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Current Top Ten Thai Dishes

Michael Babcock, Friday, November 15th, 2013

In this blog I talk about my current “Top Ten” favorite Thai dishes. I have to say “current,” because this is an ever-changing list, based on current tastes and on what recipe Kasma has just created. Sometimes a new dish just has to be included, though many of these dishes are on the list on a permanent basis.

(Click images to see larger version.)

Pork & Tofu

Stir-Fried Pork Belly with Fermented Tofu

Kasma estimates that restaurants in the U.S. typically serve maybe 5% of the number of different dishes available in Thailand. If you had taken all of Kasma’s Thai Cooking classes you would have learned somewhere around 250+ different Thai recipes, many of which are seldom found outside of Thailand. My list of top ten dishes is composed of dishes that I’ve eaten both in Thailand and as Kasma’s creations.

I think the best characteristic of a top ten dish is the delight that you feel when you eat it. Often such a dish will light up all of your taste buds, your entire palate. It will be almost impossible to describe: although you’ll be able to point out flavors that come into consciousness, listing or talking about them is never enough because the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. Even a strong flavor that jumps out can be eaten only in context with the entire backdrop of flavors. To use an overworked analogy, it’s like trying to describe a color to a blind person: this is true even trying to describe this taste to someone who knows what good Thai food should taste like. The only way to really experience the dish is to eat it.

Thai Salad

Wilted Green Salad

Many of the dishes here taste so good, are so delightful, that it’s hard to stop eating. With others, particularly the curries, you can’t really eat a lot because they are so rich. In both instances, even with just a few bites, you feel satisfied and happy to have eaten such a delightful dish.

With two exceptions, recipes are not included. Kasma has developed nearly all of her recipes for teaching in her Thai cooking classes. In these dishes the flavors come together in a startling, stupendous harmony: there’s no way to give a listing of exact ingredients that will give the exact balance of the dish – they must be cooked “to taste” and you have to know what you’re looking for – you need a supremely (Thai-) educated palate. Kasma has written about this process and included a tasting exercise:

Eggplant Salad

Roasted Eggplant Salad

It really takes someone who knows exactly what they are doing and what they are looking for: Kasma, for instance. Once you’ve tasted the dish as it is, then, maybe, you’ll be able to use your expertise to duplicate it.

Kasma teaches alll of these dishes in her advanced cooking classes. Also, three of the dishes are in my blog from October 2012 on Five Favorite Thai Dishes.

A Note on Rice

Hunglay Curry

Hunglay Curry

In Thailand, when it’s time to eat, what you say is taan kao (or kin kao), which literally means “eat rice.” The real food of a meal, traditionally was the rice – kao; everything else was grouped under the heading gab kao – literally “with rice.”

As a westerner, I was used to thinking of rice as an accompaniment to a meal, something that you could simply not eat if you weren’t too hungry or if you were counting carbohydrates. Many (probably most) dishes in Thai cuisine (not noodle dishes) are meant to be eaten with rice and, really, they do not taste as good without it. When you serve a curry (such as the Goat Curry or Hunglay Curry) over rice, the taste of the rice, with the curry sauce mixed in, is an integral part of the taste and the whole experience. With most of the dishes below, it is assumed that they are eaten with rice: without the rice, they would not be on the list.


Go directly to a slideshow of all the dishes at the bottom of the page.

The Top Five Dishes

Stir-Fried Pork Belly with Fermented Tofu Sauce and Thai Chillies (Moo Sahm Chan Pad Dtow Hoo Yee)

Tofu Dish

Fermented Tofu and Pork Belly

This dish is a perfect example of a dish where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The “secret ingredient” in this recipe is the red fermented tofu and its brine, which is stir-fried (quickly) with the pork belly (thinly sliced pork belly cooks very fast), chopped garlic, rather large garlic cloves, Thai chillies, fish sauce and some sugar to balance. It is impossible to describe and easy to keep eating and eating, because it is so delicious, despite how rich it is with the fatty pork belly. A stunning dish. Must be eaten with rice.

I first had this dish at the old Ruen Mai restaurant in Krabi (the picture at the top of the page to the right is from there). The picture to the left here shows Kasma’s version, cooked during one of her Advanced classes (Set H). The flavor of the two dishes, although slightly different, are quite similar. Both are great.

Spicy Mesquite-Grilled Eggplant Salad with Roasted Peppers and Shrimp (Yam Makeua Yao)

Eggplant Salad

Roasted Eggplant Salad

This is one dish that never leaves my Top Five list and hasn’t from the moment I tasted it. A perfect example of a Thai yum (or yam) – a Thai “salad” with a sauce that is sour-spicy/hot with hints of sweet and salty. The eggplant must be charcoal-roasted for this dish, preferably with something like mesquite (here in the U.S., at least) that imparts that wonderful, wood-smoky flavor. One time a student of Kasma’s brought the dish to a potluck having oven-roasted the eggplant: it was a grave disappointment.

The sour-spicy-salty dressing in combination with the  grilled eggplant is a delight and the other ingredients (the shrimp, dried shrimp, sliced shallots and egg) add texture and other accents to the mouth. It is usually a very spicy salad requiring lots of rice to help mitigate the heat.

Kasma’s recipe for this dish is available online: Spicy Mesquite-Grilled Eggplant Salad. Try it after doing Kasma’s balancing flavor exercise. Be warned: there is something about roasting the peppers that can make them incendiary.

In addition to Kasma’s classes, My Choice Restaurant in Bangkok has a very good version. (See the third picture of this blog, above right.)

Hot and Spicy Drunkard’s Stir-Fried Rice Noodles with Ground Pork, Thai Chillies and Holy Basil (Gkuay Dtiow Pad Kee Mao)

Drunkard's Noodles

Hot & Spicy Drunkard's Noodles

If ever there was a dish that I find hard to stop eating, it is this one. This dish is widely available in Thailand and even shows up on menus in the United States, though in the U.S. it never fails to disappoint. Kasma’s version uses fresh chow fun rice noodles  from a local shop, Yuen Hop Noodle Company, on Webster Street in Oakland, that are delicious to begin with. Add in in ground pork  (we get pastured pork from Riverdog Farms at the Berkeley Farmer’s market), Asian broccoli (ka-nah), a head of garlic, 15 to 20 Thai chillies (yes, this is one dish that must be served spicy/hot), some black soy, Thai oyster sauce and fish sauce, and a large amount of holy basil leaves (you can’t have too much in this dish) and you have an astounding dish with delightful taste and mouth feel. My favorite noodle dish of all time.

By the way, these are called “Drunkard’s Noodles” because they are so spicy that in order to cool the tongue, people are known to drink massive quantities of beer. Do not scrimp on the Thai chillies!

I have never had a better version than Kasma’s.

Spicy Stir-Fried Preserved Black Eggs with Crisped Holy Basil and Chopped Pork (Kai Yiewmah Pad Gkaprow Gkrawb)

Stir-fried Black Eggs

Stir-fried Black Eggs & Pork

Ahh, preserved black eggs (or century eggs), an ingredient that before I met Kasma I would not have considered eating. (See the Wikipedia entry – Century Egg.) To make them (according to Wikipedia), eggs are coated in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, quicklime and rice hulls for several weeks or even months until the egg white turns a dark, translucent brown and the yolk takes on a dark green to grey color. Kasma says an ingredient missing in the Wikipedia entry, though, is tea leaves: the best preserved eggs are made with tea leaves. The brand she buys lists tea leaves as the primary ingredient. Century eggs can have a rather strong odor, reminiscent of ammonia and sulfur. They are absolutely foreign to a western sensibility and  are, I would say, an acquired taste: over the years, I have learned to like them in congee (johk).

Although a version of this dish is found in many restaurants in Thailand, I had always resisted trying it, until Kasma created this version of the recipe for one of her Advanced Thai Cooking Classes (Advanced Set I).

This recipe actually replaces Basil Pork – Moo Pad Kaprao, which was previously a top five dish. This is a dish that I simply cannot describe adequately. The flavors (indeed, most of the ingredients) are the same as are found in the Drunkard’s Noodles above without the noodles – this dish is served over rice. What is indescribable is what happens to the preserved eggs when you fry them until they are blistered and browned all the way around: they acquire a texture and a taste that, combined with the pork and other seasonings, is outrageously delicious. Simply a stunning dish.

Another difference between this and the traditional pad kaprao (stir-fried with holy basil) recipe is that this one includes crispy-fried holy basil leaves, which add a different flavor and a crunchy texture to the mix.

There is a recipe – Spicy Basil Chicken Recipe– that can be used as the basis for making this recipe yourself. You’ll have to add the preserved egg and also make crispy-fried holy basil.

By the way, the name for preserved eggs in Thai is kai yiao ma (ไข่เยี่ยวม้า), which literally means “horse urine eggs” (yum!), so-called because of the distinctive ammonia odor.

Wilted Greens Salad with Coconut-Lime Chilli Sauce, Fried Chinese Sausage, Crisped Garlic and Crisped Shallots (Yam Dtam Leung)

Wilted Green Salad

Wilted Green Salad

There is simply no way to do justice to this dish with words. Like the eggplant salad, another yum (or yam) salad, it  really must be made with dtam leung greens: nothing else tastes as good. Dtam leung is a vine that grows in the rainy season throughout southeast Asia. It is typically called “ivy gourd” in English. We are able to eat this dish only when we are in Mae Hong Son (at the restaurant, Bai Fern) – as shown in the second picture of this blog, above on the left) or here in the San Francisco Bay Area (shown directly to the left), during the summer when we’re able to get dtam leung leaves from Mithapheap Market in Oakland.

The coconut-lime chilli sauce, is equally salty and sour with a little background sweetness; the little bit of coconut cream transforms it into a different dimension.

What kicks this into the top five, is the addition of the other ingredients, which expand the taste and, in particular, the textures: chinese sausage, carrot shreds, green onion, shallots, unsalted, roasted peanuts, and (the pièces de résistance) crisp-fried garlic and crisp-fried shallots. The wilted green in the sauce provides the backdrop and with each bite, a different taste/texture combination pops into consciousness. Oh my, it is so very tasty.

In Thailand, this salad is usually made with crisped, batter-fried dtam leung. Bai Fern Restaurant was the only one that made it with the wilted greens. In fact, so many Thais complained that it is now made with the crispy-fried greens since that is what most Thai tourists prefer; Kasma has to specify that she wants wilted greens to get it made the way she likes.


The Second Five

Thai Muslim Goat Curry (Gkaeng Ped Pae)

Goat Curry

Thai Muslim Goat Curry

I have surprised myself by deciding to include this recipe in my Top Ten list. It is just so very tasty.

It’s not a very common dish in Thailand: we may have had it at a restaurant in the south once or twice. The time I remember having goat curry in Thailand was when we rented a longtail boat in Krabi and the owner’s wife made the dish for us. Kasma came up with her version of the recipe for her Advanced Set H Class.

It’s another dish where I despair of my descriptive abilities. Kasma’s version utilizes a curry paste made from scratch from many of the usual ingredients: dried chillies, salt, lemon grass, turmeric, garlic, shallots, shrimp paste – kapi, and, an absolutely critical ingredient for the taste of this dish, krachai, called, in English, lesser ginger or “rhizome.” Add in roasted coriander and cumin, some pea eggplants, various flavorings (including fish sauce and palm sugar), kaffir lime leaves and Thai basil and make sure you use bone-in goat: the marrow from the bones will provide thickening and flavor.

The dish has an excellent mouth feel. The various flavors, including a certain amount of heat from the chillies, in combination with the goat meat, are very pleasing, indeed. Another dish that must be eaten with rice.

Bitter Melon Stir-fried with Egg (Mara Pad Kai

Bitter Melon & Egg

Bitter Melon & Egg

Bitter Melonmara, in Thai – has long been one of my favorite foods; I don’t know why. Many people find it too bitter but I’ve always enjoyed the flavor.

This is the simplest to make of my top ten dishes; it is also the one that I make the most. It consists of bitter melon stir-fried with eggs and has four ingredients: oil (I like duck fat or lard), bitter melon, eggs and fish sauce.

Served over rice, it’s a perfect one-dish meal: you’ve got your protein source (egg), vegetable (bitter melon) and healthy fat (lard or duck fat), all served over carbohydrates.

We do have a recipe for this dish: Bitter Melon & EggMara Pad Kai. I also make it with chorizo, though you can also substitute naem sausage for the chorizo if you want to stick with Thai ingredients: see my blog, Bitter Melon, Chorizo & Egg.

Northern Hunglay Pork Curry (Gkaeng Hunglay)

Hunglay Curry

Northern Hunglay Pork Curry

It’s hard not to put this curry in the top five dishes, where it usually resides.

According to Kasma, this curry originated with the Shan people in Burma and was adapted into Northern Thai cuisine. The restaurant Kaeng Ron Ban Suan in Chiang Mai has a good version (as shown in this blog’s 4th picture, above left). The picture to the right is Kasma’s version, made with a combination of fat-laced pork butt and pork belly. It’s a fairly standard curry paste (lemon grass, dried chillies, galanga turmeric, garlic, shallots, salt, shrimp paste) with the addition of hunglay curry powder: Kasma gets hers at the fresh market in Mae Hong Son. Additional flavoring comes from ginger and flavor seasonings such as fish sauce, tamarind and palm sugar. The result is a rich, delicious tasting dish that is immensely satisfying. Kasma teaches this recipe in Advanced Set C-4 Class.

Poached Basa Steaks Cooked Ruen Mai-Style in Choo Chee Curry Sauce (Choo Chee Bplah Sawai)

Choo Chee Fish

Choo Chee Fish

Choo Chee curries are red, coconut-based curries. Kasma developed her version of the dish (shown to the left) after enjoying a meal at Ruen Mai restaurant in Krabi several years ago. It’s a rich red curry made more distinctive by the addition of roasted spices: peppercorns, coriander seeds and cumin.

Kasma’s version is made with meaty basa (also called swai) steaks. A very filling and satisfying dish. She teaches this recipe in Advanced Set H-4 Class.

Thai-Style Hot-and-Sour Mixed Fruit Salad (Dtam Ponlamai)

Fruit Salad

Hot-and-Sour Fruit Salad

I first had this dish at Kaeng Ron Ban Suan restaurant in Chiang Mai, where it was the inspiration for Kasma’s version. I prefer Kasma’s version mainly because I like the combination of fruits available in U.S. in the summer, when we typically make it.

I love the unexpected flavors in the salad: garlic, chillies, and dried shrimp. I would never think of using those ingredients with fruit in a salad. When you bite into the chilli and garlic it is startling and, yet, somehow it all blends together, pulled together by a sweet (palm sugar), salty (fish sauce) and sour (lime) sauce.

Everything but the fruit is prepared using a mortar and pestle, hence the name – dtam (meaning to pound – the word found in Som Dtam – Green Papaya Salad) and ponlamai (meaning fruit).

Kasma teaches this recipe in Advanced Set G-4 Class.


Honorable Mention

Golden Yellow Turmeric Sticky Rice with Sweet-and-Savory Shrimp-Coconut Topping (Kao Niow Leuang Nah Gkoong)

Turmeric Sticky Rice

Turmeric Sticky Rice

I feel somewhat badly that I’ve failed to include a dessert in my Top Ten list. I want to give this kanom an honorable mention because it illustrates much of what is good about Thai kanom and, indeed, about Thai cooking. (See Michael’s blog Thai Sweet Snacks – Kanom Wan.)

This dish consists of a sweet (with a bit of salty) sticky rice that has been colored with turmeric. It is completed with a slightly salty coconut cream sauce and a topping made from shrimp (head-on), shredded coconut, garlic, finely slivered kaffir lime leaves and the seasonings; it’s a sauce that is shrimpy, savory and sweet, all at the same time. All colors are natural: the yellow from the turmeric and the startling red from the goop in the shrimp heads.

What I like about it, is the way it lights up the palate. The sweet and salty together is heavenly; then add in the savory-shrimpy-sweet topping (so unexpected in a dessert), and accent it with slivered kaffir lime leaf. It is just a delight.

Like the best of Thai food, it includes distinct harmony groupings (sweet, salty), that both call out for individual attention and also delightfully blend together. Add in the unexpected, the delightful way it feels in your mouth, and it can be hard to stop eating.

Kasma teaches this recipe in Advanced Set I-4 Class.


Slideshow of Current Favorite Thai Dishes

Click on “Play” below to begin a slideshow.

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

Tofu Dish
Pork & Tofu
Eggplant Salad
Eggplant Salad
Drunkard's Noodles
Stir-fried Black Eggs
Wilted Green Salad
Thai Salad
Goat Curry
Bitter Melon & Egg
Hunglay Curry
Hunglay Curry
Choo Chee Fish
Turmeric Sticky Rice

Stir-Fried Pork Belly with Fermented Tofu Sauce and Thai Chillies (Moo Sahm Chan Pad Dtow Hoo Yee)

Stir-Fried Pork Belly with Fermented Tofu Sauce and Thai Chillies (Moo Sahm Chan Pad Dtow Hoo Yee) from Ruen Mai Restaurant

Spicy Mesquite-Grilled Eggplant Salad with Roasted Peppers and Shrimp (Yam Makeua Yao)

Roasted Eggplant Salad (Yam Makeua Yao) from My Choice restaurant

Hot and Spicy Drunkard's Stir-Fried Rice Noodles with Ground Pork, Thai Chillies and Holy Basil (Gkuay Dtiow Pad Kee Mao)

Spicy Stir-Fried Preserved Black Eggs with Crisped Holy Basil and Chopped Pork (Kai Yiewmah Pad Gkaprow Gkrawb)

Wilted Greens Salad with Coconut-Lime Chilli Sauce, Fried Chinese Sausage, Crisped Garlic and Crisped Shallots (Yam Dtam Leung)

Wilted Greens Salad (Yam Dtam Leung) from Bai Fern restaurant

Thai Muslim Goat Curry (Gkaeng Ped Paeh)

Bitter Melon Stir-fried with Egg (Mara Pad Kai)

Northern Hunglay Pork Curry (Gkaeng Hunglay)

Hunglay Curry (Kaeng Hunglay Moo) from Kaeng Ron Baan Suan Restaurant

Poached Basa Steaks Cooked Ruen Mai-Style in Choo Chee Curry Sauce (Choo Chee Bplah Sawai)

Golden Yellow Turmeric Sticky Rice with Sweet-and-Savory Shrimp-Coconut Topping (Kao Niow Leuang Nah Gkoong)

Tofu Dish thumbnail
Pork & Tofu thumbnail
Eggplant Salad thumbnail
Eggplant Salad thumbnail
Drunkard's Noodles thumbnail
Stir-fried Black Eggs thumbnail
Wilted Green Salad thumbnail
Thai Salad thumbnail
Goat Curry thumbnail
Bitter Melon & Egg thumbnail
Hunglay Curry thumbnail
Hunglay Curry thumbnail
Choo Chee Fish thumbnail
Turmeric Sticky Rice thumbnail

Written by Michael Babcock, November 2013

Kasma’s Intermediate Thai Cooking Class #1

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

Note: These classes are no longer offered.

Kasma’s Intermediate Thai Cooking Class, a weekend series of 4 classes, continues on from where her 4-session Beginning Thai Cooking Series leaves off. Once she’s introduced students to the basics (including how to harmonize flavors to create Thai tastes), it’s time to learn more Thai cooking techniques, ingredients and recipes.

Explaining Recipes

Kasma going over recipes

I repeated the Beginning Thai Cooking Series in October of 2011 when Kasma was still teaching in the evenings and was surprised at how much new information I gleaned from repeating the class. I also remembered just how much fun the classes are. This April, I repeated Kasma’s Intermediate Thai Cooking Class. This is my blog on class #1.

(Click images to see larger version.)

As with the Beginning series, class starts with Kasma going over the recipes. Much less time is needed for this in the Intermediate Series because so many of the main ingredients were covered in the Beginning Series. In the Intermediate Class there are still new ingredients, which need to be covered more extensively, and there are new cooking techniques to be introduced as well. For instance, when introducing an ingredient such as mussels, Kasma talks about the various kinds available and which are the best ones to use for a particular recipe, such as this evening’s Spicy Mussel Salad

Mussels

Mussels for the salad

The classes are filled with tips that make recipes come out better. For instance, Many recipes for Chicken Coconut Soup (Tom Ka Gai) have you dump all the coconut milk in a pan and bring it to a boil; Kasma explains that when boiled, coconut milk has a tendency to curdle, so she begins the recipe using water or mild chicken broth and adds the coconut milk towards the end, right before she balances all the flavors.

Kasma imparted more inside knowledge when talking about the preparing the noodles for frying for the Mee Krob (Glazed Crispy Noodles). Rather than soaking the noodles, which would leave them soggy, she has the students rinse the noodles in cold tap water, drain in a colander and set aside for 30 to 60 minutes. This allows the noodles to absorb some water and soften while then allowing the surface to dry out so that you won’t get splattering when you put the noodles in the hot oil to fry. She explains that if you fry the noodles dry, they puff up more, which is undesirable in this recipe. As always, she shows the students the best brand available locally to use.

Frying Noodles

Frying noodles

The first intermediate class introduces two ingredients that are new to the students. Pickled garlic is used in the Crispy Fried Noodles and crispy fried shallots are used in the Spicy Mussel Salad. Kasma talks about what to look for when buying these ingredients, what brand of the fried shallots (often labelled “Fried Onions”) are best (see Kasma’s Favorite Brands) and how to make your own crispy shallots, should you be so inclined.

This class introduces methods for deep frying, both for the Mee Krob – Glazed Crispy Noodles – and for the Pla Rad Prik – Crispy Fried Whole Fish Topped with Chilli-Tamarind Sauce. I have long been an admirer of the way that Thais fry things: the fried foods in Thailand seldom taste greasy at all and their fried fish is always fried to a delightfully crispy and crunchy state that is both fun to eat and allows you to eat most of the fish. This class also has deep-fried noodles, also well-fried and not very greasy.

Making Noodles

Making Mee Krob

So I was somewhat startled to read in a cookbook by a famous Thai chef that “. . .Thais are not particularly good at deep-frying, opting to cook any piece of meat as much as possible – even fish.” He claims this comes from fear of worms from fresh-water fish. All the Thai people I know love crispy-fried fish: they cook it that way because they like it that way – they like the texture, it is non-greasy, it  tastes good and eats well.  I guess he’s never been to the North or the Northeast where they like to eat raw meat salads – odd behavior if they’re afraid of parasites.

Kasma fries her fish in her trusty 16-inch round-bottomed spun-steel wok: it’s the perfect piece of cookware for deep-frying. This is a great class for students who are afraid to fry – Kasma shows how to do it easily and safely.

Chopping

Students prepping ingredients

As with all classes, Kasma tells the students which local markets typically carry any specialty ingredients, such as fresh, whole fish (not readily available in most western supermarkets) or garlic chives (used in the Crispy Fried Noodles. She goes into which recipes can be prepared ahead of time and which parts of recipes can be done in advance to make the final assembly easier without losing and freshness or flavor.

In this class Kasma also goes over how to pick out a fresh, whole fish; it is something that many students have never done or even considered doing before. She gives 5 pointers (such as looking at the over-all luster of the fish and how the eyes and gills should appear) that will help even the novice choose a fresh fish. You can read Kasma’s article Selecting a Fresh Fish, excerpted from her Dancing Shrimp cookbook.

Mixing Ingredients

Mixing Ingredients

Making Sauce

Student making Mee Krob sauce

After the recipes are explained, the students divide up into groups: Kasma assigns a certain number of people for each recipe. Once the ingredients are prepped, all the students watch the members of the team do the cooking. When appropriate, as in frying a whole fish, Kasma starts the cooking process so that she can show how a particular technique is done: after that, the team members do the cooking. Kasma also oversees the final balancing process for the recipes: one of the great strengths of her classes is learning how the various ingredients interact to create a harmony of Thai flavors.

Of course, the best part of the evening is sitting down to eat a Thai feast at the end of class.

Eating Dinner

Eating dinner, the best part of class!

After dinner, everyone helps clean up before going home.


Menu – Intermediate Thai Cooking Class Series #1

Mee Krob (Glazed Crispy Noodles)

Noodles

Mee Krob Noodles

This is a noodle dish that is almost always too sweet at the local Thai restaurants. Kasma’s version is crispy, not greasy at all (despite the deep-fried noodles) and flavorful, with just a hint of sweetness. It could almost be called a fried salad, served as it is with bean sprouts and garlic chives. It’s a dish that must be eaten within an hour of cooking, otherwise it will turn somewhat soggy and uninteresting.

Chicken Coconut Soup with Galanga (Tom Ka Gai)

Soup

Chicken Coconut Soup

This is one of two soups that is found at virtually every Thai restaurant outside of Thailand. (The other is Hot & Sour Prawn Soup – Tom Yum Goong.) This, also, is a dish that I’ve been disappointed in when ordering out in the U.S. – too sweet, too rich: Kasma’s version is somewhat lighter with a bit of sour flavor. I once read a Westerner who claimed that this soup was just “Tom Yum Soup with Coconut.” This is absolutely not true. The main herbal flavor in a Tom Ka soup is galanga, with lemon grass in the supporting capacity: with Tom Yum soups, it’s just the opposite – the galanga supports the lemongrass.

You can try out Kasma’s variation on this recipe: Coconut Seafood Soup with Galanga (Tom Ka Talay)

Crispy Fried Whole Fish Topped with Chilli-Tamarind Sauce (Pla Rad Prik)

Fried Fish

Crispy Fried Whole Fish

(See slideshow below.)

This is a recipe that is very common in Thailand: on Kasma’s trips we’ll usually eat it at least a couple of times. I was so excited the first time I made this dish by myself (after I first took the Intermediate Series in 1992) – it looked just like the dishes in Thailand! However, in Thailand I often find it too sweet for my taste: in Kasma’s version the sauce is equally sour and salty with the sweetness (from palm sugar) in the background.

The best parts to eat of the fish are the crispy-crunchy parts. My personal favorite is the head: it’s full of interesting crunchy bits interspersed with softer textures. Before I met Kasma I would never have eaten a fish head: now I usually join this class at meal time because often no one in class knows how to eat the head – I like to help out.

Fish and seafood are an integral and important part of the Thai diet. See Kasma’s article The Thai Fish-Eating Tradition.

Spicy Mussel Salad with Aromatic Herbs and Crisped Shallots and Garlic (Yum Hoi Malaeng Poo)

Mussel Salad

Spicy Mussel Salad

Yum salads are a group of salads that are found all over Thailand and found all too seldom here in the U.S. They are sour and spicy-hot with some saltiness and sweetness: the level of sweetness will vary from one salad to the next, depending on the main ingredient, so it’s not really possible to give a generic yum dressing/sauce (although many cookbook authors do). Kasma’s dressing for this salad is interesting in that it uses three different ingredients for sour flavors – white vinegar, lime juice and tamarind juice: each provides a different layer of flavor. Sugar is used here to balance the flavors and to intensify the sourness: Kasma shows you how to do this without adding too much sweetness. (Check out Kasma’s Exercise in Balancing Flavors.)

Salad Ingredients

Mixing Mussel Salad

This dish is also an opportunity for Kasma to discuss the use of chillies in recipes. At the time of the year of this class (April), many of the chillies we get here in the San Francisco Bay Area come from South or Central America; because of the climate, they tend to be very hot. As chillies grown in California become available, the number of chillies may need to be adjusted: initially, the local chillies will be much milder. This is the sort of information that you get in Kasma’s classes: you’ll not commonly find it in Thai cookbooks, which usually give a specific number of chillies in a dish without going into how you may need to modify that number to get the level of heat the dish (or your tastebuds) require.


Slideshow – Crispy Fried Whole Fish

Click on “Play” below to begin a slideshow.

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

Scoring Fish
Resting Fishes
Coating Fish
Coated Fish
Holding Fish
Sliding Fish
Fish in Oil
Ladling Oil
Student Cooking
Turning Fish
Frying Paste
Fried Fish
Ladling Sauce
Fried Whole Fish
Fish Close-up

Scoring the whole fish

Bringing the whole fish to room temperature

Coating the fish with tapioca flour prior to frying

This fish, coated with tapioca flour, is ready to fry

Kasma is just about to slide the fish into the hot oil

Sliding the fish into the hot oil in the wok

The fish's fin is waving from the hot oil

Hot oil is ladled over the fish so it will fry evenly

One of the students takes over ladling the hot oil over the fish

Kasma demonstrates how to turn the fish over in the wok

Frying the chilli-tamarind sauce for the fish

This crispy-fried fish is ready for the chilli-tamarind sauce

Ladling the chilli-tamarind sauce over the fish

Crispy Fried Whole Fish Topped with Chilli-Tamarind Sauce (Pla Rad Prik) - ready to eat

Close-up of Crispy Fried Whole Fish Topped with Chilli-Tamarind Sauce (Pla Rad Prik)

Scoring Fish thumbnail
Resting Fishes thumbnail
Coating Fish thumbnail
Coated Fish thumbnail
Holding Fish thumbnail
Sliding Fish thumbnail
Fish in Oil thumbnail
Ladling Oil thumbnail
Student Cooking thumbnail
Turning Fish thumbnail
Frying Paste thumbnail
Fried Fish thumbnail
Ladling Sauce thumbnail
Fried Whole Fish thumbnail
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Here are the next Intermediate Class Blogs:

I’ve already blogged on Kasma’s Beginning Thai Cooking Series:


Written by Michael Babcock, May 2013

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.

Kasma Makes Green Papaya Salad (Wednesday Photo)

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

Kasma Pounds Som Tam

Kasma Makes Green Papaya Salad

Kasma pounds Green Papaya Salad

Although Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam) (or Som Tam) is an Isaan (Northeastern Thailand) dish, it’s available all over Thailand, especially as street food or in markets (usually made by a transplanted Isaan vendor).

Here Kasma is showing the students in her weekend intermediate cooking class (class #4) how to make green papaya salad.


See also:


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

Green Papaya

Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Green, Unripe Papaya Makes Spicy Salad

In Thailand, green papayas are probably eaten more often than ripe papayas.

On the island of Samui in the Gulf of Thailand is a lovely family-run beach resort. Idyllic seaside bungalows are surrounded by some of the most beautiful papaya trees I have ever seen.

Green Papaya

A green papaya

The first time I stayed there, I was so charmed by the unusual stature of these trees with their majestic, deeply cut foliage. Clinging to the trunk of each tree must be at least a dozen large, emerald green fruits, soon to ripen in the tropical heat. I remarked to the owner that he must never need to worry about having enough sweet, luscious papayas to satisfy the steady stream of tourists who come and stay at his resort.

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

Peeled Green Papaya

Peeled green papaya

He chuckled and replied, “I have never seen a single fruit ripen on any of my trees. The papayas I serve my guests I have to order from the mainland. Papayas on this island never have the chance to ripen!”

I knew exactly what he meant. Papayas are more often than not picked by locals while still green to be made into a spicy salad, a favorite food among Thai, as well as Laotian, Cambodian and Vietnamese people. I wouldn’t be surprised if  more papayas are consumed green and crisp in Southeast Asia than golden orange and soft. A tribute has even been made to this fruit in its unripened form in the film “Scent of Green Papaya,” with a prominent scene showing green papaya being chopped and made into salad.

Shredded Green Papaya

Shredded green papaya

Green papaya has a very mild, almost bland, taste, but it is the medium through which robust flavor ingredients take body and form. It picks up the hot, sour, sweet and salty flavors, giving them a unique crisp and chewy texture unlike that of any other vegetable. When made into salad, you wouldn’t know that it was mild and timid; you remember it only as bold and spicy.

Unripe papayas are readily available in various sizes and shapes during the summer at many Asian markets. Select one that is very firm with shiny green peel suggesting that it is as freshly picked as possible. Even green fruits will eventually ripen and turn soft if allowed to sit around for some time.

Green Papaya Salad Ingredients

Fixings for Green Papaya Salad

There are many ways to make green papaya salads, with varying degrees of hotness, sourness and sweetness. The hottest salads are probably made in northeastern Thailand and Laos where they are eaten with barbecued chicken and sticky rice as a staple food of the populace. There, the salads are made by bruising julienned green papaya with garlic and very hot bird peppers in a large clay mortar with a wooden pestle, then seasoning with lime juice, fish sauce and other flavorings.

Give the green papaya salad recipe a try.

See our website for more Thai recipes and more Thai ingredients.

Green Papaya Salad Set-up

Green Papaya Salad Set-up


This recipe is also available on our website as: Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam).

Green Papaya Salad Recipe (Som Tam)

Ingredients

  • 6-8 large cloves garlic, cut each into 3-4 pieces
  • 8-15 Thai chillies (prik kee noo), to desired hotness – each cut crosswise into 3-4 segments with seeds
  • 1 cup long beans, cut into 1 1/2-inch segments
  • 2 tsp. small dried shrimp
  • 1 small whole salted crab (bpoo kem), cut into 6 pieces – optional
  • 1 Tbs. palm sugar, or to taste
  • Juice of 2-3 limes, to desired sourness
  • 1 medium (about 2 lb. size) very firm, unripe green papaya, peeled and julienned into long strips to yield about 4 cups
  • 2-3 Tbs. fish sauce (nahm bplah), to taste
  • 6-8 cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 2 Tbs. chopped unsalted roasted peanuts

If you have an average-size Laos-style baked clay mortar with wooden pestle, you may need to make the salad in two separate batches. With an extra-large carved palm wood mortar and pestle, the salad can be made in a single batch as follows.

Pound the garlic and Thai chillies together until they are pasty. Add the dried shrimp and pound to crack. Follow with the salted crab (if using) and long beans and pound well to bruise.

Add the palm sugar, juice of two of the limes, and fish sauce and stir well. Add the julienned green papaya. Toss well with the seasonings. Then, pounding with one hand and stirring with the other, bruise the green papaya until it picks up all the flavorings and seasonings. Taste and adjust as needed with more fish sauce, lime juice or palm sugar to the desired flavor combination. Ideally, for a Thai, the salad should be very hot and sour with only a light sweetness at the back of the tongue.

Add the tomato pieces at the end, stir and bruise lightly to blend in with the rest of the salad. Transfer to a serving plate and sprinkle with peanuts.

Serves 6 with a side plate of raw vegetables, as desired, in a multi-course family-style meal.

Green Papaya Salad

Green Papaya Salad


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, May 2010.

Grilled Eggplant Salad

Kasma Loha-unchit, Friday, September 4th, 2009

Grilling Over Mesquite Adds a Rich Smoked Flavor to Spicy Eggplant Salad

One of my husband’s favorite salads of all time is Grilled Eggplant Salad (Yam Makeau Yao).

Prepping roasted eggplant

Prepping roasted eggplant

The hot tropical climate of Thailand lends itself to outdoor cooking. In fact, the kitchens of most traditional homes are in open shacks behind the main house. In the countryside, farmers still live in airy wooden houses on stilts, their kitchens in the open area beneath, or on the verandah. Besides making cooking more bearable in the heat of day, the openness of the kitchens and their separation from the main living quarters keep the fumes from charcoal stoves from smoking up the house.

Charcoal was the primary source of cooking fuel while I was growing up in Thailand. I remember the heaving call of the “charcoal man” as he pushed his heavy cart of black logs through our neighborhood each week. Mother would buy her load for the week, keeping the charcoal in a wooden bin in our kitchen behind the house and breaking the logs into smaller chunks when needed to fit into the different size burners. She trained me to be the fire starter, a duty I most enjoyed and learned to do with great proficiency. When we eventually converted to natural gas, our family enjoyed the cleanliness of the new convenience but missed the wonderful flavors that charcoal cooking added to food – whether grilled, boiled, or stir-fried.

Prepping roasted chillies

Prepping roasted chillies

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

Modernization has brought cleaner gas and electric cooking to urban areas, but country folk and the poorer of the urban population still rely on less expensive charcoal for their cooking. The charcoal is not highly processed and does not come in uniformly square briquettes as most Americans know charcoal to be; rather, they are irregular charred logs that, like mesquite, impart a delightful smoked flavor to food. Because of this, grilling and roasting over hot coals continue to be popular cooking techniques in Thai cuisine. Fine restaurants around the country know well to keep a section of their kitchens fueled on charcoal, and along city streets, sidewalk food vendors grill all kinds of food over wood coals – from chicken, pork, meatballs, squid on skewers, fish and sausages to bananas, corn, sweet potatoes and yams, coconuts and even whole eggs.

Assembling the salad

Assembling the salad

One of my vivid memories from childhood is helping Mother skewer and sizzle large green chillies over hot coals. These were followed by succulent eggplants, roasted and charred to perfection. Both were then skinned, cut up into bite-size strips, arranged beautifully on a serving plate and dressed with a limy hot sauce.

On those Indian summer days this fall, as you fire up your barbecue kettle or hibachi, grill up some eggplants and chillies along with your chicken and meat for a spicy, lip-smacking dinner.

Note: This recipe is one of my husband’s (Michael’s) all-time favorites. I teach it my weekend Series Set A (class 1). The pictures here are taken from the one of these advanced classes

See our website for more in Thai recipes.


This recipe is also available on our website (Spicy Mesquite-Grilled Eggplant Salad).

Spicy Mesquite-Grilled Eggplant Salad – Yam Makeau Yao

  • Mesquite charcoal and a small handful of mesquite wood chips
  • 4 long Asian eggplants
  • 4 jalapeno or fresno peppers
  • 10-15 Thai chillies (bird peppers), finely chopped
  • Juice of about 2 limes, to taste
  • 2-3 Tbs. fish sauce (nahm bplah), to taste
  • 2-3 tsp. sugar, to taste
  • 2 shallots, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 lb. small fresh shrimp, shelled and butterflied
  • 1 hard-boiled egg, cut into small wedges (6-8 pieces)
  • A small handful of short cilantro sprigs
Dressing the salad

Dressing the salad

Start a batch of mesquite charcoal in a barbecue kettle and soak the wood chips. While waiting for the coals, trim the tops off the eggplants and the peppers. Make a hot-and-sour sauce by mixing together the chopped Thai chillies, lime juice, fish sauce and sugar. Let sit for the flavors to blend and mingle.

Prepare the remaining ingredients. Blanch shrimp in boiling water for 30 seconds to cook. Drain well and set aside.

Grill the eggplants and peppers whole over the hot mesquite, turning occasionally until they are slightly charred on the outside and have softened. For a stronger smoked flavor, add damp wood chips to the red coals and cover the barbecue kettle after each turning.

Place the grilled eggplants and peppers in a paper sack for a few minutes to steam. When cool enough to handle, peel off the charred skin and thin outer membrane. Cut each eggplant crosswise into segments about 1 1/2 inches long, each segment in half lengthwise, and each half in 2-3 strips, depending on the size of the eggplant. Arrange on a serving platter and spread the sliced shallots over the top.

Cut the skinned peppers into long, thin strips. Do not remove the seeds if you want an extra spicy salad. Arrange in an attractive design over the eggplants and shallots and top with the cooked shrimp.

Taste and adjust the spicy lime sauce so that it is equally sour and salty with a hint of sweetness. Spoon evenly over the salad. Garnish with egg wedges and cilantro. Serve at room temperature. Serves 6-8.

Eggplant salad detail

Eggplant salad detail


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, September 2009.