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Peanuts & Thai Cuisine

by Kasma Loha-unchit

Satay and spicy peanut sauces have become mistakenly identified with Thai cuisine. They actually originated further down the Malay peninsula and in the Indonesian archipelago where they dominate the offerings in food bazaars and streetside stalls as well as in refined restaurants.

I am always amused when I come across a recipe in a magazine, a bottled sauce in a supermarket, or a dish on the menu of a western restaurant, that alleges to be "Thai." Very frequently, the recipe, sauce or dish contains peanuts or a peanut sauce, which really is not at all very "Thai." I often wonder what the Malaysians and Indonesians think about all this.

Curiously, peanut is really a New World native originating in South America, possibly in northern Argentina or southern Bolivia. European explorers spread the nut across the oceans and continents – first to Africa and Brazil, and then to the Philippines, Malaysia, Japan, China. Indonesia and India. They reached North America in the 1600s, probably via Africa. The top growers of peanuts in the world today are (in order) China, India, Nigeria and the United States. In every country but the United States, the vast majority of peanuts are used to make oil.

Most of the peanuts in America are consumed as peanut butter, a form which is eaten very little by the rest of the world. So when a restaurant makes a peanut sauce using peanut butter, it is really an American sauce and the furthest thing away from Thai or other Asian foods.

To me, a peanut sauce made from peanut butter always will taste like peanut butter. Back in Southeast Asia, when we make a peanut sauce, we always start with whole, freshly roasted peanuts, which we grind and then simmer with other ingredients to give the sauce a fresh taste of roasted peanuts. A peanut sauce made this way tastes lighter than when peanut butter is used and the flavor of the peanuts blends in more intricately with the spice flavors. (Kasma's Peanut Sauce Recipe.)

For a concurring view on another site, check out The Truth About Peanut Sauce .

Copyright © 1998 Kasma Loha-unchit. All rights reserved.

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