The characteristics of Thai food
Take, Tom Yum Goong (Hot and Sour Shrimp Soup) the flavour 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-icing’ 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.
David Thompson, the Australian who earned Thai cuisine’s first Michelin star, says that “western food is like playing draughts, whereas Thai is like playing chess“.
The balance of spiciness, saltiness, sourness and sweetness must be considered not only in each dish, but also between the six or more dishes shared per sitting.
“Sometimes all four tastes are employed,” he says, “sometimes one or two only, but it’s always an exercise in trying to strike a balance.”
If you have a stonkingly hot curry, for instance, then you’ll have a mild stir fry and soup.
A sweet salad will be accompanied by a sour stir fry. And so on.
It’s an instinctive way of cooking in which your tongue, he says, is the only thing that can get you through the maze of ingredients.
“No recipe book will be able to tell you how to cook Thai food correctly because it doesn’t take into account what’s happening in front of you. It is anarchic really,” says Thompson, “it’s very loose. It’s circumstantial.”
First you have to take into account your main ingredient – be it meat, fish or veg – and different batches and varieties will vary.
Limes, notes Thompson, have considerably different characteristics in Britain, Australia and Thailand, plus they change with the seasons.
The heat in different types of chilli varies wildly and even individual peppers from the same bush can differ, so you can’t take anything for granted.
Just keep tasting and adding, slowly.