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The Spirit of Thai Cooking

by Kasma Loha-unchit

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Vendor making Pad ThaiOne of the delights of eating on the streets and in small rice/noodle shops in Thailand is the tremendous varieties offered and the enormous variations of the same dishes, giving consumers a great number of choices to satisfy differing taste preferences and varying moods. Today, I might wish to eat gkuay dtiow dtom yam (Hot-and-Sour Dry Rice Noodles) from this vendor, for instance, but a few days later, I might be in the mood for a lighter version from another stall.

The variations in the way same dishes are made reflect not only the creative talents of the people behind the food, but also regional as well as individual taste preferences and the Thai love and tolerance for variety. Our country is made up of many ethnic peoples who settled the various regions generations ago, bringing with them their unique cultural and family traditions. The vast majority of good Thai cooks, if not all, did not learn to cook by using recipes or from culinary schools. They learned by experience, by a process of osmosis watching others in their family cook since they were an early age, by experimentation, and by what is fresh and looks good at the market as opposed to what a recipe dictates. They are not obsessed with religiously following the written words of some authority. In fact, the greatest chefs are those who deliberately add their own "secret" ingredients to give their product a unique personality and differentiate it from what is offered by other stalls or restaurants. The same thing can be said of any of the great cuisines and great chefs of the world.

One hawker might use tamarind in his/her gkuay-dtiow dtom yam haeng and a large handful of prik ki nu daeng (dried chiles) for each plate (presumably whole or in large pieces as a vendor certainly would not want to be touching cut-up chillies all day long – it would be painful for the hand!). The vendor I frequent in Ratchaburi uses cut-up small pieces of prik kee noo soaking in a bowl with vinegar and lime juice. She ladles a spoonful of the fiery concoction into each bowl of noodles, and from time to time replenishes her sauce bowl with more vinegar and finely cut-up chillies. The result is a searingly spicy bowl permeated by heat that you cannot escape by picking out the chillies.

Vendor making Green Papaya SaladWho is to say the plate of noodles made by the hawker who uses tamarind, a handful of chillies and no vegetable is authentic while the bowl made by the vendor in Ratchburi who uses cut-up chillies in vinegar and lime juice is not?

I'd like to give a few examples of the tremendous variations in ingredients used in very common Thai dishes. Take som dtam (green papaya salad) for instance. There are dozens of ways to make this favorite food of the Thai people. Some prefer to use tamarind along with lime juice, while others like it sharply sour with lime juice only. Some like it pungent with the flavor of fermented fish ( bplah rah – a favorite ingredient in the Northeast), others prefer it with gkapi (fermented shrimp paste), while still others prefer it to be clean tasting without either. Some like it sweet with palm sugar, sprinkled with roasted peanuts, while others do not care for sweet som dtam nor peanuts and go for it tear-jerkingly hot and salty with the flavor of salted crab (bpoo kem). The permutations go on and on and that's why when a Thai order som dtam, we specify how we like it on that particular occasion to satisfy a current mood.

Another example is Thailand's most popular soup, dtom yum (Hot & Sour Soup) itself. How often have you had this soup in various towns across the country and run into two that look and taste identical, using exactly the same ingredients in precise proportions?

Vendor making Kanom KrokTake another favorite street food as an example – kanom krok – those yummy coconut-rice hotcakes churned out daily in most open-air marketplaces. In some towns, vendors give you a small packet of sugar to dip the hotcakes in if you wish them to be sweeter, a practice not commonly done in the rest of the country. Some make them already very sweet, which I don't care for because I prefer them more savory, but they have their clientele who swears by them. Some fill them with scallions, pumpkin ( fak tong), taro or shrimp, while the vast majority are made plain. There are vendors who pride themselves in the crispy bottoms, some of them even spilling batter over on the pan in order to give you extra crispy edges. Others use a different flour combination that does not cook up crispy at all. Some make the hotcakes with two batters – a saltier bottom layer, dribbled with a creamier top layer; while nowadays many vendors take the quick and easy route and use only one batter, losing the exquisite contrast in flavor and texture possible with the more labor-intensive two-batter system. Who is to say any of these kanom krok is not Thai and more westernized?

Though I have written a book, I am first and foremost a Thai chef, cooking teacher and leader of cultural and eating tours to Thailand (we eat our way around the country, from "hole-in-the-walls", street stalls and food centers to fine gourmet restaurants). It was my cooking students from ten years of teaching who had feasted their way around Thailand with me, who asked me to write the book so that they can duplicate the dishes and flavors they fell in love with while there. I have to answer to them if any of my recipes fall short of producing the true Thai flavors they experienced first-hand. Though I teach in America and my book is published here, in no way do I make substitutions in my recipes that would alter the important balance of flavors characteristic of Thai cuisine. The focus of my book is teaching the fine art of creating the unique flavor combinations characteristic of Thai cuisine. (See Creating Harmony With Primary Flavors.)

Vendor making Boat NoodlesIn my book as well as my classes, I caution people against blindly following recipes, simply because depending on where you are cooking Thai food (in Thailand or a western country), you may need to make variations and substitutions in order to duplicate true Thai flavors. The same ingredients grown in different locales around the world can vary quite a bit, such that if you follow even a very authentic recipe verbatim, you may end up with a result that is way off. It is better that you rely on your intuition and senses (taste, smell, sight, etc.) to guide you. For instance, lemon grass or Thai basil grown in a temperate zone or in a hothouse may have different qualities and strength than what you find in the markets of Thailand. I myself have found American limes not as intense in flavor as Thai limes and therefore, frequently have to make adjustments by adding other ingredients that would intensify their flavors. (Even in Thailand, limes from different seasons of the year can vary enough to make a noticeable difference to the sophisticated palate.) Fish sauce and gkapi can vary substantially from brand to brand, producing dramatically different results in cooking, so it would help to know the brand the author of the recipe uses. (See Cooking "to Taste.")

Some Thai herbs are not available at all where you live, but that does not mean that you cannot make the Thai dishes that call for them. This requires ingenuity in making substitutions that can most closely approximate the results you are after. With an intimate knowledge of ingredients and the different forms they are available where you live and a good grasp of the art of creating Thai flavor harmonies, you can cook Thai with as much success and authenticity of flavor any where as any cook can in Thailand. A comprehensive presentation of ingredients and their roles in Thai cooking and the important process of blending flavors – the hot, sour, sweet, salty, bitter and aromatic flavors - lie at the heart of my book. The recipes are given only as a guidelines to inspire experimentation - they are starting points from where you can feel free to add your own creative interpretations to suit your palate, to re-create a flavor in memory or to make adjustments to compensate for the differing qualities of the same ingredients that you are able to find at the market on the day that you decide to cook the dish.

Do not forget the person(s) for whom you are cooking. An argument as to what is authentic serves no good if the food does not suit the palate of the diner. If you like your food very hot, add more chillies; if your palate is milder, cut down on the number. If you like sharp sour flavors in a dish, use lime juice or a strong, neutral-tasting vinegar, but if you prefer a milder, more fruity sour, try tamarind. Do like the Thai people do in their kitchens, taste and adjust to desired taste. Do know though that chopped chillies soaked in vinegar and lime juice will go a much longer way in adding intensity of heat and flavor to a dish than tossing in whole or large pieces of chillies onto the serving plate. Vinegar and lime juice draw out heat from chillies and distributes it through the dish, such that you cannot escape their heat as you can in picking out large pieces of chillies that have not been mixed beforehand in an acidic base.

Night market vendorWhenever I get a recipe request from someone for a dish he/she had in a particular restaurant, I tell him/her that the best way to exactly duplicate the dish is to inquire the chef who made it for his interpretation, but short of being able to do this, I give my version but encourage him/her to use discretion in varying the ingredients to approximate the flavors in memory. Knowing the color and aroma of the dish you've had helps too as ingredients impart more than just flavor and the senses of taste, smell and sight do interact to affect your experience of food. Sometimes I cannot separate out the unique flavor of an excellent dish I've had in a restaurant because it is so well blended, but by the color, I will experiment with ingredients with that color and eventually unlock the secret and reproduce the flavor. You may find in your experimentation that you created a dish that you might like even better than the version you had at a particular stall in Thailand. That's the beauty of cooking without boundaries. Great new dishes are created this way.

When you have liberated yourself from dependence on recipes and learned the principles of creatively working with flavor ingredients, the food you make will not only satisfy your tongue, but nourish your soul and spirit as well. You will be cooking with the free-spirited and easy-going nature of the Thai people and understand the "Spirit of Thai Cooking."

Copyright © 1996 Kasma Loha-unchit. All rights reserved.

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