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Stir-Frying (Pad)

Kasma Loha-unchit, Friday, August 14th, 2009

Stir-frying is a quick-cooking method that is similar to the western way of sautéing, in which relatively small pieces of food (usually bite-size) are tossed about quickly in a hot pan with a small amount of oil. High heat must be maintained throughout the stir-fry for proper searing of foods to seal in their natural juices. Although stir-frying can be done in a flat skillet or large pot, it is best accomplished in a well-seasoned wok. See my article on Using a Wok.

Kasma Stir-frying in Class

Kasma stir-frying in class

I do not recommend non-stick pans for stir-frying, because they do not hold heat very well and are not oil-friendly. Cooking oil does not distribute over their surface but tends to bead here and there; as a result, food does not get evenly seared and flavored with it. As for electric woks, I do not regard them as woks at all. Not only do they have a non-stick surface, the heating element covers only a small area on the bottom, so the rounded contour of the pan never gets heated for effective cooking. For more on this see Wok: Flat or Round Bottom?

Because a stir-fry proceeds at a rapid pace, make sure you have all the ingredients ready before beginning. Place them in separate piles by the stove in the order that they are to go into the wok.

Spicy Seafood Stir-fry

Spicy seafood stir-fry

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Unlike some styles of Chinese cooking, Thai stir-fries are seldom thickened with cornstarch or other thickeners, but instead, the sauces and seafood juices are left natural to preserve the fresh flavors of the herbs and intensity of the seasonings. Should a lot of juice cook out from seafood because insufficient heat is maintained during the stir-fry, the cooked seafood may be removed with a slotted spoon and the sauce reduced over high heat to thicken before recombining with the seafood. Stir-fried dishes, when properly done, should have just a small amount of richly colored and naturally thick sauce surrounding the pieces of seafood. If the seafood is swimming in a pool of liquid, the flavors in the dish will be diluted.

On the other hand, if your stove is an especially hot one, reduce heat or add a little cooking liquid to help in the stir-fry so that the seafood does not burn and leave you with a very dried-out dish. This situation, however, is rare with most American home stoves.

Stir-frying a Chilli Paste

Stir-frying a chilli paste

For stir-frying, nothing can match the wok and its companion spatula. Although a flat skillet may be used, you can toss food particles much more vigorously and with greater ease and satisfaction on the rounded surface of the wok without having to worry about splattering and spilling onto the stovetop. Food is cooked more evenly and is less likely to burn, your arm is less tired and your stove remains much cleaner after stir-frying than when a flat skillet is used. Try stir-frying a big batch of leafy greens, or big chunks of crab in the shell, and you’ll see what I mean.

For a successful stir-fry, always begin by heating the wok before adding anything to it. Wait until the surface literally lets off wafts of smoke – about three minutes over high heat. (You may also test the heat by sprinkling in a few drops of water – they should sizzle and turn to steam without hesitation.) Then swirl in the oil to coat the surface, using the wok spatula as needed to spread it around, and wait a short while longer to allow the oil to get hot (about 15-20 seconds). Now you may begin your stir-fry. The rule-of-thumb is: always add cold oil to a hot wok and never cold oil to a cold wok.

Stir-frying greens

Stir-frying greens

Preheating opens up the pores in the wok, so that when oil is swirled in, they absorb some of the oil and become seasoned before each stir-fry, lessening the likelihood of food sticking to the wok’s surface. If you do not have a very hot stove, preheating also ensures that as high a heat as possible is maintained throughout the stir-fry for proper searing of food. If oil is added to the wok before heating, it will burn and smoke before the wok is thoroughly heated, giving a false impression that the pan is hot enough to begin the stir-fry. And if you do, you will likely burn the garlic only to find that when the bulk of the seafood is tossed in, the heat fizzles out quickly, causing the seafood to sweat out most of its juices.

When the oil is hot, add the garlic – it should sizzle but not burn. Stir for a few seconds to flavor the oil, then follow with the seafood and other ingredients to be stir-fried. Toss frequently, making sure all the food particles, large and small, get turned and moved around so that they cook evenly and do not burn.

Listen to the sound of food cooking in your wok. The sizzling should be loud and lively. If it slows down, slow down also on the stirring as this can dissipate heat. Spread the food up along the heated sides of the wok rather than lump them in the center, making use of as much of the heated surface of the wok as necessary. Stir just enough to cook and brown food evenly and prevent burning.

Stir-frying Basil Chicken

Stir-frying Basil Chicken

If you stir too much while the wok is losing heat, your seafood dishes will likely turn watery and the flavors will become diluted. For an average home-stove, try not to stir-fry more than one to one-and-a-half pounds of seafood at a time. It also helps if the seafood is well-drained and not icy cold from the refrigerator – let it sit out at room temperature for at least twenty to thirty minutes before beginning the stir-fry.

Here are a few other suggestions should your stove be less than ideal in terms of heat: (1) add the salty seasoning towards the end of cooking; (2) if there is more than one liquid ingredient, do not add them together, but space them out by fifteen to twenty seconds so that one gets to heat up and evaporate some before another is added; and (3) sprinkle the liquid ingredients directly on the hot metal just above the seafood being stir-fried so that they are heated immediately and reduced quickly to concentrate their flavors.

Stir-frying in a wok has the additional advantage of requiring less oil than a flat skillet because of its rounded bottom. While one wok can stir-fry a small or large quantity of food, different-size skillets often are needed to cook widely varying quantities.

Check out Kasma’s Thai recipe index for plenty of stir-fry recipes.

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, August 2009.

Tamarind (Makahm)

Kasma Loha-unchit, Sunday, July 26th, 2009

Use Tamarind to Add a Fruity Tart Flavor to Your Cooking

To many people, tamarind (makahm or makamin Thai) is an unknown ingredient. To most seasoned Bay area cooks, the word “tamarind” conjures to mind a tart, dark brown fruit – a beloved and essential souring agent used in many tropical cuisines, from India and southeast Asia to Africa and the Americas.

Tamarind Pods

Tamarind Pods

Held by stringy fibers inside curved beanlike pods, the moist, sticky fruit is protected with a brittle, reddish-brown shell. These fresh pods can frequently be found in specialty produce stores and in Asian and Latino markets.

To use, the flesh is removed from the shell and the fibrous strings and hard seeds are discarded. It can then be chopped up to make chutneys and dipping sauces. More frequently, it is mixed with water, the soft pulp dissolved to make a thick, smooth, dark brown concentrate that is used to add a pleasing fruity tart flavor to soups, salads, braised and stir-fried dishes. The concentrate is also used to make refreshing drinks such as tamarindo, and is frequently added to curries to heighten their flavors and to marinades to flavor as well as tenderize meats.

Compressed Tamarind Package

Compressed Tamarind Package

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

However, not all tamarind is sour. In fact, the fresh tamarind pods found in many Asian markets at this time of year are actually sweet tamarind, some without the slightest hint of sourness. This “best variety” sweet tamarind are not meant for cooking, but for eating fresh by itself as one would fruit. It makes a wonderful, nutritious snack.

At other times of year, Asian markets may carry unripe tamarind. Though brown on the outer surface, the shell and seeds have not fully developed and are not separate from the green flesh. Southeast Asians pickle these immature pods, eat them fresh with a sweet shrimp sauce, or chop and incorporate them into a tamarind chilli sauce for accompanying raw or blanched vegetables, fried fish and grilled meats.
Because of the variation in fresh tamarind pods and their availability, more consistent results can be obtained in cooking by using prepackaged forms. Ready-to-use tamarind concentrate or paste is available in plastic containers. I personally prefer to use the compressed blocks wrapped in clear plastic and labeled as “wet tamarind,” or simply “tamarind,” to make my own tamarind concentrate when I need it.

These blocks are made up purely of the dark brown flesh of sour tamarind extracted from the pods, with the fibrous strings and most of the seeds removed. When I buy one of these blocks, I usually squeeze the package and select one that feels the softest, as it will more likely be fresher, more moist, easier to work with and yields better-tasting tamarind juice. The block should also look a rich dark brown and not black.

Making Tamarind Paste

Making Tamarind Concentrate

To make tamarind juice or concentrate, break off a one-inch chunk of wet tamarind paste and mix with a quarter cup of water, using your fingers to knead and mush the soft part of the fruit so that it melts into the water. Work the tamarind until a brownish fluid the thickness of fruit concentrate results, adding more tamarind paste or water as needed. Gather up the undissolvable pulp and any seeds with your fingers, squeeze out the juice and discard.

Making your own tamarind juice concentrate when you need it ensures a fresher tamarind flavor than pre-mixed concentrates. An added advantage: the tamarind block does not require refrigeration, whereas pre-mixed concentrates do after the containers are open. Store the compressed block well-wrapped in plastic in a cool place in your pantry.

See our website for more information on tamarind (makahm).

This recipe is also available on our website (Spicy Tamarind Tiger Prawns) where it is available with Notes and Pointers.

Spicy Tamarind Tiger Prawns Recipe

  • 1 lb. medium-size tiger prawns
  • 1 tsp. sea salt
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/4 cup peanut oil
  • 2 large shallots, halved lengthwise and sliced crosswise 1/8-inch thick
  • 8 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 4 large dried red chillies, each cut into 2-3 pieces
  • 1/4 cup chopped onion
  • 2 chopped jalapeño or serrano peppers (do not remove seeds)
  • 1 Tbs. Sriracha hot chilli sauce
  • 1 Tbs. soy sauce
  • 1 Tbs. palm or coconut sugar
  • 1/3 – 1/2 cup tamarind juice the thickness of fruit concentrate, to taste
  • 1 1/2 to 2 Tbs. fish sauce, to taste
  • Lettuce to line serving platter
  • 1 green onion, white part only, cut into 1 1/2-inch lengths, then split into thin matchstick-size slivers
  • A few cilantro sprigs

Shell, devein and butterfly the prawns. Place in a bowl and add 1 tsp. of salt and 1/2 cup of water. Mix well to dissolve salt and set aside for 10 minutes. Then drain off the grey water and rinse several times to remove all the salt. Drain well and let sit to warm to room temperature before stir-frying.

Heat the oil in a small skillet for 2-3 minutes. Add the sliced shallots and fry over low to medium heat, stirring occasionally until the pieces are evenly browned and crisped (may take 10-15 minutes). Drain from oil with a fine wire-mesh strainer. Return oil to skillet and fry the garlic over high heat until golden brown. Drain likewise, reserving the oil for stir-frying.

Heat a wok over high heat until its entire surface is hot and smoking. Swirl in 2 Tbs. of the reserved oil to coat the wok surface. Wait a few seconds for it to heat. Then add the dried chilli pieces and fry quickly until they begin to darken. Toss in the chopped onion and fresh peppers and stir-fry until softened and aromatic. Add the Sriracha chilli sauce, soy sauce and palm sugar and season to the desired sourness and saltiness with tamarind and fish sauce. Stir well to blend, heat to a sizzling boil and reduce a minute or two to thicken.

Add the prawns and with frequent stirring, cook over high heat until the sauce is thick and the prawns are cooked to your liking (2-4 minutes). Turn off heat and add the fried shallots and garlic. Toss well.

Transfer to a lettuce-lined serving platter. Garnish top with slivered green onion and cilantro sprigs. Serves 6 with other dishes and rice in a shared family-style meal.

Serves 6 with other dishes and rice in a shared family-style meal.

Kasma's Spicy Tamarind Prawns

Kasma's Spicy Tamarind Prawns

Kasma taught this recipe in her weekend Series Set A (class 2).

There’s many more of Kasma’s Thai recipes on the website.

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, July 2009.

The Mortar and Pestle

Kasma Loha-unchit, Friday, May 15th, 2009

The mortar and pestle are essential tools in Thai cooking. Crushing the fibers of herbs releases the full range of essential oils they contain and give chilli sauces and curry pastes a greater breadth and depth of flavor than just chopping them in a food processor can achieve. This is especially critical when working with fibrous aromatics and roots, such as lemon grass, galanga and kaffir lime peel; they appear dry when chopped, but reduce to moist paste when pounded. Also, when these herbs are pounded together, their flavors meld into one, yielding an immensely aromatic paste in which the parts are inseparable from the whole.

Stone Mortar & Pestle

Stone Mortar & Pestle

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

For accomplishing the task of crushing herbs, a mortar and pestle set is essential. In Thailand, there are several different kinds suited for particular purposes. For making curry pastes, a heavy stone mortar and pestle, carved out of granite, is the most efficient – able to reduce fibrous herbs and hard seeds down in no time. The pestle and the inside surface of the mortar are polished smooth and are not rough, coarse or porous like the kind used in Mexican cooking. Very dense and heavy, they do not chip and last for years even when subjected to vigorous pounding daily.

Look for this dark-grey stone mortar and pestle set in a Thai or Southeast Asian market. It is available in small, medium and large sizes and ranges from about sixteen to twenty-five dollars. Buy the largest size since you can use it for big as well as small jobs. It also enables you to pound more vigorously without worrying about bits and pieces of herbs spilling all over your work area.

Clay Mortar & Pestle

Clay Mortar & Pestle

If you are not interested in making curry pastes and the extent of the pounding you wish to do is to make simple dipping sauces, a less substantial mortar and pestle set will suffice. You may already have a marble one in your kitchen, which is sufficient for crushing small amounts of the softer, wet ingredients like garlic and chillies. If you don’t already own one, purchase a Thai-style, baked-clay mortar with hardwood pestle from a Southeast Asian market. It is inexpensive (under ten dollars) and both the mortar and the pestle are much larger than the marble set, making pounding easier and faster.

The dark brown mortar comes in two different shapes – one deeper and more bowl-shaped and the other with a noticeable molded-in stand and a wider, denser rim around the top. Because both are tall and deep, they keep the juice from the wet ingredients from splattering all over the place; and when you’ve finished crushing them, the lime juice, fish sauce, sugar and whatever remaining sauce ingredients can be added right into the mortar and stirred with the pestle until the sauce is well-blended.

When making a curry paste in Thailand, all the ingredients are pounded together all at once in the mortar. Often, the softer and wetter ingredients like garlic and shallots are placed in whole as they mash up relatively easily. Coarse salt crystals provide some abrasion to reduce the harder and more fibrous herbs and spices as well as release their flavors. The pounding goes on until everything in the mortar is mashed into paste and is no longer distinguishable. This can take a long time for someone inexperienced in mortar and pestle techniques. (See Kasma’s article Making a Curry Paste from Scratch.)

Making a Paste

Making a Paste

For faster results without compromising flavor, chop or mince the ingredients ahead of time. This is where an electric chopper or processor can help out. (Lemon grass should be trimmed and sliced with a sharp knife into very thin rounds to break up the fiber that runs lengthwise.) Then, work one ingredient at a time with the mortar and pestle, starting with the dry spices. They are easily pulverized with a rolling motion of the pestle around the bottom and sides of the mortar while its surface is still dry. The dry ingredients, of course, may be ground ahead of time in a clean coffee grinder designated solely for spice-grinding. However, when grinding just a small quantity in the grinder, the spices often do not get very fine and need to be further reduced in the mortar to a fine powder.

Remove the ground spices from the mortar before proceeding with the most fibrous of the herbs. Pound one ingredient at a time, a small amount at a time, moving from the firmest and most fibrous to the softest and wettest. When each is done, remove from mortar before proceeding with the next. Herbs reduce more quickly when pounded with a sturdy, straight up-and-down motion. Develop a comfortably paced rhythm like you are beating on a drum – one that is not too fast as to tire the muscles in your arms quickly, but with enough strength so that the herbs do get crushed.

Kasma uses a wooden mortar & pestle

Using a wooden mortar & pestle

Move the herbs around with the pestle so that a single layer is pounded at a time to maximize the efficiency of the hard pestle beating against the hard surface of the mortar. When it is reduced, push it aside and move uncrushed pieces to the center to be worked, and so on. Just because the mortar is large doesn’t mean that you can pound and reduce a lot of herbs at a time. For fibrous herbs, too thick a bed of them can actually take longer and require more energy from you to reduce, as the pieces cushion one another. For quicker results, pound a small amount at a time, removing the crushed herbs before adding more to be crushed. When all the ingredients have been reduced, combine them and pound together until they become a uniform, well-blended paste.

Besides the two types of mortar and pestle mentioned above, I have a small, carved stone set which I use only for quick-grinding of small, dry seeds, such as coriander and cumin. It works much better than the coffee grinder for pulverizing small quantities. Simply roll the pestle around the mortar, applying enough pressure as you do to crush the seeds into powder. The small, Japanese-style, terra-cotta bowl with ridges inside, which comes with a wooden pestle, serves the same purpose, and is not meant to be used for reducing fibrous herbs to paste. There are also wooden mortar and pestles, which are used mainly for making dishes such as Green Papaya Salad (Som Dtam).

Originally in Kasma’s book, Dancing Shrimp: Favorite Thai Recipes for Seafood.

Another article on the website about the mortar and pestle is Making a Curry Paste from Scratch. See especially Tips on Equipment and Techniques.The recipe index has many recipes that use the mortar and pestle.

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, May 2009.

Principles of Flavor Harmony

Kasma Loha-unchit, Sunday, April 19th, 2009

When working with strong flavors, like strong colors, it is important to keep them in balance with other flavors, so that one does not overpower another and cover up the more subtle flavors. Sharp sours, fiery spiciness and cutting bitterness can make peace and share the stage without conflict. Here is where the art of Thai cooking lies: the creation of flavor harmonies that bring together seemingly disparate flavors and integrate them into a unique and magnificent whole.

Fish Sauce, Source for Salty

Fish Sauce, Source for Salty

Your own cooking experience may have already revealed to you that the salty and sweet flavors balance each other. If something is too sweet, add a little salt; if it is too salty, add a little sugar. Taking this a step further, both the sweet and salty flavors balance the sour. For instance, if a dipping sauce is much too sour, determine first whether you can taste the salty flavor. If not, add a little salt (or fish sauce if the recipe uses fish sauce as the salty ingredient).

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Sour (Limey), Spicy & Salty Dressing

Sour (Limey), Spicy & Salty Dressing

When the sauce tastes equally salty and sour, the addition of a little sweet often helps pull these two flavors together, so that they do not stand alone as separate ingredients, but embrace each other as partners. At the same time, this will enable you to taste their distinctive sources, as well as the flavors of other ingredients that may be in the sauce. Therefore, instead of just sour, you may now notice that the sauce is limy, garlicky if there is garlic in it, and may even taste hotter than before since you are better able to taste the flavor of the chillies swimming in it. The sweet flavor, on the other hand, is also known to mellow out the heat of chillies, but usually, it tightens flavors first until you are able to taste a very faint sweetness in the back of your tongue. The harmony of the sauce peaks at this point and any further additions of sugar mellows out the heat as well as the sour and salty flavors.

Thai Chillies, for Spicy

Thai Chillies, for Spicy

When working with strong sour, salty and hot flavors, the sweet flavor serves an important balancing function. It harmonizes the disparate flavors, pulling them together into a whole greater than the sum of its parts, and opens up doorways for your taste buds to taste the multi-dimensional flavors of all the ingredients in the dish. The fresh bouquet of aromatic herbs, unique textural taste of vegetables, and the delicately sweet and luscious flavors of fresh seafood come through the strongly flavored sauce to the foreground and are not smothered by it. At the same time, the bitterness of pungent roots and roasted spices takes a seat in the background, adding its own virtues like bass in an orchestra.

Steamed Fish, Sour & Hot

Steamed Fish, Sour & Hot

Strong sour flavors, especially, benefit greatly from the balancing role of sweet. Frequently, a significant amount of sugar is required in order to bring about this balance. Just a small pinch may have little effect, and sometimes may even muddy up the waters – as if it has not yet convinced the strong players to cooperate. Keep adding a little more sugar until the faintest sweetness is noticeable in the back of your tongue. At this point, sugar is no longer needed as a peacemaker, but comes to the fore for its own sake, to be an equal player with the rest of the team. Whether or not more sugar should be added depends on whether the sweet component is an important feature of a particular savory dish. Its role varies from dish to dish and on the taste preference of the partakers of the meal.

Shrimp with Sataw, Spicy

Shrimp with Sataw, Spicy

Of course, not all Thai dishes contain all five flavors in their full intensity. Some are actually rather plain and simple, using one or two flavor ingredients; others in-between. The Thai love for variety and harmony is reflected in the balance of dishes in a meal. A typical meal consisting of five dishes would usually have one, or at most two, intensely hot dishes, accompanied by one or two of medium-range spiciness and the remaining mild and bland. If there is a sharply sour salad or soup, the rest of the dishes are not likely to contain the sour flavor to clash with it. If a rich curry is on the menu, the accompanying dishes can be expected to be light and coconut milk will not be used in any of them. And so on. In short, not only should flavors be in harmony within a dish, all the dishes in a meal should be in harmony with one another.

Note: Harmonizing flavors lies at the heart of Thai (or, indeed) any cuisine. Kasma used to emphasize frequent tastings in her Thai cooking classes (she’s now retired) to help teach the principles. You might enjoy Kasma’s articles Creating Harmonies with Primary Flavors and Balancing Flavors: An Exercise.

We have recipes on our website for two of the above dishes, Mom’s Good & Easy Steamed Fish (Bplah Neung) and Stir-Fried Shrimp with Sadtaw or Fava Beans (Gkung Pad Sadtaw).

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, April 2009.