Cooking "to Taste."
by Kasma Loha-unchit
Learning how to balance and harmonize flavors is particularly important when working with a foreign cuisine in which the available flavor ingredients can vary considerably from batch to batch, brand to brand. Fresh ingredients, such as herbs, chillies and vegetables, as well as the various kinds of seafood themselves, can differ depending on how fresh they are, where they are grown or raised and how they are packed for transit and stored. Produce of tropical origins will likely be less full-flavored when grown in temperate zones, while seafood that has been frozen or aged can be expected to be less optimal in both taste and texture.
One brand of fish sauce may be saltier and fishier than another, and palm sugar can vary in level of sweetness as it is a natural sugar that is not highly processed. Tamarind juice, too, may differ in degree of sourness, depending on how thick and thin it is made. Chillies are notorious for not being consistent from batch to batch, although they outwardly look the same and are called by the same name.
Since ingredients can vary considerably, it is important to make adjustments in the quantity used to bring about the optimal flavor balance in each dish. Therefore, do not follow recipes religiously, but rather, cook "to taste." Remember that recipes serve as guidelines; they cannot speak for variances in the quality of ingredients that are available in different locales. They also cannot speak for your particular taste preference, so cut down on the amount of chillies if you can't take the heat and the amount of lime juice if you don't like sharp sour flavors. Use more garlic and basil if you are a garlic and basil lover, less if you find them too strong for your taste, and so on.
Many recipes in this book [article is taken from Kasma's Dancing Shrimp: Favorite Thai Recipes for Seafood] (and on the Web site) give a suggested range of amounts to use of particular flavoring ingredients. Start out with the lower end and work your way up if you like it hotter, saltier, sweeter or more sour. Taste as you go along until you have developed a sense of how to work intuitively with the ingredients in the form that they are available in your community. If you are comparatively new to Thai food, you may find the lower end of the range still too much for you to take; on the other hand, if you have spent a lot of time in Thailand and love the intensity of food there, the upper end of the range may fall short of where your preference lies. So play around until you get the combination of flavors most suited to your palate.
If a finished dish you make from a recipe tastes "off" or as if something is missing, simple balancing will usually help perk up the peculiar batch of ingredients you used. Frequently, a sprinkle of good-quality fish sauce will take care of the problem. (Check out Kasma's Preferred Brands.)If the food is salty enough, see if it could benefit from a little sweetness; if you can taste all the ingredients but they just do not seem to be blended together very well, a little bit of sugar will often help. Go through the suggestions in the foregoing section and try to ascertain what is needed to "fix" the dish. Most Thai dishes are "rescuable" if you are adept at balancing flavors. (See Balancing Flavors: An Exercise.)
Thai people do not eat seafood dishes by themselves but as accompaniments to plain steamed rice. Therefore, we usually make the dishes saltier and spicier than "to taste," so that when they are served over unflavored rice, they do not become bland and lose their punch. Because our meals consist of rice as the main food, with several accompanying non-rice dishes, we consume smaller amounts of each protein dish than our western counterparts would. Western-style meals are opposite to ours, placing a protein dish as the main course and relegating rice (if served) a secondary role as a side-dish.
Especially with highly flavored, spicy dishes, a pound of seafood goes a long way to feeding an entire Thai family. The number of servings for the recipes in this book are generous servings for multi-course Thai-style dining, taking into account the spiciness of the dishes which would encourage more rice to be eaten. For western-style dining with fewer courses and a preference for more protein, make adjustments accordingly – allowing six to eight ounces of seafood per person, or more for whole fish with head and tail still joined.
Learn how to harmonize flavors in Kasma's Exercise in Balancing Flavors.