The Modern Thai Home Kitchen
The kitchens in modern Thai homes are unique, in fact, most have two kitchens –
“one inside and one outside.”
When you are cooking highly aromatic curries and sneeze inducing chiles, and dealing with fragrant shrimp paste and lots of dried seafood, it’s desirable to keep those smells outside, where they’ll tickle the nostrils of the neighbors and not smell up your own house.
All that’s really needed is a two-burner portable propane stove (tao kaet, although these are much more substantial and higher-BTU than the typical American portable camping stove or table-top burner), a prep counter, and a sink with cold water.
Several sizes of mortars and pestle are required, the larger and heavier the better. Usually a mortar and pestle of granite is ideal for generalpurpose pounding.
A mortar of clay with a pestle of sugar plum or tamarind wood is ideal for salad-making.
In some modern homes a food processor or blender might perform some of the duties of the mortar and pestle.
It never gets chilly, so working outside in cool temperatures isn’t a problem.
Indeed, having the main burners outside helps to keep a lot of the cooking heat outside of the house.
There is also a cupboard with screened-in doors for storage of food items which are to be cooked.
Inside you have another two-burner (or occasionally a four-burner), possibly with an oven (a modern addition that’s more status symbol than kitchen tool, as Thais rarely bake anything), a refrigerator (in all but the lowest-class homes), a double sink, electric rice cooker, a microwave, and perhaps an electric dishwasher.
With this, you can cook for quite a large group of folks if you have to. In many homes you see large gleaming stainless water tanks outside, thang, with attached in-line pressure pumps, supplied either from a municipal source, a well, or rooftop-collected rainwater.
Water heaters are wall-mounted, in-line, flow-through, 220v electric, which are mounted on the wall (usually there’s one at each location where hot water might be needed), with no Western style centrally-located tank to hold heated water and constantly maintain it at a certain temperature.
In the tropics there just isn’t a huge demand for hot or even warm water, save for dish and clothes washing, and the occasional warm shower. Most of the time, showers are for helping a person cool-off while they’re in the process of getting clean; taking several showers daily is the norm.
Propane is stored in exterior vertical portable tanks located near the burners, delivered regularly by the gas dealer.
Most homes have two: one in-use, and one as a backup.
With fresh and produce markets within walking distance of just about anywhere there is never much of a need for a large amount of refrigerated storage, so huge American-style refrigerators are unusual in all but the wealthy homes (but as in the States, they can be a status symbol).
Most Thais shop for a day, at the most a couple of days, when they go to market, and use primarily very fresh ingredients. The majority of what they purchase was normally harvested early that morning, or the day before; the fish caught the previous day or night, or that morning; the animals butchered that day or the day before.
Before the advent of refrigeration, the Thais survived just fine, and many of the foodstuffs are preserved, enabling storage during times of glut and a steady food supply in times of scarcity; consider all of the varieties of dried fish and seafood, for example.
It’s not like it is in the States, where there are mega-warehouses of temperature–controlled produce that is gassed with ethylene inside sealed rooms to get it to ‘ripen’, or huge killing and processing feed lot factories cranking out boxes of frozen chicken parts, pork or beef primal or subprimal cuts, or hamburger patties.
Most folks shop at the local wet market on the way home if they work, or they have their live-in housekeeper shop there during the day. There is usually a raan ahaan close by, a shophouse food store with non-perishables that caters to the neighborhood.
You just don’t see freezers crammed full of ready-to-microwave “convenience” goods like in America, and really, the only place you see much of a freezer section at all is in supermarkets that cater to foreigners.
Traditional Thais see this sort of frozen, ready-to-eat food as a novelty (and it can be a status symbol of sorts); deep down, they insist on freshness.
Think about it: “why would you have a freezer full of microwavable processed food like that when all you have to do is go to the market just down the street to find vendors with a huge variety of batches of curries in every flavor that are freshly-prepared and ready to go.”
Any of the food hawkers will gladly make a dish to-go. Point and pay, and you have a meal in minutes.
The younger set is a different story. They haven’t learned to cook at the side of their moms or grandmothers; they think Western fast food is cool; and their social lives demand so much of their time that fast food and frozen, microwaveable food suits them just fine.
In fact, it is preferable; a symbol of their modernization. Near every neighborhood is an incredible restaurant, or more often a whole range of restaurants, usually with a huge menu of choices (and most of them deliver by motorcycle, so they are a phone call away).
Just as close are an amazing variety of food vendors, either on the street or in a shophouse, dishing-out delicious dishes at ridiculously inexpensive prices.
You are seldom more that 50 yards away from a food outlet of some sort, especially in the cities. For office workers, salarymen, and professionals there will always be a vendor or restaurant conveniently located along their path between home and the work place, and if they are cooking, most Thai food is quickly prepared.
In a hawng thaew, literally a ‘row house’, but actually what is known as a shophouse, the ground floor often serves as the outdoor kitchen, while there would also be an interior kitchen located upstairs.
Think of it as a traditional Thai home on stilts, except it is a two or three-story concrete structure, with the bottom floor predominately open.
They are built in blocks, sharing common walls with the shophouse on either side. In many soi (small street) neighborhoods, the bottom floor of a shophouse can serve as a small informal restaurant, usually serving one type or style of food to the immediate neighborhood.