The rules of Thai Cooking
Remember that salt does more than make food taste salty. It enhances sweetness and suppresses bitterness.
If you add a little too much salt, says Thompson, you might be able to get away with it if you up the sourness, sugar or chilli.
Diluting the dish with a little more water can also help, he adds, “just lift it out of the intensity“.
You can also disguise an unbalanced dish by adjusting the accompaniments.
Don’t salt the rice, or compensate a sour main dish with sweeter foods on the side.
Beware taste saturation. The more you keep sampling the food, warns Clancy, the more used to it you will become. So punctuate your tasting with palate-cleansing glugs of water.
When using very hot chilli, you’ll need to turn up the volume on the salt and sour, too. “It’s what Thais call a rounded taste,” says Thompson.
The complexities (and simplicities) of Thai cooking, owing to the wide range of flavor ingredients employed in the cuisine, require a good understanding of the primary categories of flavors that are registered by the taste receptacles on your tongue and how they interact with one another.
The blending of these main flavors will affect how you taste the herbs, vegetables, seafoods, meats and other food items in the dishes you make.
In traditional Oriental medicine, it is believed the human body is made up of five essential elements.
Associated with each of them is a category of flavor derived from natural foods.
When the five elements are in balance, the body is in good health; when any of them is deficient or excessive, the harmony of the body is disturbed.
One way to ensure good health is to include in the diet a balance of natural foods representing the five flavors: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and creamy + pungent (or hot).
Because Thai cuisine utilizes all five, almost to an equal degree, it may be seen as a health-enhancing cuisine, if one consumes a wide range of Thai foods with rice as the main course and does not selectively indulge in only a few “favorite” dishes, especially the higher-fat curries and fried foods.
By blending the five primary flavors in varying proportions, surprisingly different results can be achieved.
Varying their sources, too, will introduce new dimensions, multiplying the number of variables available to you to create a wide range of distinctive tastes.
In Thai cuisine, the bitter flavor comes largely from herbs and deep green vegetables; because these ingredients appear in most recipes, the remaining four flavors are the ones you can adjust to obtain the taste balances you desire.
When you have developed a good sense of how these flavors interact, you may be able to “rescue” or perk up dishes put together from cookbook recipes that turn out “blah,” fall below your expectations or simply taste as if something is missing.
You will find that certain ingredients in any given category are not mutually exclusive, as many prepared sauces, pastes and dried ingredients impart more than one primary flavor.
Cooking “to Taste” – Cook With Your Tongue
Learning how to balance and harmonize flavors is particularly important when working with a foreign cuisine in which the available flavor ingredients can vary considerably from batch to batch, brand to brand.
Fresh ingredients, such as herbs, chillies and vegetables, as well as the various kinds of seafood themselves, can differ depending on how fresh they are, where they are grown or raised and how they are packed for transit and stored.
Produce of tropical origins will likely be less full-flavored when grown in temperate zones, while seafood that has been frozen or aged can be expected to be less optimal in both taste and texture.
One brand of fish sauce may be saltier and fishier than another, and palm sugar can vary in level of sweetness as it is a natural sugar that is not highly processed.
Tamarind juice, too, may differ in degree of sourness, depending on how thick and thin it is made.
illies are notorious for not being consistent from batch to batch, although they outwardly look the same and are called by the same name.
Since ingredients can vary considerably, it is important to make adjustments in the quantity used to bring about the optimal flavor balance in each dish.
Therefore, do not follow recipes religiously, but rather, cook “to taste.”
Remember that recipes serve as guidelines; they cannot speak for variances in the quality of ingredients that are available in different locales.
They also cannot speak for your particular taste preference, so cut down on the amount of chillies if you can’t take the heat and the amount of lime juice if you don’t like sharp sour flavors.
Use more garlic and basil if you are a garlic and basil lover, less if you find them too strong for your taste, and so on.
Many recipes give a suggested range of amounts to use of particular flavoring ingredients.
Start out with the lower end and work your way up if you like it hotter, saltier, sweeter or more sour.
Taste as you go along until you have developed a sense of how to work intuitively with the ingredients in the form that they are available in your community.
If you are comparatively new to Thai food, you may find the lower end of the range still too much for you to take; on the other hand, if you have spent a lot of time in Thailand and love the intensity of food there, the upper end of the range may fall short of where your preference lies.
So play around until you get the combination of flavors most suited to your palate.
If a finished dish you make from a recipe tastes “off” or as if something is missing, simple balancing will usually help perk up the peculiar batch of ingredients you used.
Frequently, a sprinkle of good-quality fish sauce will take care of the problem.
If the food is salty enough, see if it could benefit from a little sweetness; if you can taste all the ingredients but they just do not seem to be blended together very well, a little bit of sugar will often help.
Thai people do not eat seafood dishes by themselves but as accompaniments to plain steamed rice.
Therefore, we usually make the dishes saltier and spicier than “to taste,” so that when they are served over unflavored rice, they do not become bland and lose their punch.
Because our meals consist of rice as the main food, with several accompanying non-rice dishes, we consume smaller amounts of each protein dish than our western counterparts would.
Western-style meals are opposite to ours, placing a protein dish as the main course and relegating rice (if served) a secondary role as a side-dish.
Especially with highly flavored, spicy dishes, a pound of seafood goes a long way to feeding an entire Thai family.
By skillfully balancing the five basic flavors – sweet, sour, salty, pungent and bitter – and the varied sources from which they are derived, an almost infinite array of exquisite dishes can be created to satisfy every craving – from simple hot sauces and salads to complex curries and intriguing appetizers.
Flavor ingredients do not work in isolation, but interact with other flavor ingredients, sometimes in unexpected ways, to bring forth both the delicate and rich tastes of herbs, spices and foods with which they are blended and cooked.
Any number of Asian stir-fries begin with garlic cooked in oil.
But if you add chiles, kaffir lime leaves, sugar, and fish sauce, a stir-fry takes on a delicious, unmistakably Thai flavor.
The result is an explosion of salty, spicy, sweet, and sour flavors that sparkle with personality yet all harmonize on the plate.
To create such dishes at home, stock your pantry with some basic Thai flavorings.
Once you understand the main players, you can use them to cook authentic Thai food or to give your own cooking a taste of Thailand.
Fish sauce—the salt of Thai cuisine
Fish sauce may smell pungent, but used correctly, its flavor is subtle and savory
Fish sauce, called nam pla in Thai, is used much like salt or soy sauce as a flavor enhancer.
It serves as a seasoning in cooked dishes as well as a base for dipping sauces.
Made from the liquid drained from fermented anchovies, fish sauce is potent; it’s usually combined with other ingredients when used as a dipping sauce.
For cooking, you can use it straight, but never add it to a dry pan or the smell will be overpowering.
As with olive oil, there are several grades of fish sauce. High-quality fish sauce, which is the first to be drained off the fermented fish, is usually pale amber, like clear brewed tea.
Because it has a more delicate and balanced flavor, I use a premium-grade fish sauce, such as Three Crabs or Phu Quoc brands, in my dipping sauces.
For cooking, I’ll use stronger-flavored, lower-grade brands, such as Squid or Tiparos, which are made from a secondary draining.
Whichever grade I buy, I prefer it in a glass bottle; I find that fish sauces bottled in glass taste better and last longer than those packaged in plastic.
Acidic Ingredients Add Vibrancy
Limes, wild lime leaves, and lemongrass add a fragrant, citrusy note.
Thai cooks use great amounts of tart ingredients, such as lime juice and tamarind juice (made by soaking tamarind pulp in water), to wake up the taste buds.
Lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves give a dish a refreshing, lingering lift.
Lemongrass, the most popular herb used in Thailand, is a tall, scallion-like stalk that has a subtle lemony and citrusy flavor and fragrance.
Before using, peel away the tough outer layers and crush or chop the stalk to release its flavor.
Wild lime (also known as kaffir lime) leaves impart a most intense floral and citrus flavor and are almost required in Thai curries. Lime zest, while not the same, will give the dish a similar refreshing citrusy flavor.
For Heat, Try Fresh and Dried Chiles and Ground Chile Pastes
Chiles—fresh, dried and made into pastes—are a must for Thai stir-fries.
If you like hot food, add chiles and chile paste to just about everything, as the Thais do.
I start all my Thai stir-fries by foaming some little fresh bird chiles in hot oil with garlic.
If you can’t find fresh Thai chiles, use fresh serranos or substitute dried. Chile paste, usually a mix of chiles, garlic, salt, and oil, is the base for many Thai soups, salad dressings, dipping sauces, and stir-fries.
Coconut Milk and Palm Sugar for Sweetness
The sweet element found in most Thai dishes isn’t cloying. Instead, it balances the heat and counters the sour notes.
Coconut milk, often added to curries, stews, and stir-fries, tones down the heat with its creamy sweetness.
Palm sugar, made from the sap of various palm trees, comes packaged in plastic jars or as round cakes.
It has a caramel flavor that enhances the salty and sour flavors of a dish. If you can’t find palm sugar, substitute light brown or granulated white sugar, increasing the amount called for by about 20 percent.
Bright, Fresh Herbs are Aromatic Finishes
Fresh cilantro, mint, and basil leaves—often left whole and added at the end—are frequently used in Thai dishes.
There’s another group of ingredients that further enhances all these basic flavors—the aromatics.
Fresh herbs, such as basil, mint, and cilantro, are added to finished dishes in great quantities, sometimes by cupfuls, with leaves often left whole to give a burst of flavor with each bite.