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Eating & Ordering Thai Food
What Comprises a Thai Meal
Preparing Thai Food
Thai food is internationally famous. Whether chilli-hot or comparatively blands, harmony is the guiding principle behind each dish. Thai cuisine is essentially a marriage of centuries-old Eastern and Western influences harmoniously combined into something uniquely Thai. The characteristics of Thai food depend on who cooks it, for whom it is cooked, for what occasion, and where it is cooked to suit all palates. Originally, Thai cooking reflected the characteristics of a waterborne lifestyle. Aquatic animals, plants and herbs were major ingredients. Large chunks of meat were eschewed. Subsequent influences introduced the use of sizeable chunks to Thai cooking.
With their Buddhist background, Thais shunned the use of large animals in big chunks. Big cuts of meat were shredded and laced with herbs and spices. Traditional Thai cooking methods were stewing and baking, or grilling. Chinese influences saw the introduction of frying, stir frying and deep-frying. Culinary influences from the 17th century onwards included Portuguese, Dutch, French and Japanese. Chillies were introduced to Thai cooking during the late 1600s by Portuguese missionaries who had acquired a taste for them while serving in South America.
Thais were very adapt at ’Siamese-ising’ foreign cooking methods, and substituting ingredients. The ghee used in Indian cooking was replaced by coconut oil, and coconut milk substituted for other daily products. Overpowering pure spices were toned down and enhanced by fresh herbs such as lemon grass and galanga. Eventually, fewer and less spices were used in Thai curries, while the use of fresh herbs increased. It is generally acknowledged that Thai curries burn intensely, but briefly, whereas other curries, with strong spices, burn for longer periods. Instead of serving dishes in courses, a Thai meal is served all at once, permitting dinners to enjoy complementary combinations of different tastes.
A proper Thai meal should consist of a soup, a curry dish with condiments, a dip with accompanying fish and vegetables. A spiced salad may replace the curry dish. The soup can also be spicy, but the curry should be replaced by non spiced items. There must be a harmony of tastes and textures within individual dishes and the entire meal.
Eating & Ordering Thai Food
Thai food is eaten with a fork and spoon. Even single dish meals such as fried rice with pork, or steamed rice topped with roasted duck, are served in bite-sized slices or chunks obviating the need for a knife. The spoon is used to convey food to the mouth.
Ideally, eating Thai food is a communal affair involving two or more people, principally because the greater the number of diners the greater the number of dishes ordered. Generally speaking, two diners order three dishes in addition to their own individual plates of steamed rice, three diners four dishes, and so on. Diners choose whatever they require from shared dishes and generally add it to their own rice. Soups are enjoyed concurrently with rice. Soups are enjoyed concurrently with other dishes, not independently. Spicy dishes, not independently. Spicy dishes are"balanced" by bland dishes to avoid discomfort.
The ideal Thai meal is a harmonious blend of the spicy, the subtle, the sweet and sour, and is meant to be equally satisfying to eye, nose and palate. A typical meal might include a clear soup (perhaps bitter melons stuffed with minced pork), a steamed dish (mussels in curry sauce), a fried dish (fish with ginger), a hot salad (beef slices on a bed of lettuce, onions, chillies, mint and lemon juice) and a variety of sauces into which food is dipped. This would be followed by sweet desserts and/or fresh fruits such as mangoes, durian, jackfruit, papaya, grapes or melon.
What Comprises a Thai Meal
These can be hors d’oeuvres, accompaniments, side dishes, and/or snacks. They include spring rolls, satay, puffed rice cakes with herbed topping. They represent the playful and creative nature of the Thais
A harmony of tastes and herbal flavours are essential. Major tastes are sour, sweet and salty. Spiciness comes in different degrees according to meat textures and occasions.
:: General Fare
A sweet and sour dish, a fluffy omelette, and a stir-fried dish help make a meal more complete.
Dips entail some complexity. They can be the major dish of a meal with accompaniments of vegetables and some meats. When dips are made thinly, they can be used as salad designs. A particular and simple dip is made from chillies, garlic, dried shrimps, lime juice, fish sauce, sugar and shrimp paste.
A good meal for an average person may consist simply of a soup and rice. Traditional Thai soups are unique because they embody more flavours and textures than can be found in other types of food.
Most non-Thai curries consist of powdered or ground dried spices, whereas the major ingredients of Thai curry are fresh herbs. A simple Thai curry paste consists of dried chillies, shallots and shrimp paste. More complex curries include garlic, galanga, coriander roots, lemon grass, kaffir lime peel and peppercorns.
:: Single Dishes
Complete meals in themselves , they include rice and noodle dishes such as Khao Phat and Phat Thai.
No good meal is complete without thai dessert. Uniformly sweet, they are particularly welcome after a strongly spiced and herbed meal.
Preparing Thai Food
A simple kind of titbit is fun to make. You need shallots, ginger, lemon or lime, lemon grass, roasted peanuts and red phrik khi nu chillies. Peeled shallots and ginger should be cut into small fingertip sizes. Diced lime and slices of lemon grass should be cut to the same size. Roasted peanut should be left in halves. Chillies should be thinly sliced. Combinations of such ingredients should be wrapped in fresh lettuce leaves and laced with a sweet-salty sauce made from fish sauce, sugar, dried shrimps and lime juice.
Mixing crushed fresh chillies with fish sauce and a dash of lime juice makes a general accompanying sauce for any Thai dish. Adding some crushed garlic and a tiny amount of roasted or raw shrimp paste transforms it into an all-purpose dip (nam phrik). Some pulverised dried shrimp and julienned egg-plant with sugar makes this dip more complete. Serve it with steamed rice, an omelette and some vegetables.
>> Salad Dressings
Salad dressings have similar base ingredients. Add fish sauce, lime juice and sugar to enhance saltiness, sourness and sweetness. Crushed chillies, garlic and shallots add spiciness and herbal fragrance. Lemon grass and galanga can be added for additional flavour. Employ this mix with any boiled, grilled or fried meat. Lettuce leaves, sliced cucumber, cut spring onions and coriander leaves help top off a salad dressing.
>> Soup Stocks
Soups generally need good stock. Add to boiling water crushed peppercorns, salt, garlic, shallots, coriander roots, and the meats or cuts of one’s choice. After prolonged boiling and simmering , you have the basic stock of common Thai soups. Additional galanga, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, crushed fresh chillies, fish sauce and lime juice create the basic stock for a Tom Yam.
To make a quick curry, fry curry or chilli paste in heated oil or thick coconut milk. Stir and fry until the paste is well cooked and add meats of one’s choice. Season with fish sauce or sugar to taste. Add water or thin coconut milk to make curry go a longer way. Add sliced eggplant with a garnish of basil and kaffir lime leaves. Make your own curry paste by blending fresh (preferably dried) chillies, garlic, shallots, galanga, lemon grass, coriander roots, ground pepper, kaffir lime peels and shrimp paste.
>> Single Dish Meals
Heat the cooking oil, fry in a mixture of crushed chillies, minced garlic, ground pepper and chopped chicken meat. When nearly cooked, add vegetables such as cut beans or eggplants. Season with fish sauce and garnish with kefir lime leaves, basil or balsam leaves. Cooked rice or fresh noodles added to the frying would make this a substantial meal.
Some important herbs and spices used in Thai cooking
Thai food is currently enjoying an international vogue. There are numerous Thai restaurants all over the world in large cities such as Los Angles, London, New York, Paris, Tokyo and many other. The following are some essential herbs and spices used in Thai cooking. The proper combination of all these ingredients is regarded as an art in Thailand, one that requires both skill and time.
The preparation of a single sauce can take hours of grinding, tasting and delicate adjustment until the exact balance of flavours is achieved. Only then, can the true glory of Thai cooking be fully appreciated
Basil (horapha, kaphrao, maenglak)
Horapha, kaphrao, maenglak are varieties of sweet basil. Horapha seems to be the nearest to the sweet basil used in European tomato dishes and Italian pesto. Horapha is used here as a vegetable and for flavouring. Fresh leaves are narrower and often tinged with reddish purple. It releases its aroma and flavour only when cooked and is used with fish, beef and chicken. Maenglak leaves are slightly hairy and paler green than Horapha. It is sometimes called lemon-scented basil but definitely has a peppery taste when chewed; it is very similar to Halian dwarf basil and is used as a vegetable and for flavouring.
Cinnamon (ob choei)
Form the bark of a tree, the type of cinnamon used in Thailand is of only one kind, that from the Cassia tree. It is used in meat dishes and particulary in massaman curry a garnish.
Bird Chilli (phrik khi nu)
The smallest of the chillies, of which the kind called phrik khi nu suan is the hottest. Take care when chopping them, and do not rub your eyes. Chillies stimulate blood circulation and are reputed to help prevent heart disease and cancer.
Chilli (Phrik chi fa)
Phrik chi fa are finger size, growing 9-12 centimetres in length, and ether yellow, red or green. Not as hot as the bird chilli. There is no discernable difference between the colours.
Citron (som sa)
Citron (Citrus medica var limetta) is a round dark green fruit. Its thick, very aromatic skin is much used for flavouring. Sour orange juice and orange peel would make the best substitute.
Cloves (Eugenia aromatica) are the dried flowerbuds of an evergreen tree native to the Molucca Islands. They are almost as expensive as saffron because crops often fail, they are much used in Western cooking and the oil is antiseptic. Cloves are used in massaman curry and to chew as a relief for toothache.
Coriander (phak chee)
The leaves are often chosen for decoration, with stem and roots for seasoning. Heavily used in Asian kitchens, the Thai kitchen is the only one to use the roots as well.
Seeds look like caraway and fennel, but taste quite different and have to be heated to release their aroma. Only cumin is used in Thai cooking, mainly in the making of curry pastes.
Resembling an upturned claw, this member of the ginger family is a pale pink rhizome with a subtle citrus flavour. It is usually added in large pieces to impart flavour to fish or chicken stock, or used in making curry pastes. Fresh young ginger can be substituted, but you will not end up with the same flavour.
Thailand is literally overflowing with garlic plants. Whole cloves, smashed garlic and garlic oil are used in almost every Thai dish. To make garlic oil, chop a handful of garlic, and fry it in plenty of hot oil until golden. The oil and the fried garlics can be stored in a jar for garnishing soup and for tossing with noodles and rice.
Resembling a flat hand, ginger has over 400 members included in its family. Always choose young fresh ginger if available. Easily grated, it is eaten raw or cooked and is used widely in many Asian cuisines. Young ginger. pounded with a little salt, pepper and garlic is good too as a marinate for chicken or beef. Ginger is acknowledged to improve digestion and to counteract nausea and vomiting.
No English common name for Krachai (Kaempferia pandurata). The tubers of this member of the ginger family look like a bunch of yellow brown fingers. Krachai is always added to fish curries, and peeled and served as a raw vegetable with the popular summer rice dish, khao chae.
Kaffir Lime Leaf (bai makrut)
From the kaffir lime, which has virtually no juice these fleshy green and glossy leaves resemble a figure eight. Imparting a unique flavour, they can be finely shredded and added to salads, or torn and added to soups and curries. Can be substituted with other lemon-flavoured herbs, but the best option is to freeze the leaves when you can find them, as they retain all their flavour and texture on thawing
The whole fruit is used. It is an excellent source of vitamin C and is used to enhance the flavour of chilli-hot condiments, as well as create some very special salads and desserts, and adorn most dishes as a condiment.
This hard grass grows rapidly in almost any soil. The base of 10-12 centimetres length of the plant is used, with the green leafy part discarded. Young tender lemongrass stalks can be finely chopped and eaten, but older stalks should be cut into 3-5 centimetres lengths and bruised before being added only as a flavouring agent. It is indispensable for tom yam. Lemongrass oil will sooth an upset stomach and indigestion.
Mint (bai saranae)
This mint (Mentha arvensis) is similar to the mint used for mint sauce in England and is used in Thai food as a vegetable and a flavouring.
Nutmeg (luk chan)
The nut is enclosed in a very hard brown shell. It is used in the making of massaman curry paste.
Pandan Leaf (bai toei)
Long narrow green leaves of a herbaceous plant used for flavouring and colour. There is no substitute of the flavouring and colour. There is no substitute for the flavour but green colouring may be used as a substitute for the colour.
Pepper (prik thai)
Black, white and green peppercorn types. Black is milder and more aromatic than white. Green peppercorns have a special taste all their own and are available al year round but are best towards the end of the rainy season. Used as flavouring.
Identical to sesame seeds the world over. In Thai cooking, sesame seeds are used for oil and for flavouring. These tiny seeds are rich in protein.
Shallot (hom daeng)
These small, zesty, Thai red onions are sweet and aromatic. An essential ingredient in many Thai dishes because of their taste and appearance, they can be substituted with European shallots, small red onions or small brown onions.
Spring Onions (ton hom)
These green onions (Allium fistulosom) are used for garnishing soups and salads and as vegetables.
These small, bright orange roots are used for the colouring in yellow curries. White turmeric, a different type, is used as a raw vegetable and resembles ginger. It taste only slightly peppery and has a pleasant tang.