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Following Thai Recipes

Michael Babcock, 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
Thai Sweet Flavors

Thai sweet flavors

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

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 three 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

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