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Learning to Cook Thai (Page 2)

by Michael Babcock

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

Part 4: Other Early Lessons

The way a kitchen is organized can greatly simplify cooking Thai food. When I lived by myself I had a wok and all the ingredients but because I did not use them often, they were not placed advantageously. Give yourself a better chance by making everything easy to get to – all the sauces and herbs, the cooking implements, the wok – so that you aren't always falling behind because you don't know where things are.

I found it helped to clean the kitchen up before I even got out the ingredients. It also helped to lay out the ingredients in the order in which they entered the wok or pot. As I prepared ingredients I placed them in little dishes and put them all on a chopping block that I could take over to the stove when I'm ready to cook. It helps to have everything in the right order so that you can devote full attention to the cooking process.

I also learned that I had to allow myself to fail. At first I was totally intimidated (not to say incapacitated) cooking food that Kasma, a master Thai chef, would be eating – her food is so good that I didn't want to expose my lack of ability. However, early on she cooked a vegetable dish that was a little bit salty – it tasted ok but it just wasn't perfect. If Kasma, as good as she was, could slip up, I certainly couldn't be expected to do it perfectly all at once. Giving yourself permission to not do it exactly right is very liberating. I recommend it.

Part 5: Dancing Shrimp

Last year when Kasma was in the midst of finishing up her book Dancing Shrimp: Favorite Thai Recipes for Seafood (to be published in Fall, 2000) she literally had no time to cook. So for three months I did most of the cooking – within the energy constraints of my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). This was the real key for me in learning to cook Thai – devoting an extended period of time during which I cooked Thai food at least once every day. I had never really done that on my own. Kasma does most of the cooking, with me providing the garlic-chopping expertise and food preparation. Why on earth would I not want to eat Kasma's cooking? There was just not much motivation to cook.

Something happens when you cook exclusively Thai regularly over time. The ingredients become more familiar and no longer seem foreign. Cooking every day allowed me to develop a rhythm and a sense of timing much more easily than when cooking sporadically. Using too much fish sauce one time can be immediately corrected the next. A lesson learned is reinforced within days.

For the most part, I tested recipes from Dancing Shrimp – nearly all of the 100 recipes. It helped that all of the recipes worked. Here are some of the lessons I learned from this time:

A good attitude is essential. The way you approach cooking and structure the time is one of the most important "ingredients." If I didn't leave enough time and felt rushed, the whole process became agony. The best days were when I gave myself plenty of time so that I could really focus on getting everything right. I read the recipes in advance in order to know how much time would be needed. I soon began looking forward to the time in the evening on my good days when I could forget the day and just concentrate on making food. It was very satisfying to drop everything else and focus completely on cooking. It was as refreshing as meditation – with delicious food as a reward.

Not all Thai cooking is time-consuming and difficult. Quite a few of the recipes were quite easy to cook. Many people shy away from Thai cooking because they have the misconception that it all takes a lot of time and effort. Squid Sauted with Chilli-Lime Sauce (Bplah Meuk Neung Manao), for example, can literally be cooked, start to finish, in about 15 minutes (using cuttlefish or pre-cleaned squid) while the rice cooks. During the last few minutes, as the squid steams, you can quite easily cook a vegetable dish. By planning ahead you can find Thai recipes appropriate for nearly any time frame. This will come after you are more comfortable with the cooking.

Longer recipes are very rewarding. Certainly there are dishes that take time to cook. These are often the most rewarding. You get to use the mortar and pestle and pound out the day's anxieties. Again the key is attitude – setting aside the time to enjoy the whole process.

Good ingredients are the key. As obvious as this is, it explains why Thai food made at home can be so much better than Thai food from a local restaurant. At home you can use the absolute freshest ingredients available – the fresher the better – and as much as you want. At home when we make Basil Pork we may use up to a whole bunch of Thai Basil in one recipe; there is never that much Thai basil in a dish from a restaurant. (If you have a local source of holy basil to use rather than Thai basil, you are doubly blessed.) I am also mystified that Green Curry, an easy dish to make is seldom as good in restaurants as when home-made. I wonder if it is because they are using canned curry pastes rather than the much better tasting variety from a plastic tub. (Kasma's favorite curry brand was Mae Ploy.)

Fresh ingredients do not allow complete recipe precision. This lesson is one of the most important. Today's batch of limes may not be as sour as yesterday's, or you might be trying out a new brand of fish sauce that is less salty. If you are using a cookbook that has only exact measurements for ingredients such as fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, tamarind, etc. – be prepared to be flexible and follow the principles of harmonizing flavors. To get the taste you want you might need to adjust one or more ingredients. This is one reason that Kasma's recipes usually give a range for the important flavor balancing ingredients: I always start out with the lower limit and give myself room to add more. (Balancing Flavors: An Exercise and Cooking "to Taste.")

Thai Food is meant to be eaten with rice. The Thai equivalent of "Let's eat!" is "Eat rice!" There is kao ("rice") and then there is gab kao (literally, "with rice") – which is everything else. Thai food is meant to be eaten along with rice – so always serve Thai food over delicious Thai Jasmine rice. There are, of course, exceptions (such as noodle dishes).

Part 6: Summing Up

I think that the best way to learn to cook Thai is to become familiar with the main ingredients, the concept of balancing flavors, and then to dive in and cook. I can shamelessly recommend Kasma's first book, It Rains Fishes: Legends, Traditions and the Joys of Thai Cooking for this. I am not familiar with cookbooks other than Kasma's, or recipes other than Kasma's, since those are all I ever use – but her recipes in both It Rains Fishes and her forthcoming Dancing Shrimp have worked very well for me and her many students.

Make sure you use the best and freshest ingredients and approach cooking with an air of playfulness, experimentation and learning. If you are nervous at first, follow the recipes strictly, paying careful attention to the results. As you taste a dish, critique it: is it salty enough? sour enough? sweet enough? Play with balancing the flavors. Do the balancing exercise again after cooking for awhile – you'll learn something new. Please yourself – cook so that it tastes good to you. Don't be afraid to experiment. Don't be afraid to fail – it might not be perfect all at once, but it will very likely be delicious. Enjoy yourself.

And learn to trust your own experience above all. Sometimes cookbooks perpetuate interesting ideas that are counter to experience – such as recommending you slowly drain the juice from a coconut through holes in the eyes rather than just using a cleaver to whack a hole in the other end and pouring it out; or the notion from one cookbook that coconut cream sinks to the bottom of a can of coconut milk when it is usually just the opposite. Take what you read with a grain of salt (a drop of fish sauce?) and apply your common sense to it. Read other books, try other methods, choose what works and if what you read is contrary to what you experience or to common sense, go with your own experience.

Cooking Thai food is a wonderful gift for others (they get to eat the fruits of your labor) but it is primarily a gift to yourself. Don't wait to get started, no matter how you do it.

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Copyright © 2000 Michael Babcock. All rights reserved.

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