recipes are intended for groups of people, so you are cooking the dishes just as you would when you cook at home.

Perhaps the most valuable part of the first class is learning to harmonize flavors. (See Creating Harmony with Primary Flavors.) As the two curry dishes of this class are assembled, at critical points, just before ingredients such as palm sugar or fish sauce are added, students are given a taste of the dish; then the important ingredients are added incrementally, with tastes after each addition. Re-taking the class, I again felt the excitement of the alchemy of cooking, how a dish that tasted not quite right could slowly change into something absolutely fabulous. I love the “WOW” moments when you think the dish is complete and Kasma adds just another teaspoon of palm sugar (for example) and everything just POPS! into place – the dish is perfect.

Of course, the best part of the class is when you sit down to eat all the food that you’ve prepared. Unlike many cooking classes, here you get a full 4 or 5 course meal complete with deliciously steamed jasmine rice.

Beginning Thai Series Class #1 Menu

Green Curry

Green Curry

Green Curry with Fish, Shrimp and Eggplant – แกงเขียวหวาน (Kaeng Kiew Wahn) In the first series, Kasma teaches many dishes that are more familiar to people in the United States. Green Curry is possibly the favorite curry of people in Thailand. I can eat Green Curry fairly often and I never get tired of it. In this first class, Kasma uses a prepared paste (Mae Ploy) and shows how to balance the flavors to get a delicious result. The very first time I took the class I was amazed at how delicious the dish was – it was far better than anything I’d ever had in a restaurant in this country. What struck me was how easy it was to get such a good result; I still don’t understand why the restaurants here can’t do better.

Massaman Curry

Massaman Curry

Massaman Chicken Curry with Potatoes and Baby Onions – แกงมัสมั่นไก่ (Kaeng Massaman Kai) In July of 2011, Massaman Curry was anointed by CNNGo as The World’s Most Delicious Food. It’s a very different curry than Green Curry. The word “Massaman” means Muslim so this literally is “Muslim Curry.” It’s possible that it was created at the court of King Narai to serve to Persian envoys. It’s made with roasted spices and almost has more of an Indian taste than a Thai taste. Kasma’s version uses chicken thighs and baby onions; it’s a very, rich curry – a little goes a long way. At the bottom of this page is a slideshow of Kasma cooking Massaman curry.

Hot & Sour Vegetables

Hot & Sour Vegetables

Hot and Sour Vegetable – ผัดเปรี้ยวหวาน (Pad Preow Wan)One advantage that Asian cuisine has over American would be the wide variety of vegetables and vegetable dishes. This dish uses pickling cucumbers in a stir-fry with tomatoes and shrimp. The hot comes from chillies (wax peppers in Kasma’s version) and the sour from vinegar.

Bananas in Coconut Milk

Bananas in Coconut Milk

Bananas Simmered in Jasmine-Scented Coconut Milk – กล้วยบวชชี (Kluay Buat Chee). There are a wide variety of snacks in Thailand, many of which use coconut in some form. Bananas in Coconut Milk is one of the best known ones. The name is quite interesting – กล้วยบวชชี (Kluay Buat Chee):

  • กล้วย (kluay) – means banana
  • บวช (buat) – to ordain
  • ชี (chee) – nun

So the meaning is literally “bananas ordained as nuns.” In Thailand, nuns wear white so it’s a reference to the bananas in a coconut (white) sauce.

Slideshow – Massaman Curry

Click on “Play” below to begin a slideshow.

Clicking on a slide will take you to the next image.

Kasma Cooking
Stirring Massaman Curry
Tasting Exercise
Adding Tamarind
Curry with Chicken
Massaman Curry
Plating the Curry
Finished Dish

Kasma cooking Massaman Curry - แกงมัสมั่น (Kaeng Massaman)

Here the Massaman paste has been cooked in coconut cream

Tasting the curry to learn how to harmonize flavors

Here Kasma adds the Tamarind to the Massaman curry

The chicken and onions have been added

Massaman Curry - ready to serve

Putting the Massaman Curry in a serving dish

Massaman Curry in a serving dish. Yum!

Kasma Cooking thumbnail
Stirring Massaman Curry thumbnail
Tasting Exercise thumbnail
Adding Tamarind thumbnail
Curry with Chicken thumbnail
Massaman Curry thumbnail
Plating the Curry thumbnail
Finished Dish thumbnail

See Michael’s blogs on the other classes in this series:

Written by Michael Babcock, July 2012

Weeklong Thai Cooking Class

Michael Babcock, Saturday, October 1st, 2011

Note: Kasma no longer offers the weeklong Thai cooking classes. I will leave this blog up as a historical record.

During July and August, Thai cooking teacher Kasma Loha-unchit used to offer weeklong Thai cooking classes in the San Francisco Bay Area for people who wanted to learn how to cook Thai food as authentic and delicious as that found in Thailand. The classes were called “intensives” because for 5 straight days participants spent all day learning, cooking and eating Thai food. Unfortunately, we no longer offer these classes – they were an incredible amount of work and as Kasma edges towards retirement, she has stopped offering them.

In this blog we’ll try to give you a sense of what those classes were like.

Click images to see larger version. There’s also a slideshow further down.


Kasma Loha-unchit

Kasma demonstrates Green Papaya Salad

Kasma, who offered 4-session evening series classes starting in 1985, began offering these classes in 1998 because of requests from people who discovered the classes through Kasma’s website – thaifoodandtravel.com. She very quickly began offering two of the Beginning/Intermediate intensives each summer along with two advanced weeklong classes. Hundreds of people from all over the world have attended the Beginning/Intermediate class, many of them going on to take the Advanced weeklong classes as well.

Kasma teaches all of her classes in her home. The more casual and intimate setting allows people to relax more and to get to know one another. Since most students will be cooking in their home kitchen, it makes sense to learn in a home kitchen similar to what they will find when they return home.

Plate of Thai Food

Thai food - what it's all about

The Beginning/Intermediate class combines the evening Beginning Series and evening Intermediate Series with some extras; it introduces most important Thai ingredients and many of the cooking techniques, including using the mortar and pestle to make pastes. The Beginning/Intermediate class lays the foundation of how to balance flavor groupings to create Thai tastes, whether using a recipe or not. Everyone starts with the Beginning/Intermediate class: it’s the only way Kasma can insure that everyone in the Advanced classes has a common set of essential information and that everyone has been exposed to harmonizing Thai flavors. Many of the recipes in the Beginning/Intermediate class are familiar to anyone exposed to Thai restaurants in the U.S. – Basil Chicken, Green Curry, Shrimp Cakes, Pad Thai noodles – to name a few.

Students at Work

The classes are great fun

In the Advanced weeklong classes more Thai ingredients (less common ones) are introduced along with new techniques and the refining and expansion of previous techniques. In addition to more familiar recipes, the Advanced classes include more recipes that are not so common in this country. Kasma estimates that the Thai restaurants in the U.S. offer around 5% of the total number of dishes in Thailand; the advanced weeklong classes are a chance to learn how to cook and to eat many of the other 95% of Thai dishes. Kasma started out with just one Advanced weeklong class and added 3 more in response to demand from students, who wanted to keep learning more dishes and more about Thai food.



One morning's breakfast

The format of all of the classes is  the same. Class always starts with a delicious breakfast consisting of pastries and cheese breads from local (mostly co-operative) bakeries, organic heirloom tomatoes and tree-ripened organic fruits from the Berkeley Farmers market, quail eggs with Thai dipping sauces and a different Asian snack each day. Peet’s coffee and a selection of teas are also served. The breakfasts are fantastic!

After breakfast, everyone sits at the long table and Kasma goes over each of the recipes. This teaching session necessarily takes a bit longer in the Beginning/Intermediate class: Kasma needs to introduce the ingredients for the first time as she goes over each of the recipes. Questions are encouraged and part of the process involves smelling, tasting and touching Thai herbs and some comparative tasting (of coconut milks, for example). Class most days starts at 9:30 a.m. and the sitting instruction can last anywhere from 2 to 2-1/2 hours (there’s a break in the middle to sample more of the breakfast).

Students Prepping

Students prepping dishes

Students Prep Food

Chopping & pounding

After the initial instruction, the group breaks up into teams, each team working on 1 or 2 recipes; each team does all of the prep with Kasma supervising and instructing further as needed. After the ingredients are prepared, the food is assembled. Unlike other classes, the assembly is done as a group: everyone gets to watch each dish being cooked and finished. Initially (the first day or two) Kasma does much of the assembly herself and each day students take over more and more of the work, with Kasma watching. Each dish is designed to serve many people: you learn to cook dishes exactly the way you would cook them at home.

Folding Banana Leaves

Folding banana leaves

Making Roti

Making roti

Pork Rice Soup

Assembling Pork Rice Soup

Assembly of many of the dishes involves a series of tasting exercises. The essence of Kasma’s classes is learning to balance flavors. (See Kasma’s article Creating Harmonies with Primary Flavors.) Most of Kasma’s recipes give a range of quantity for many key flavoring ingredients, such as fish sauce, lime juice or palm sugar, because these ingredients can vary widely and blindly following a recipe with just a set quality may not produce a very tasty dish. (See the blog Following Thai Recipes.) Kasma will add a certain quantity of an ingredient, say fish sauce, and then everyone gets a chance to taste what the dish tastes like; more fish sauce, or palm sugar, or lime juice will be added and after each addition, there’s another tasting and students get to see how the flavors interact and how they become more layered and more complex, sometimes with just a small extra addition of something. I’ve had many experiences with these tasting exercises where I thought something tasted really, really good – I would have stopped right there. Then Kasma adds just a bit more of something and the flavors POP!!! into a revelation. It’s a chance to see, to experience the alchemy of Thai cooking.

Students Cook

A team of students

Each day there’s a dish or two that is cooked earlier on to serve as lunch or as asnack to bridge the time until you sit down to eat a Thai feast around 3:00 or 3:30 p.m. Most people find they don’t need to worry about eating dinner – they go away very full indeed! We provide beer or wine, as desired, and lemon- or limeade. Each day finishes with a Thai dessert. These classes are a great way to try some of the wonderful variety of Thai kanom wahn (“sweet snacks”).

One day during most of the weeklong classes is a one-dish meal day. You’ll learn many noodle dishes, from familiar dishes, such as Pad Thai, to the other noodle dishes that Thai people actually prefer: such as Stewed Duck Noodles, Boat Noodles and Kao Soi (Chiang Mai Curried Noodles). Some of the non-noodle (one-dish meal) dishes include Kao Man Gai (Poached Chicken Rice), Salted Black Olive Rice, Muslim Yellow Rice and Pork Rice Soup.

Grilling Fish

Charcoal Roasted Sea Bass

The last day is a little different. We start Friday with a 2-hour or so field trip to the Old Oakland Farmer’s Market, with its many Asian vendors, and to some of Kasma’s favorite markets in Oakland’s Chinatown. This is a chance for students to learn how to negotiate Asian markets and to learn about some of the exotic Asian ingredients that are found there. Every single one of our Advanced weeklong classes has wanted Kasma to include the optional field trip. We then return and assemble the day’s meal, which always includes grilled dishes on Friday, and on this day we eat out in Kasma’s beautiful garden.

After the Beginning/Intermediate class you will have been introduced to most of the important Thai ingredients, will know most of the main cooking techniques and will understand how to balance the flavor groupings to make delicious Thai flavors, with or without a recipe. You will have over 40 delicious Thai recipes with which to amaze and delight your friends. Be warned, you may find out, as have many students over the years, that you no longer wish to eat in local Thai restaurants because the Thai food is better at home!

Advanced Class Format

The format is essentially the same – breakfast, initial instruction and then breaking into teams, coming together so that everyone can see how a dish is cooked and finished. In the advanced weeks, students do pretty much everything under Kasma’s supervision.

Each Advanced weeklong class has 40 to 45 delicious Thai recipes. Many of these are dishes seldom seen outside of Thailand. You’ll be able to cook dishes at home that you can’t find in the local Thai restaurants. After you’ve taken the Beginning/Intermediate class and all 4 Advanced weeklong classes, you’ll have well over 200 Thai recipes to choose from.

Weeklong Food Sampling

Click on “Play” below to begin a slideshow.
Clicking on a slide will take you to the next image.

Frying Fish
Fried Fish
Making Basil Chicken
Spicy Basil Chicken
Making Mee Krob
Mee Krob
Steaming Fish Curry
Haw Moek
Mushroom Salad
Bean Thread Salad
Thai-Style Chicken Salad
Black Olive Rice
Calamari Salad
Stir-fried Eggplant
Lemon Grass Salad
Spicy Tamarind Prawns
Dipping Sauce
Daikon Cakes

The 3rd day of the First Week you learn to fry a whole fish

Crisped Whole Fish Topped with Chilli-Tamarind Sauce (Bplah Rad Prik) from the First Week, day 3

On day 2 of the First Week you learn to make Basil Chicken

Spicy Basil Chicken (Gkai Pad Gkaprow) on day 2 of the First Week

Making Mee Krob noodles on the 4th day of the First Week

Mee Krob- Glazed Crispy Noodles (a snack or appetizer), on the 4th day of the First Week

Haw Moek is a Fish Curry Mousse in Banana Leaf Baskets, here ready to be steamed

Curried Mousse of Red Snapper in Banana Leaf cups (Haw Moek Bplah) from day 2 of the First Week

Charcoal-Grilled Mushroom and Jicama Salad with Shrimp and Fried Cashews (Yam Hed Pao Man Gkaew) from day 3 of Advanced Set D

Thai-Style Bean Thread Salad (Yum Woon Sen) from Day 4 of Advanced Set B

Spicy Thai-Style Chicken Salad (Gkai Naem) from day 2 of Advanced Set B

Putting finishing touches to Salted Black Olive Fried Rice (Kao Pad Nahm Liap) on day 2 of Advanced Set B

Spicy Calamari Salad with Lemon Grass, Mint and Lime Sauce (Yam Bplah Meuk) from the very first day (First Week)

Stir-fried Eggplant with Chillies and Thai Basil (Pad Makeua Yao) from the day 3 of the First Week

Lemon Grass Salad (Sukhothai) (Yum Dtakrai) from day 4 of Advanced Set B

Southern Thai-Style Spicy Tamarind Prawns with Crisped Shallots and Garlic (Gkoong Yai Pad Som Makahm Bpiak)from day 5 of Advanced Set A

Pan-fried Mackerel and Assorted Vegetables with Hot-and-Pungent Fermented Shrimp Dipping Sauce (Nahm Prik Bplah Too)from day 3 of Advanced Set B

Pan-fried Steamed Daikon Cakes with Shrimp, Bean Sprouts and Garlic Chives (Pad Kanom Hua Pakgahd) from day 3 of Advanced Set D

Frying Fish thumbnail
Fried Fish thumbnail
Making Basil Chicken thumbnail
Spicy Basil Chicken thumbnail
Making Mee Krob thumbnail
Mee Krob thumbnail
Steaming Fish Curry thumbnail
Haw Moek thumbnail
Mushroom Salad thumbnail
Bean Thread Salad thumbnail
Thai-Style Chicken Salad thumbnail
Black Olive Rice thumbnail
Calamari Salad thumbnail
Stir-fried Eggplant thumbnail
Lemon Grass Salad thumbnail
Spicy Tamarind Prawns thumbnail
Dipping Sauce thumbnail
Daikon Cakes thumbnail

Why Take This Class

There’s an English proverb that dates back to the early 1600s that says: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” A cooking class can be lots of fun but ultimately you want to know that what you are learning to make is fabulous food.

Eating a Meal

Dinner in the garden

People take the Beginning/Intermediate class pretty much for one reason: to learn how to cook delicious Thai food. After this class, people return for multiple reasons: to learn more about Thai cooking, because they had so much fun during the first week and to eat. They come to learn to cook Thai dihes that they don’t find anywhere else outside of Thailand. Always, though, the main reason people return is because the food is so fabulous. These were truly unique classes – there is probably nowhere else in the United States that you could eat some of these fabulous meals. (The food in the Beginning/Intermediate class is fabulous as well; the Beginning/Intermediate people don’t believe us when we say the food in the Advanced classes is even better.) We have students who tell us that Kasma’s food is even better than what they have in Thailand. People return time after time – many people have taken all 5 of the weeklong classes and regularly ask us when Kasma will offer the 6th – because the food is so good. Several people have repeated one or more of the Advanced Weeklong classes because they wanted their Thai food hit. Other students go on to take the evening series Advanced classes.

Students Eating

Sitting down to eat

Eating Outside

Eating Outside

We are currently enrolling people for the July & August 2013 classes. If you’re interested, please check out some of the links below and then get in touch.


You can find out all the necessary details about class times, dates and policies on our website.

Kasma Stir-fries

Kasma stir-fries Pad Thai

Written by Michael Babcock, October 2011. Updated on in May 2017

Fermented Tofu and Pork (Wednesday Photo)

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

Stir-fried Fermented Tofu and Pork Belly

Fermented Tofu Dish

Fermented Tofu and Pork

One of my very favorite Thai dishes, probably in the top 5, is Stir-fried Fermented Tofu and Pork Belly. I first ate it at our beloved Ruen Mai Restaurant in Krabi, Thailand. Kasma calls her version, pictured above, Stir-Fried Pork Belly with Fermented Tofu Sauce and Thai Chillies (Moo Sahm Chan Pad Dtow Hoo Yee). Ruen Mai calls it Pad Mu Tao Hu Yi and describes it as “fried pork with fermented bean curd and some garlic.”

The brine from the red fermented tofu adds a wonderful sourness that contrasts and blends with the generous addition of garlic and chillies. We love to make it with pork belly (the cut used to make bacon) for the delightful combination of pork meat and fat.

I know of no place in the U.S. other than Kasma’s kitchen where you can get this dish! (Although there may be a restaurant somewhere in the U.S. that serves it.)

We are not big fans of soy, in general. Traditionally, it was only eaten in its fermented form, for the fermentation helps to ameliorate some of soy’s problems (such as high levels of phytic acid, which interfere with mineral absorption, and its anti-thyroid properties).

If you think non-fermented soy is a healthy food, you might want to read a summary of the dangers of soy and follow some of the links below the summary. Here are three good places to start.

The Wednesday Photo is a new picture each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Thai Muslim Goat Curry (Wednesday Photo)

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

Goat Curry in Thailand

Goat Curry

Thai Muslim Goat Curry

Goat curry might not necessarily come to mind when you think of Thai food.

Although Thailand is said to be anywhere from 90% to 95% Buddhist, there is also a substantial Muslim population, particularly in the southernmost provinces. Goat is a popular meat among Muslims, although it is hard to find in restaurants in Thailand – it is mostly consumed at home. One year we purchased a goat from the wife of our boat driver in Krabi and had her cook us some goat meals. One of the dishes she made was a goat curry, similar to this one.

The only place in America where I’ve had many delicious Thai dishes such as this one is in my own home. Kasma teaches this recipe in her advanced set H classes in session 1. In the advanced classes I get to eat Thai food such as is available only in Thailand and at home. Many of Kasma’s student begin taking classes after a trip to Thailand when they find out that the only way to get the mouth-watering Thai flavors they experienced in Thailand is to learn how to cook the dishes themselves. Unfortunately, the only way to learn to cook some of these dishes is to work your way through to the Advanced series where it is taught.

I love the Thai word for goat: it is paeh, very much the sound that a goat makes when it bleats.

I thought this month to post a number of pictures from Kasma’s Advanced Thai cooking classes, such as the Thai Fruit Salad from last week.

The Wednesday Photo is a new picture each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Thai Fruit Salad (Wednesday Photo)

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

Fruit Salad, Thai-Style

Thai Fruit Salad

Thai fruit salad

Fruit salad in Thailand can be very different than what we are used to in the United States.

One of the joys of traveling around Thailand is going to specific restaurants where you can get a dish unlike anything you find elsewhere. One of Kasma’s favorite Chiang Mai restaurants is Kaeng Ron Baan Suan, located outside of the city off the freeway near the Equestrian Club at the foot of Doi Suthep. It has a great listing of northern dishes seldom seen elsewhere. They have a fruit salad that is, perhaps, my favorite dish there.

Kasma has come up with her version of the recipe and  teaches it in her advanced Set G class (4th session).  She calls it Thai-Style Hot-and-Sour Mixed Fruit Salad (Dtam Ponlamai). You may notice that it has a word that also appears in Green Papaya Salad, or Som Dtam; they both have the word dtam, which means to pound, for some of the ingredients are pounded in a mortar and pestle.

Although her version in the U.S. uses different fruits than are found in Thailand, the basic flavors are the same. The fruit is flavored and complimented by garlic, chillies, dried shrimp, fish sauce, limes, palm sugar and interesting texture is added by long beans and carrots. I always look forward to the classes where it’s taught: it’s a wonderful thing to take a bite of a fruit salad and be surprised by flavors you would never think to add to fruit.

The Wednesday Photo is a new picture each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Following Thai Recipes

Michael Babcock, Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

I’ve found that there’s a way to follow Thai recipes that increases your chances of getting a terrific Thai dish. I’ve been looking at Thai recipes lately, some on the web and some in cookbooks. Nearly every recipe I read reminds me a bit of a clock that no longer moves: it’s bound to be correct at least twice a day.

Cooking Green Curry

Green curry, cooking in the pot

I recently received a refresher course in the fine art of balancing Thai flavors. We had gone to a party given by one of Kasma’s Advanced cooking class students. One of the people there was making one of my favorite curry dishes of all time – Green Curry with Fish/Shrimp Dumplings (Gkaeng Kiow Wahn Loogchin Bplah/Gkoong). In this recipe, the green curry paste is made from scratch, by pounding the paste ingredients in a mortar and pestle. The result is usually a delightfully fresh, flavorful green curry that is far superior to anything you can make from a pre-made paste.

We were in the kitchen and I took a taste of the green curry, which was still in the pot; neither fish sauce nor palm sugar had been added yet. It tasted terrible! It was barely recognizable as a green curry! Was this Kasma’s recipe?!?

Thai Salty Flavors

Thai salty flavors

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Then Kasma started in balancing the flavors, adding more palm sugar and fish sauce, not really anything else. After a few adjustments the green curry began tasting delightful: yup, it was the right recipe. After each addition, I got to taste how the flavor had changed, a basic tasting exercise such as Kasma does in all of her classes. It got to a point where I thought it was fabulous; I would have stopped. Hmm, just a little more palm sugar – the flavors deepened a bit more. Then a splash of fish sauce brought out even more flavors, and it was done.

What I found interesting was how much fish sauce and palm sugar Kasma added AFTER it started tasting good; only someone who knew how to balance flavors would know to keep adding ingredients and would know when to stop. Following a recipe with “2 Tbs. fish sauce” you CAN get an acceptable result: you might even get the best result possible. But it is hit-and-miss: if you don’t know how to balance flavors, you’ll just have to follow the recipe and hope rather than tasting, adjusting, tasting, adjusting and getting the best taste possible.

Nearly every single recipe of Kasma has at least one ingredient where a range of how much to add is given. In the Green Curry recipe above, there’s:

  • 3-4 Tbs. fish sauce (nahm bplah), to taste
  • 1-2 Tbs. palm or coconut sugar, to taste

In other recipes she might specify “Fish sauce, to desired saltiness.”

Thai Sweet Flavors

Thai sweet flavors

I think that any time you cook a Thai recipe, you need to taste it. When a recipes specifies “1 Tbs fish sauce” there is no way of knowing if the fish sauce of the author matches your fish sauce in saltiness. Even if the author used the same brand of fish sauce, maybe he had a new bottle and your’s had been open for 3 months:  the quantity could still be wrong – as it sits, the fish sauce becomes saltier. There are so many ingredients that can vary in taste: limes vary in degree of sourness, fish sauce in saltiness, palm sugar in sweetness, to name just a few. If you just put the exact quantities called for in a recipe, there’s no way you can tell if you are close to what the author intended; and if the author of the recipe didn’t really know Thai flavors, you’ll need to make adjustments to get a Thai taste.

Kasma has written extensively on this topic. These two articles are a good place to begin:

Thai Sour Flavors

Thai sour flavors

The problem, then, with nearly every Thai recipe I come across is that they don’t specify a range of ingredients, they don’t tell you that you have to use ingredients “to taste.” When you are following a Thai recipe, unless you understand how to harmonize flavors to produce a Thai outcome, you’ll only get it right some of the time: you’re at the mercy of the vagaries your variable ingredients. The most valuable part of Kasma’s classes is teaching you that cooking is as much an art as a science, as much an attitude of openness and flexibility as following a recipe and, of course, knowing how to balance flavors.

Another barrier for westerners can be the use of salty and sweet flavors. Westerners are particularly afraid of the salty flavor and this can be a real problem because, as you discover through tasting exercises, salt does more than add salty flavor: it also brings out and enhances other flavors, making a dish more sour, more spicy hot, more whatever. Then in nearly every class Kasma is asked about omitting sugar from recipes. We westerners do not grow up realizing that adding sugar to a dish can bring out all the other flavors and make them dance on your tongue; Thai food without sugar would not have nearly as many delightful tastes.

If you are concerned about too much salt, might I suggest two articles:

Thai Spicy Hot Flavors

Thai spicy hot flavors

We westerners also don’t know enough about how flavors interact. The spiciest dishes I have ever had in Thailand have been sour soups or curries, such as Kaeng Som Pla – Spicy Sour Fish Soup with Vegetables.” Something about the sour seems to really give a kick to the chilli peppers! If you don’t know this, you have a harder time intelligently adjusting a recipe with both sour and spicy/hot.

In her second book, Dancing Shrimp: Favorite Thai Recipes for Seafood, Kasma has a chapter entitled: Cooking “to Taste.” She says

Since ingredients can vary considerably, it is important to make adjustments in the quantity used to bring about the optimal flavor balance in each dish. Therefore, do not follow recipes religiously, but rather, cook “to taste.” Remember that recipes serve as guidelines; they cannot speak for variances in the quality of ingredients that are available in different locales. They also cannot speak for your particular taste preference, so cut down on the amount of chillies if you can’t take the heat and the amount of lime juice if you don’t like sharp sour flavors. Use more garlic and basil if you are a garlic and basil lover, less if you find them too strong for your taste, and so on. – Kasma Loha-unchit in Cooking “to Taste”

Green Curry

Green Curry from scratch

In “The Art and Joy of Thai Cooking,” taken from her first book It Rains Fishes: Legends, Traditions and the Joys of Thai Cooking, Kasma says:

Cooking is an art, much like painting. To produce good art, we must rely on our instincts and feelings as much as our knowledge of materials and methods. Recipes in a cookbook can only be rough guidelines in this creative process. The herbs and spices, condiments and flavor ingredients are like the many different kinds and colors of paints. Learning how to combine them is like learning how to mix paints to obtain the color combinations we desire. Some go together better than others, producing very pleasing results; others do not do so well, giving a muddy look and taste. Adding too much or too little of an ingredient can affect the overall picture, but the decision to do so depends on the artist’s or the viewer’s personal tastes. The cook’s “paints” are applied to the “canvases” of meats, seafoods and vegetables; kitchen implements are the “paint brushes” and methods of preparation are different techniques for applying “paint” in order to create the “images” we envision. Over the years, many of my students have been amazed how the same few ingredients used in different combinations or applied in different methods of preparation produce a vast array of dishes, none tasting like any other before them. – Kasma Loha-unchit in The Art and Joy of Thai Cooking

Kasma emphasizes the idea of how to work with a recipe in her article “The Spirit of Thai Cooking:”

In my book as well as my classes, I caution people against blindly following recipes, simply because depending on where you are cooking Thai food (in Thailand or a western country), you may need to make variations and substitutions in order to duplicate true Thai flavors. The same ingredients grown in different locales around the world can vary quite a bit, such that if you follow even a very authentic recipe verbatim, you may end up with a result that is way off. It is better that you rely on your intuition and senses (taste, smell, sight, etc.) to guide you. For instance, lemon grass or Thai basil grown in a temperate zone or in a hothouse may have different qualities and strength than what you find in the markets of Thailand. I myself have found American limes not as intense in flavor as Thai limes and therefore, frequently have to make adjustments by adding other ingredients that would intensify their flavors. (Even in Thailand, limes from different seasons of the year can vary enough to make a noticeable difference to the sophisticated palate.) Fish sauce and gkapi [shrimp paste] can vary substantially from brand to brand, producing dramatically different results in cooking, so it would help to know the brand the author of the recipe uses. – Kasma Loha-unchit in The Spirit of Thai Cooking.

So next time you attempt a Thai recipe, look for one with either a range of some of the key ingredients (fish sauce, lime or tamarind juice, palm sugar), the words “to taste” or that tells you how the finished dish should taste (such as very sour and spicy/hot with a bit of sweetness). Don’t make yourself follow a recipe religiously. Be wary of recipes with exact amounts for everything, particularly the flavoring ingredients (fish sauce, sour ingredient, sugar, chillies). Learn how to harmonize the flavors, taste the recipe as you go, don’t add all the major flavoring ingredients all at once: add a bit and taste; add a bit more and taste again. Make the recipe your own!

If you can, find a talented Thai chef and ask them to teach you how to harmonize flavors: just as one picture is worth a thousand words, one taste can be worth all the words in the world.

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Written by Michael Babcock, October 2010