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The Art and Joy of Thai Cooking

by Kasma Loha-unchit

Like many Asian cuisines, Thai cooking is a "throw-together" style of cooking that allows much room for creativity. Instead of letting a cookbook dictate what goes into a meal, the foods in season and available fresh at the marketplace –as well as whatever ingredients the cook finds in his or her refrigerator – are the important deciding factors of what will appear on the dinner table. Of course, a good sense of what foods and flavors work well together and a comprehensive knowledge of the basics are helpful.

Some of the best dishes I've made, for instance, have been created out of a mishmash of ingredients and leftovers I find at the end of the week in the refrigerator. A few times I have taken such spur-of-the-moment creations to pot-luck parties and have been surprised by the inquiries generated for the "recipes." All I could do was tell my friends to enjoy the dishes for what they were, for those moments and nothing more, as they could not be duplicated. Much of the goodness of those dishes, in fact, derived from the wonderful energies of many hands that participated in their preparation – a few dabs of this leftover chilli sauce were blended in with a few bits of that leftover pastry filling, ingredients which my students had saved from classes in my kitchen and stuffed in little containers in my refrigerator. Each small quantity of this or that, complete and delicious in itself, was too precious to throw away, and together the little tidbits could play quite a symphony, especially if conducted properly.

I learned to cook by helping my mother in the kitchen from the time I was a little girl. Mother is an excellent cook, and because of her indisputable reputation, many of Father's friends frequently show up for dinner on weekends. Mother enjoys feeding people (a trait I inherited from her) and can whip up an inspiring meal or snack on short notice out of whatever she finds in the refrigerator and cupboard. During those early years, I helped her wash and cut the vegetables, made decorative tomato and chilli flowers and did other little odd jobs to help her in the kitchen. Most of the time, I just stood around and watched her work her magic over the stove, and when she needed something that wasn't close at hand, I fetched it for her.

I never saw her use measuring devices or written recipes out of a book. (In fact, I didn't even know a category of books for cooking existed until I came to America.) It was always a dab of this or a pinch of that, a shake from this bottle of sauce or a sprinkling from that jar of spice, all the while guided by an intuitive sense. Watching her was like watching a master artist at work. Alert to the rhythms and sounds of cooking signaling critical moments of action, she kneaded and felt with her hands as she marinated and mixed, and played with colors and textures as she arranged them into pleasing, mouth-watering renditions. Cooking took on much more than the blending of tastes and aromas: it engaged all the senses. I learned from her what a complete sensual delight it can be, a source of great joy and satisfaction. Those childhood years gave me a most valuable apprenticeship, in addition to countless hours of precious mother-daughter bonding.

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.

As with any art form, the quality of energy the culinary artist puts into a creation is reflected in the finished piece. The tender loving care we put into food preparation, I believe, does make a big difference in the quality of flavors and in the presentation, lending depth and soul to the food. For this reason, I prefer to use traditional methods, such as grinding herbs and spices in a stone mortar rather than in an electric appliance. Hands, too, work much better in mixing certain ingredients, and a discriminating diner can easily pick out the curry made from scratch by hand from one blended in a food processor.

Cooking is an alchemical process. The ingredients are mixed and transformed by fire into edible "alchemical gold." The resulting synergy makes the final dish much more than a sum of its parts. Some exquisite Thai dishes created by master chefs are so magically created that it is impossible to separate out all the subtle flavors that went into them. Many times students of Thai cooking cannot envision an end result from a seemingly disparate list of ingredients; the final taste test leaves them delightfully surprised.

Art or alchemy, cooking is more importantly a process of living, an activity in our daily life capable of providing immense pleasure and enjoyment. The objective of finished dishes is not the sole aim; the process of "getting there," of preparing and cooking, is equally important and vitalizing. Thai people believe everything we do in life ought to be sanuk, or fun and pleasurable. This is not a shallow, hedonistic way of looking at things but is a reflection of our penchant for finding the positive expression in whatever we do. This way, we can make the most of every moment and savor the many pleasures of life that come our way, be they great or small. Because one of our joys is good food and the sharing of food, it is only natural that cooking is a sanuk activity for many of us.

Over the years, many of my students have developed a new appreciation and respect for cooking which they had not experienced earlier in life. The cooking principles learned in the classes can be applied to other forms of cooking with gratifying results, further increasing confidence and enjoyment in the kitchen. Cooking becomes a welcome opportunity and a cherished avenue for creative expression, rather than a chore.

Some people came to my classes with absolutely no cooking background, motivated solely by their discovery of Thai cuisine. Dorothy admitted she didn't even know how to fry an egg when she signed up for the classes, but today she can glide gracefully through the making of a complex curry with the freshest ingredients, which, she proudly proclaims, tastes much better than any served in Thai restaurants near her home. She has changed from someone who knew nothing about cooking to a host who joyfully puts together lavish dinner parties for her friends. She and others like her admit their social lives have improved, and the sharing of wonderful meals with close friends and loved ones has brought them much happiness.

Some have found, too, how therapeutic and stress-reducing cooking can be. Mike, for instance, sets aside one day every other weekend to spend just by himself,visiting the market in the morning and spending the afternoon in the kitchen with a bottle of wine and some good music, cutting and chopping, grinding and pounding, stewing and steaming, and so on. There is no time pressure, no rush, no goal – the meal is ready when it is done. Cooking becomes meditation, a time alone for contemplation, a time to be present with himself and all the wonderful herbs and spices with aromas awakening his senses as he chops and grinds them. What a reprieve following a hectic week at the office tending to everyone else's needs and demands! Later in the evening, after cleaning up and setting a lovely table decorated with a beautiful bouquet of flowers, pressed tablecloth, tall candles in elegant candlesticks and charming matched place settings, he entertains close friends with an exquisite dinner, the grand finale for the day.

Others prefer cooking with groups of friends. The party is in the kitchen and starts at the cutting board, culminating at the dining table when the many joint creations are devoured with great gusto. These cooking parties are truly sanuk occasions. And when there is no party, cooking together with roommates and loved ones brings a special intimacy into the home. Margot, for instance, enjoys cooking Thai food for her family; her husband, Lewis, helps her grind herbs and spices in the stone mortar. This teamwork makes each meal special.

Many of the finest dishes in Thai cuisine require a fair amount of preparation in the kitchen. Thai people like to cut vegetables and meats in small pieces because this helps them cook quickly when stir-fried in a wok, retaining their crispness and fresh flavors. Also, smaller pieces mean more surface areas to coat with the flavors of spices, herbs and condiments, making every bite tastier. Additionally, because knives are not traditionally used at the dinner table – they are viewed as symbols of violence and aggression – smaller pieces of foods are essential.

If you are new to the cooking of Thai food, give yourself sufficient time to prepare your first meals. Try not to set a time limit, so that you can flow freely in the process, have a sanuk time and not be stressed hurrying to meet a deadline. Leave the deadlines at work. If you are cooking for a dinner party, the prep work for many of the dishes can be done a day or two in advance. Many of the dipping sauces age well and some actually taste better with time; most curries, too, are better when made a day or two ahead, allowing the flavors of the many herbs and spices to meld and pull together.

I have chosen not to include the number of servings for the recipes in this book, because each individual serving depends on how many dishes you are serving in the meal and whether your family and friends are big rice eaters like Thai people. In my experience, a quantity enough to satisfy a dozen Asians frequently leaves half that number of big, meat-eating Americans hungry for more. Therefore, in deciding how much to make, add up the total quantity of meats and seafoods in all the dishes on the menu and allow a quarter pound to a half pound per person. Most of the recipes can be easily doubled and tripled without sacrificing quality.

I hope you enjoy the cooking tips and stories in this book and gain much pleasure from your many exciting adventures into the realm of Thai cooking.

Copyright © 1995 Kasma Loha-unchit in It Rains Fishes. All rights reserved.

See Also: Cooking "to Taste"

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