Gourmet Secrets: The flavours of Thailand
Images of Thailand among outsiders vary according to taste and temperament. To some, the mere mention of the country conjures up The King and I (1956) fantasy of gilded temples, palaces and Siamese women in intricate gold head-dress. To others, Thailand simply means the sun, sand and beaches of Phuket. Thai food was not hot on the international culinary agenda until relatively recently. Indian or Chinese represented the Orient abroad as “Asian”. Thailand remained independent during the era of colonisation, so very few Westerners sampled its unique blends of hot, sweet, salty and sour which are so different from the dishes of India, Malaysia and Indonesia, despite their superficial similarity.
As with every country, regional variations in cooking are very apparent in Thailand, except in Bangkok where you find a mishmash of everything. Fine cuisine or cuisine of the royal household is also very different from roadside vendor dishes and housewives’ favourites. Like tandoori, biryani and the vindaloo, which have become synonymous with Indian food abroad, so Thai is associated with coconut curries and spicy soups. Although Thai food can be very spicy, its effect is much calmed by the mounds of steaming rice placed in the centre of the table, the wonderfully crunchy salads and their amazing variety of tropical fruit like mangosteens, rambutans, the durian (distinguished by its terrible smell), papayas, mangoes and guavas. In fact, most of the Thai heartland is a vast checkerboard of paddy fields, orchards and vegetable gardens.
Keeping it fragrant
A Thai chef I met some years ago in Bangkok actually said that he didn’t know how Europeans in particular were able to eat the famous Tom Yum Goong (spicy prawn soup) at the beginning of a meal. The Thais eat everything together or rather everything is served together with the possible exception of the sweet. The rice is placed in the centre and guests are free to help themselves in any order they want, mixing dishes at will and seasoning them with a wide variety of condiments, chutneys and relishes. The soup may be eaten at the beginning or the end of the meal and the salad likewise. Rice accompanies almost everything.
What I love most about Thai food is its lightness and balance. Everything is pleasing to the eye, nose and palate and however much you may hog, you never leave the table feeling stuffed and uncomfortable since Thai food uses very little oil. The use of little or no oil and quick cooking distinguishes Thai from Indian food. And although we both use chillies, ginger, garlic, onions and fresh coriander in abundance, there are certain flavours that are unique and irreplaceable to Thai cuisine, namely the aromatics - the tender base of the lemon grass stalk and the leaf and rind of a lime known as kaffir, shrimp paste and nam pla, a thin fermented fish sauce, to add flavour to just about everything and an interesting member of the ginger family known as galangal or grachai, which again is more fragrant than spicy. Unless all these ingredients are available, cooking authentic Thai food is impossible. You may be able to substitute certain things like mushrooms, seafood or chicken for duck, but you cannot hope to in any way change the focus and intensity of galangal or the kaffir lime.
Many of the authentic ingredients are now available in stores in major Indian cities. It is vital that all the fresh ingredients be washed, peeled and finely chopped before being added to curry pastes. This may seem excessive, but the more preparatory chopping, the less work is needed. As each ingredient is pounded, the fragrance is checked and more of the current ingredient or the next one is added accordingly.
In their elements
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love Thai curry. The Thai word for curry, geng, has a far wider application than the English approximation suggests. It means any wet savoury dish enriched and thickened by a paste. Curries are more specifically called geng ped or ‘thickened spicy liquids’, while the remainder are geng jeut – that is unspiced, literally ‘bland liquids’.
Curries range from the very simple to the highly complex. A Thai curry has three elements that define it: first the ingredients in the paste, second the way it is cooked and seasoned and third, the ingredients in the curry. Although these final ingredients have the most obvious effect on the flavour and appearance of the curry, they are not necessarily the principal, distinguishing element. They are certainly the most salient aspect of a curry and hence the easiest way to describe the finished dish, but from the Thai cook’s point of view each of the three components is equally important and together they determine what kind of curry it is. To give further dimension to their curries, the Thai serve them with small side dishes. Perhaps the simplest accompaniments are fresh raw vegetables, but pungently flavoured pickled vegetables, salted eggs or dried or salted fish are also often eaten with curries.
I was recently at the very stylish Koji at the Conrad in Pune. They have a fantastic Asian restaurant with a newly launched Express lunch menu called 45’er, which I presume means you’re done in 45 minutes. The restaurant is designed by Spin, the renowned Japanese interior design company. Their very reasonable three-course lunch also includes Thai green or red curry with deliciously sticky jasmine rice. Their curry pastes are ground in house with a large pestle and mortar the way it should be, which really shows. Here’s the recipe below if you’d like to have a go yourself.
Thai green curry with vegetables
3 tbsp green curry paste
1.5 cups coconut milk
1 tsp sugar
Salt to taste
2 kaffir lime leaves
½ lemon grass cut into slivers
2 tbsp refined oil
8 pea aubergine
5 aubergine cut into batons
5 broccoli florets
8 asparagus batons
8 carrot cut into batons
3 sprigs basil leaves
1 Thai red chili
Take some oil in a pan, add the curry paste along with kaffir lime leaves and galangal and sauté till the oil starts to separate, this indicates that the curry paste is cooked. Add coconut milk to the pan and add seasoning, bring to boil and then let it simmer for another 10 minutes.
Meanwhile blanch the vegetables and once the curry is done add the vegetables to the curry.
Finish with a few sprigs of basil leaves and Thai red chili juliennes. Serve with jasmine rice.
NOTE: if you want to make a chicken or a prawn curry, just replace the vegetables with the desired meat.
Green curry paste
1 cup lemon grass (only white)
1 cup galangal (unpeeled)
1 cup green chilies (stem removed)
½ cup coriander roots
1 cup onion
1 cup garlic
6 nos kaffir lime leaves
3 cups refined oil
Salt to taste
Sugar to taste
Cut lemon grass into small pieces, repeat with galangal, onion and garlic. Make a very fine paste of the above mentioned ingredients along with coriander roots in a blender using as little water as possible. Take a hot pan and add refined oil and warm it. Add the curry paste made and the kaffir lime leaves into the pan. Check seasoning and season it with salt and sugar.
Keep stirring at a medium low heat till the oil starts separating at the top. Let it cool once the oil starts separating. Keep refrigerated and use whenever required. Can store for two weeks without getting spoilt.
(Culinary expert and explorer Karen Anand has been writing extensively on the subject of food and wine for 30 years. Apart from having her own brand of gourmet food products, she has anchored top rated TV shows, run a successful chain of food stores, founded the hugely successful Farmers Markets, and worked as restaurant consultant for international projects, among other things. Her latest passion is food tours, a totally curated experience which Karen herself accompanies, the first of which was to Italy.)
From HT Brunch, October 7 , 2018
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