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The Universal Vegetable Recipe

Michael Babcock, Monday, June 13th, 2011

One of Kasma’s recipes is what I think of as “The Universal Vegetable Recipe.” It can be used for nearly any vegetable of your choice and come out delicious. Let’s call it “Oyster Sauce Vegetables” because the most important ingredient is the oyster sauce. The important thing to remember is that you need a really good oyster sauce and a really good fish sauce; and the fresher the vegetables, the better!

Dragonfly Oyster Sauces

Premium & Super Premium Oyster Sauce

There’s only one brand of oyster sauce that Kasma recommends and it is the Dragonfly brand. We have no affiliation at all with this brand. We just like it. Dragonfly makes three different kinds: 1) Dragonfly Oyster Sauce; 2) Dragonfly Premium Flavored Oyster Sauce; and 3) Dragonfly Super Premium Flavored Oyster Sauce. We like the product for two reasons: 1) It has no additives or preservatives; 2) It is the best tasting brand we’ve found.

Click on photos to see a larger image.

Oyster Sauce Snap Peas

Oyster Sauce Snap Peas

A few years ago nearly all the Thai food manufacturers began adding preservatives and other additives to their products, which tasted and lasted just fine without them. Suddenly our Roasted Chili paste (nam prik pao) had food coloring and msg for no good reason – it was fine before. Our preferred oyster sauce suddenly had sodium benzoate. It was at that point that we decided to try the Dragonfly brand when we saw it in one of the local markets and it had no additives. The ingredients were (and are) oyster extract, sugar, soy sauce, salt and corn starch.

Initially we used the plain Dragonfly Oyster Sauce. Then we decided that we should try the Super Premium Flavored Oyster Sauce, though we had no intention of using it because it was more expensive. After we used it once we were sold – it’s the oyster sauce we recommend.

If you can’t use the Dragonfly brand, use the other Thai brand that’s readily available – Mae Krua. It, at least, doesn’t have msg. I don’t like the Chinese brands as well; they taste sweeter and less flavorful to me and most of them contain MSG.

For fish sauce, Kasma’s preferred brands are Golden Boy Fish sauce and Tra Chang. You can check out pictures of these fish sauces and information on Kasma’s other favorite brands on her favorite brands page.

Oyster Sauce Broccoli

Oyster Sauce Broccoli

This recipe comes from Kasma, of course. She teaches a version of it in the second class of her beginning Thai cooking series as Stir-fried Broccoli with Thai Oyster Sauce (Broccoli Pad Nam Man Hoi). Nam man hoi is Thai for oyster sauce.

By the way, this blog is my interpretation of Kasma’s recipe. All credit goes to her. Any shortcomings in this blog are mine alone.

First I’ll give the basic, 5-ingredient recipe (a 6th is optional) followed by a brief slide-show of the dish being cooked. Continue scrolling down to see the recipe with variations (adding ground pork/chicken, shrimp or mushrooms) with its own slideshow.

Universal Vegetable Recipe – The Short Version


  • Oil or fat of your choice; we recommend duck fat or lard
  • Garlic, chopped, as much as you like
  • Vegetable of your choice, as much as you like, cut in bite-sized pieces
  • Oyster sauce, to taste (Dragonfly Brand Super Premium Flavored brand is best)
  • Fish sauce, to taste (we recommend Golden Boy or Tra Chang brands)
  • Ground white pepper is optional

The Recipe

Heat wok until smoking hot, add oil/fat (let melt, if fat), add chopped garlic, stir briefly, add vegetable, cook for awhile, stirring occasionally, then add oyster sauce & fish sauce to taste; if necessary (to prevent burning) add 1 or 2 tablespoons of water; cook to desire degree of doneness. If desired, sprinkle in some ground white pepper at the end.


Oyster Sauce Cauliflower

Oyster Sauce Cauliflower

If you feel you must, you can use Kasma’s recipe Stir-fried Asparagus, Oyster Mushrooms and Shrimp in Oyster Sauce Recipe – Naw-mai Farang Pad Nam Man Hoi to get an idea of how much of each ingredient to use; or look at Stir-fried Chive Flower Buds with Shrimp and Oyster Mushrooms (Pad Dawk Goochai Gkoong Hed Hoi Nahnglom).

I recommend duck fat for stir-frying. It adds a very delicious flavor. Chicken fat or goose fat would work. Also lard. If you can’t get those, I’d recommend peanut oil. One reason I like duck fat is because if I use too much, I really don’t mind because it tastes so good without tasting greasy. The polyunsaturated oils such as soy, canola, corn and sunflower will tend to make it taste very oily if you use too much.

Cooking time can vary greatly depending on the vegetable. For instance, an Asian green such as bok choy or tat choi will cook very quickly – within a couple of minutes. Cauliflower might take up to 10 minutes to cook, depending on the size of the pieces. With the longer cooking vegetables, plan on splashing in a little bit of water if the mixture starts to burn or stick to the wok; you can also cover the wok to help it cook faster. Depending on how much water you put in, you can also add a bit more oyster sauce and fish sauce, to taste (of course).

Oil/Fat: I think most people tend to use a a bit too little fat or oil; be aware of that tendency. If the vegetable starts to stick to the pan or burn in the cooking process, you can splash in a bit of water. Don’t be afraid of the animal fats. They are the best for stir-frying. Remember that all fats and oils are a combination of saturated, monounsaturated fat (the predominant fat in olive oil) and polyunsaturated fats. Lard, for instance, contains a bit more monounsaturated fat than saturated fat and a small amount of polyunsaturated fats. For frying, saturated fats are actually preferred: monounsaturated fats and (especially) polyunsaturated fats tend to oxidize under high heat, causing free radicals that are implicated in aging. (See the article Fatty Acid Peroxidation & Free Radicals by Greg Watson.) For more information on fats and oils, see my previous blog on A “Healthy Diet”.

Oyster Sauce Vegetables

Made with Asian greens and mushrooms

Garlic: With garlic, try using a bit more than looks comfortable to you. Add an extra clove or two. I love lots of garlic. Give it a try.

Vegetable: What do you like? Broccoli, cauliflower, bok choi, snap peas, sugar peas, tat choi (an Asian vegetable), bok choi, Chinese broccoli (kanah in Thai), asparagus, green beans, chard, kale, collards, mustard greens . . .. Just about anything you like. Be aware that different vegetables have different cooking times. So maybe the first time, you overcook it a little. No problem, just remember what you’ve done: cook it less next time. With some longer-cooking vegetables you may need to add a little bit of water if the vegetables start to stick to the wok or burn – if that happens, just splash in some water. You can always add a bit more oyster sauce and make more of a sauce for the dish.

Oyster Sauce: How much you add will depend on a few things. Which brand are you using and how strong is it; whether you intend to eat “Thai-style” with a lot of rice, in which case you can make the dish more heavily flavored, and; personal taste preference. Taste as you go. Start out by adding a tablespoon or two; stir; taste. Add more if you’d like.

Fish Sauce: Has the same considerations as with oyster sauce, above. How salty do you like it?

Basic Recipe Slide Show

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

Recipe Ingredients
Asian Greens
Garlic in Wok
Vegetables Added
Oyster Sauce Added
Stirring the Vegetables
Almost Done
Ready to Eat

These are the basic 5 ingredients for Oyster Sauce Vegetables

Asian greens, ready for stir-frying

Cooking the garlic briefly in heated oil

The vegetables have been added to the garlic & oil

The oyster sauce has been added to the dish

Stirring the oyster sauce into the vegetables

Oyster sauce and fish sauce are thoroughly mixed in

Oyster sauce Asian vegetables, ready to eat!

Recipe Ingredients thumbnail
Asian Greens thumbnail
Garlic in Wok thumbnail
Vegetables Added thumbnail
Oyster Sauce Added thumbnail
Stirring the Vegetables thumbnail
Almost Done thumbnail
Ready to Eat thumbnail

Universal Vegetable Recipe – Variations

Snap Peas & Shrimp

Snap peas, with shrimp and mushrooms

In addition to the basic 5 ingredients you can also add:

  • Ground pork or chicken: Add right after the garlic and cook it pretty much all the way through before adding the vegetables.
  • Shrimp: Add right after the garlic, stir-fry 15-20 seconds, or until the shrimp starts to turn pink, then add the vegetables.
  • Mushrooms: When to add depends on type of mushroom and how well you like them cooked. If you want the mushroom to absorb more oil and garlic flavor, add right after the garlic or after the meat. Otherwise, add them after the vegetables are partially cooked or even at the same time as the vegetables. For longer cooking vegetables, add a bit later.

Recipe with Variations Slide Show

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

Note: This recipe uses an Asian green called “tat choi” with oyster mushrooms and ground pork.

Smoking Wok
Stir-frying Garlic
Adding Pork
Stirring the Pork
Cooking Pork
Adding the Mushrooms
Cooking the Dish
More Cooking
Adding the Greens
Stirring Everything Up
Continuing to Cook
Adding Oyster Sauce
Stirring in the Sauce
Continuing to Cook
Adding the Fish Sauce
Almost Complete
Dish Ready to Eat
Oyster Sauce Tat Choi
Oyster Sauce Tat Choi 2

This smoking-hot wok is ready to receive the lard

Adding the garlic to the hot lard

Next the ground pork is added

Next the pork is broken up for cooking

Continuing to cook the ground pork

Next the (oyster) mushrooms are added

Stir-frying the garlic, pork & mushrooms

Here the pork is getting nicely browned, ready for the next step

Here the tat choi (an Asian Green) has just been added

Here Kasma is stirring everything together

Continuing to cook the dish

Here Kasma adds the oyster sauce direct from the bottle

Stirring the oyster sauce so it's evenly distrbuted

Continuing to stir-fry the mixture

Kasma adds the (Golden Boy) fish sauce - to taste.

This dish is pretty much ready to serve

The Oyster Sauce Tat Choi, plated, ready to serve

Here's another view of the dish, ready to serve

One final close-up

Smoking Wok thumbnail
Stir-frying Garlic thumbnail
Adding Pork thumbnail
Stirring the Pork thumbnail
Cooking Pork thumbnail
Adding the Mushrooms thumbnail
Cooking the Dish thumbnail
More Cooking thumbnail
Adding the Greens thumbnail
Stirring Everything Up thumbnail
Continuing to Cook thumbnail
Adding Oyster Sauce thumbnail
Stirring in the Sauce thumbnail
Continuing to Cook thumbnail
Adding the Fish Sauce thumbnail
Almost Complete thumbnail
Dish Ready to Eat thumbnail
Oyster Sauce Tat Choi thumbnail
Oyster Sauce Tat Choi 2 thumbnail

Play with the recipe!

I’ve already written a couple times on cooking and Thai recipes.

Oyster Sauce Vegetables

Asparagus, mushrooms & shrimp

In this case, I’d encourage you play around with quantities and cooking times. The first time you cook the recipe, you might want to use Kasma’s more complicated variation of the recipe on our website as a guide for quantities- Stir-fried Asparagus, Oyster Mushrooms and Shrimp in Oyster Sauce Recipe – Naw-mai Farang Pad Nam Man Hoi. On the other hand, you don’t need it and I encourage you to try what you think might work. Make the recipe your own.

Written by Michael Babcock, June 2011

How to Cook Jasmine Brown Rice for Maximum Nutrition

Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, November 25th, 2010

Brown rice can be easy to cook and very nutritious. Today a growing number of people concerned about healthful eating are turning from consuming white rice to whole-grain brown rice, even in Thailand. But many of them complain that it takes a lot more time and water to cook brown rice and sometimes the result can be a little mushy. More worrisome is the fact that few of them are aware that when they cook brown rice without proper treatment ahead of time, they may end up getting only a small fraction of the nutrition stored in the grain, There also are a number of anti-nutrients contained in whole grains that can potentially cause harm if not neutralized.

Rice for Sale

Rice at Aw Taw Kaw Market

(Click images to see larger version.)

Whole-grain brown rice is a seed and like most seeds, it contains phytates– nature’s own preservative and insecticide which lock in nutrients to keep the seed viable until conditions are ideal for it to sprout. When the grain is still new (less than a year after harvest), the phytates (and other anti-nutrients) in the bran are especially intact, keeping the grain bug-free as insects know not to eat it at this stage since they can be harmed by doing so. (In humans, the phytic acid contained in these compounds binds with key minerals , especially calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc and can inhibit their absorption in the intestinal tract, leading to mineral deficiencies.) Over time, if the conditions for storage are less than ideal, the phytates eventually break down and the fragile rice bran oil turn rancid, and when they do, bugs begin to infiltrate and feast on the grain that has lost nature’s protection.

Different Rices

Whole grain rices

For those of us who are gardeners, we know that hard-to-sprout seeds benefit from soaking in warm water overnight. The moisture and warmth send a signal to the germ of the seed that life-supporting conditions are now present. The seed unlocks its nutrients by breaking down the phytates that until then protected the seed from spoiling, and begins to germinate or sprout.

The same is true of whole-grain rice (as well as wheat and other whole-grain cereals, nuts and dry legumes). When we soak it overnight, or for several hours, especially in warm water since it is the seed of a tropical grass, the potentially harmful phytates break down, making the full range of nutrients available to the rice germ to push forth new life. At this stage, the unlocked nutrients also become available to us when we consume the rice.

Soaking Brown Rice

Soaking brown rice

I’ve always soaked whole-grain rice before cooking, mainly because this treatment makes the rice not only easier to cook, but taste a whole lot better. Several years ago I came across an article in a health and nutrition journal that gave me another reason to tell my cooking students why they should soak their brown rice before cooking. Notably, intensive rice research conducted in Japan over the past two decades revealed how the nature of the nutrients in whole-grain rice changed when given a water bath to awaken the grain. Curious scientists were eager to discover how long the grain needed to be soaked for the the full range of nutrients locked inside of it to be fully released. If I recall correctly, the research found that the ideal number of hours is twenty-two (22).

This interesting piece of information got me soaking my brown rice one evening to be cooked the following evening, or close to the recommended twenty-two hours. In the past, I’ve soaked whole-grain rice only about three to four hours, or overnight, before cooking – particularly black sticky rice which swells when soaked, requiring little water and time to cook. I experimented with soaking for a full day brown jasmine rice mixed with a small amount of a red rice called “kao man bpoo” (literally “crab fat rice” but unfortunately sold in the USA by a less than appealing name of “red cargo rice”). This red rice was one of the first whole-grain rice to be embraced by the health food movement in Thailand as especially nourishing. I used warm tap water to start but didn’t bother with maintaining the warmth for the entire time of soaking. The result was indeed amazing!

Steamed Soaked Rice

The steamed soaked rice.

The grains absorbed a lot of water and grew fat, with the germ – or the “nose” of the rice as Thais call it – enlarged as if they were getting ready to sprout. Being an avid gardener, that was quite exciting to see. The soaked grains exuded a sweet fresh aroma as if they had come to life – as if they had just been harvested from the rice paddy! The grains took a little less water to cook than white rice (if you like your rice al dente) and about the same length of time as white rice using my usual method of steaming rice taught to my cooking students (read on). The cooked grains stayed whole, looked beautiful and, best of all, tasted wonderful – with a delicious nuttiness and invitingly fresh fragrance – much more so than when soaked for the three to four hours I used to do in the past. I am now convinced that the fully released nutrients are what add to the tastiness of the rice.

So, next time you cook brown rice, soak it this evening to cook tomorrow evening. I usually rinse the rice a couple of times, then cover with plenty of water as much of it will be absorbed by the grains. If it’s too much trouble to maintain warmth for the duration of the soaking time, room temperature works just fine. In fact, if you soak the rice in warm water for that long, fermentation can take place and produce a slightly off smell. It is, therefore, recommended that you change the water a few times during those 22 hours if warmth is maintained the whole time. For me, in my northern California kitchen, I find soaking the rice at room temperature for all those hours woks well enough in awakening the grain.

Steamed Rice Close-up

Steamed rice close-up

I like to steam the rice using the same method I use to cook white jasmine rice as described on my website. (See Steamed Jasmine Rice Recipe.) This technique is a true steam method unlike one-compartment electric rice cookers which actually boil rather than steam the rice and, therefore, produce a less tasty result. All you need is a deep heat-proof bowl and a pot large enough to accommodate it. Place a trivet of some kind in the pot on which the bowl containing the rice can rest. Look in the cookware section of large Asian supermarkets for such a utensil, or you can improvise by using a small overturned dish, such as a ramekin, or even an empty tin can cut away on both ends, Fill the pot with a couple of inches of water and bring to a boil. In a separate kettle, boil some water.

Golden Phoenix Brown Rice

Golden Phoenix brown rice

Drain the soaked rice, lightly rinse once and drain again. Place in the heatproof bowl and level out the rice. The bowl should be about half full with rice. Place the bowl on the stand in the pot and add hot boiling water to the rice – to about half an inch above the grains (for al dente) to three-quarters of an inch (for softer rice). When the water in the pot below the lifted bowl comes to a rolling boil, cover the pot and turn the heat down to medium, or to a level where you can still hear water boiling in the pot and see steam escaping from the edge of the lid. Let steam for about 25 to 30 minutes. After the rice is cooked, you can keep it warm for a long time by simply turning down the heat to the lowest setting. With this method of steaming, you need not worry about burning your rice and the bowl is very easy to clean once you’ve dished out the cooked rice.

For a delicious brown rice meal, try the Golden Phoenix label’s blend of jasmine brown rice which contains a small amount of red cargo rice for added color, flavor and nutrition. Buy a bag that shows a date of harvest or shipment of less than one year. It’s available in five- and ten-pound bags in many large Asian markets. The bulk of Golden Phoenix’s rice come from Northeastern Thailand where among the most fragrant jasmine rices are grown.

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, November 2010

Thai Thanksgiving Dish

Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, November 4th, 2010

At Thanksgiving time there’s a great option for a main course at your Thanksgiving feast – it’s Roast Duck and Pumpkin Curry.


Ingredients for curry

It’s  that time of year again when pretty winter squashes in different sizes, shapes and colors attract my attention at produce markets near my home. I can’t  resist picking up an assortment to take home to brighten up the greenhouse window in my kitchen. Most of them sooner or later end up in the pot, pan and wok, adding sweetness, richness and the golden color of autumn to comfort foods that warm the cool evenings of the season.


More ingredients

Though not as colorful and outwardly pretty, my favorite golden squash for cooking is still the Japanese kabocha, as its flavor, smoothness and creaminess are closest to the tropical “pumpkins” I grew up eating in Thailand. Although it is available year-round in the Bay Area, at this time of year, riper and tastier ones are easier to find. I look for squashes that have a good weight for their size and whose color has turned from the deep green of summer to a grayish green splashed with the golden hues of the season. The outside peel of ripened kabochas may feel a little sticky to the touch, revealing that the sugar is well-developed and sweetness is assured. (See Kasma’s blog on Kabocha Squash.)

Ready to Cook

Ready to cook

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

The bright golden flesh of kabocha cooks to a smooth and creamy consistency and is delicious paired with coconut milk in desserts and in rich, warming soups. It can also be cut into sticks, coated with seasonings and fried to make a tasty snack, served with a tamarind dipping sauce. As Thanksgiving approaches, I like to pair the golden squash with roast duck, simmering them in a spicy curry sauce to serve up as a main dish with rice. My husband, in fact, finds the combination perfect for the season, and calls it our “Thai Thanksgiving curry.”

Frying Curry Paste

Frying curry paste

The curry paste I prefer with duck is red curry. Unlike Indian curries where dry spices figure prominently, the popular Southeast Asian red curry is decidedly herbal with the majority of ingredients comprised of moist tropical herbs and roots, such as lemon grass, galanga, kaffir lime peel, cilantro roots, kachai (an aromatic ginger), garlic and shallots. To these are added a few varieties of dry seeds, such as peppercorns, coriander and cumin, and fermented shrimp paste. It is “red” from both fresh and dried red chillies, and although other curries may have a reddish color, red curry is a particular combination of ingredients that makes it more herbal and lighter-tasting than say, massaman and panaeng curries, for instance.

Cooking Curry

Duck & squash added

Several brands of red curry paste are imported from Thailand, available in plastic pouches, plastic tubs, glass jars and tin cans. I generally do not like canned pastes as canning tends to destroy the subtle flavors of more delicate herbs in the paste. My favorite brand is Mae Ploy  in small and large plastic tubs. This is a spicy and salty paste that probably will not require the addition of fish sauce during cooking. It is readily available in Asian markets that carry Thai ingredients. (See Kasma’s Favorite Brands.)

Red Curry

Ready to eat!

Save yourself the trouble of roasting the duck for the curry by buying one of the beautifully roasted ducks seen hanging in front of duck shops in Chinatown or in the cooked foods section of large, full-service Asian supermarkets. Have the duck chopped up for you into bite-size pieces, but tell them you do not need the sauce. Cook the duck with bone in and skin on to impart a rich roasted duck flavor to the curry sauce. Before serving, skim off and discard the duck fat that has melted into the sauce during cooking.

Of course, other kinds of winter squashes may be used for the curry, so if you have a preference for others of autumn’s golden fruits, try them in this curry. The calabasa now available in many farmer’s markets is delicious and should not be missed.

See our website for more in Thai recipes.

This recipe is also available on our website – Roast Duck and Pumpkin Curry

Roast Duck and Pumpkin Curry – Gkaeng Ped Bped

A Recipe of Kasma Loha-unchit


  • An approximately 1 1/2-lb. kabocha or other winter squash
  • 4-5 cups coconut milk (use two 19-oz cans of the Mae Ploy brand)
  • 4-6 Tbs. red curry paste
  • 1 1/2 to 2 Tbs. palm or coconut sugar
  • Fish sauce (nahm bplah) as needed to desired saltiness
  • 2 1/2 to 3 lb. roast duck, chopped through the bone into small chunks
  • 2-4 red hot chillies, cut into thin slivers with seeds (optional)
  • 2 cups Thai basil leaves and flower buds
  • Basil sprig(s) for garnish

Cut the kabocha in half, scoop out the seeds and pith. Placing the cut ends flat on a surface for balance, peel and discard the greenish skin. Then cut into 1 to 1 1/2-inch chunks.

Do not shake the cans of coconut milk before opening. Spoon 2/3 cup of the thickest cream off the top of a can into a large pot placed over medium-high heat. Reduce cream until thick and bubbly (about 3 minutes), then add the curry paste. Stir and mush the paste into the coconut cream and fry for a few minutes until it is very aromatic and darkened in color. Then pour in the remaining milk from both cans, stirring well to dissolve the paste to make a smooth rich sauce.

Add 1 1/2 Tbs. of palm or coconut sugar, stirring well to blend into the curry sauce. Taste and add fish sauce only as necessary to salt to the desired saltiness (may not be necessary with some brands of curry paste which are already highly salted).

Add the kabocha chunks and duck pieces. Stir well into the sauce. If there is not enough curry sauce to cover most of the duck and squash pieces, add more coconut milk; or if the sauce already looks plenty rich, add 1/2 cup of water instead, as the squash and duck will thicken and enrich the sauce even more when they are cooked.

Return to a boil, then lower heat to medium, or just enough to boil the sauce gently. Cook partially covered, stirring occasionally, until the squash is tender, or cooked to your liking (15-20 minutes or more). Taste the sauce and adjust as needed with fish sauce and palm sugar to the desired salty-sweet combination. If more hotness is desired, stir in the slivered chillies.

If a lot of fat has cooked out from the duck, skim out the oil floating on top of the curry sauce. Then stir in the basil until it wilts to a bright green color. Turn off heat and spoon curry into a serving dish. Garnish top with basil sprig(s).

The preferred canned coconut milk for this recipe is Mae Ploy and Kasma’s preferred curry paste is Mae Ploy – found in plastic tubs in many Asian Markets. (See Kasma’s Favorite Brands.)

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, November 2010.

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.

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.

You might also enjoy my article:

Written by Michael Babcock, October 2010

Incense Candles – Tien Ohb

Kasma Loha-unchit, Saturday, September 4th, 2010

One of the more interesting “ingredients” in Thai cooking is a special incense candle, (tien ohb, in Thai). This candle is commonly used in the making of sweetmeats and desserts to add a spicy fragrance and smokiness by “smoking” ingredients, such as shredded coconut.

Incense Candles

Incense candles

The incense candle is  made of organic matter including herbs and flower petals. Brown in color, it has a curved shape and can be lit on both ends. This exotic item as this may not be easy to find in Western countries; ask for it in specialty Thai markets in cities with sizable Thai populations. If you travel to Thailand, look in stores that carry incense and merit-making supplies. I usually   buy mine from one of the stores carrying them in Banglampoo, in Bangkok. There are several different kinds from which to choose. Sniff and discover which fragrance you like. One candle will last a long time; it will burn very slowly and produce a lot of scented smoke.

Using an Incense Candle

Using an incense candle

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

To smoke with an incense candle, put the uncooked coconut mixture loosely in a bowl and place the bowl inside a large pot. Light the candle on both ends and position alongside the bowl. Close the lid tightly, adding extra weight over the top if necessary—such as an inverted stone mortar—to prevent smoke from escaping. Allow to smoke 30 minutes to one hour. For a stronger smoky flavor, relight the candle after 30 minutes to produce more smoke.

(Note from Michael: I love it! A candle that can be burned at both ends!)

Smoking Incense Candle

Smoking incense candle

One of Kasma’s recipes that uses an incense candle is: Grilled Coconut Cakes – Kanom Paeng Jee.

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, August 2010.