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Learning to Cook Thai (Page 1)

by Michael Babcock

Opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Part 1: Starting to Learn – The Classes

When I first met Kasma, I had no idea that she was such a good cook. It was just an extraordinarily good side benefit to everything else.

My lessons started with the beginning cooking series of four classes. I was not a complete novice at cooking; for 5 years in the 1970's (another lifetime ago) I was a cook at a restaurant two days a week (the other days I baked and waited tables) – but I had no experience with Asian cooking.

Kasma made it look so easy. When I first watched her stir-fry, casually flicking ingredients around with the wok shovel, a serene expression on her face, it seemed like the easiest thing in the world. So when I went home and tried it myself I was in for a big surprise. Everything seemed to be happening so very fast!!! The garlic was sizzling, already starting to brown, I couldn't quite remember what was next, frantically trying to find my place in the recipe, not sure how to deal with the heat, and wondering why I ever thought it was easy!

The classes provided a great foundation. I learned all the main ingredients, the basic ways to work with them, and came away with a base set of recipes that I knew worked. Perhaps most important, I was beginning to understand the concept of harmonizing primary flavors.

Part 2: Harmonizing Flavors

Kasma teaches that the principle of harmonizing primary flavors lies at the heart of Thai cooking. The four main flavor groupings are salty, sweet, spicy (hot), and sour, with the less-used bitter as a fifth primary. By learning what flavor balance a dish should contain (for instance, equal part salty and sour with a bit of sweet) and how to attain that balance, you can create authentic Thai tastes with or without a recipe. (Creating Harmonies with Primary Flavors and an exercise in Balancing Flavors.)

Western cooking uses mainly the salty and sweet, whereas in Thai cooking the sour and spicy are equally important. In fact, the inclusion of sour in dishes is one of the distinguishing characteristics of Thai cooking. And of course, Thai cooking is known for its spicy hot peppers, although it is a misconception that all Thai food is hot. A typical Thai meal will contain dishes that touch all the primary flavors – something to touch and delight every taste bud.

Part 3: Second Steps

Even after taking all the classes (beginning and intermediate series as well as a dozen advanced classes) I didn't cook Thai food that much. I cooked mainly simple dishes – stir-fried vegetables with oyster sauce, Steamed Fish with Chilli and Garlic Lime Sauce, and, nearly anything cooked Pad Gka-prow, such as Spicy Basil Chicken. Pad Gka-prow is one of Thailand's favorite dishes: squid, halibut, snapper, beef, chicken, shrimp – nearly anything tastes good cooked this way and served over rice. My personal favorite main ingredient is ground pork (spiced very hot) with salmon a very close second.

Pad Gka-prow is the first recipe I cooked enough to be able to get out of the recipe. What a difference that makes! It taught me that the ease in cooking Thai comes in part from familiarity. At first, cooking Thai is like learning any new skill – until the motions become practiced, they feel clumsy and awkward. But after making (practicing) a dish a few times you begin to learn how the wok responds to a particular stove, start to get the memory of what a good sizzle sounds like, and get more comfortable with the whole process. It no longer seems to move at blinding speed. Never underestimate the power of repetition. The more you do anything, the easier it gets because you know what to anticipate.

It was liberating to get out of the recipe and concentrate wholly on the cooking process. Cooking began to feel creative. And talk about satisfying! One of the best feelings in the world is to cook a really delicious Thai dish reminiscent of the best food you've had in Thailand and better than any restaurant you know in America.

Continue article with Part 4: Other Early Lessons

Copyright © 2000 Michael Babcock. All rights reserved.

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