Thai cuisine is one of my - if not most - favourite international cuisines. While Toronto is home to a diversity of cuisines from around the globe, I knew once I had Thai food in Thailand itself, that it would be hard to settle back to my local joint in Liberty Village.
Of course, and as to be expected, my month in Thailand was filled with some of the best meals of my life. Thai cuisine has such a dynamic of flavours and textures. In addition to it being pretty healthy, it also isn't that hard to prepare. I've given Thai cooking the old college try at home, but of course, nothing compares to the real stuff you can find at the source.
To really get an insight into Thai cuisine, I booked myself into a cooking class in Pai (Bebe Wok 'n' Roll). Our chef started the class by taking us to the market and showing us a variety of herbs, spices and vegetables unique to Thailand and Asian cuisine. After a brief market visit, we headed back to the school and began our class. Below I'll outline what I learnt during the cooking class, but if you want a true insight into Thai cuisine, I highly suggest booking a class with a Thai chef yourself!
A major staple in Thai cuisine is rice. There are essentially two types of rice used in Thai dishes: jasmine rice (khao jao) and sticky rice (khao niao). Sticky rice is more prevalent in a variety of dishes throughout South East Asia, predominantly in Laos. The rice is soaked overnight and then steamed for 30-45 minutes to give it its glutinous consistency.
In addition to rice, you also have your choice of a variety of noodles used in traditional Thai dishes. Rice noodles are one option and are made from rice flour. Types of rice noodles include sen-lek, vermicelli (my fav), and flat noodles. Egg noodles are made from wheat flour, and glass noodles are made from mung bean and tapioca flour.
Almost all Thai dishes contain one of two sugars: brown and palm. Brown sugar is your classic coarse, granulated cane sugar. Palm sugar is derived from the sap of coconut sugar. It is typically sold in blocks as it congeals into a paste. It is very sweet, so depending on your specific pallet, only a little bit is needed in dishes. If at any point you overdo it on the sweet factor, you can always balance it out with more fish sauce, which leads nicely into the next topic.
There are some dominant sauces used in Thai cuisine. Each have unique flavour profiles which you can mix and match to get your ideal flavouring.
Fish sauce (as mentioned above) is brewed from fish and shrimp with salt and fermented for 10-12 months. It is a very popular Thai condiment. I'd categorize oyster sauce in the same flavour profile as fish sauce, just with a thicker consistency and sweeter. If you are vegetarian/vegan, oyster sauce can be swapped with a shitake mushroom/soy sauce. I actually prefer this over the oyster sauce as it wasn't as harsh or overpowering.
Light/dark soy sauce is derived from soya beans. The difference between light and dark is that dark soy sauce is darker and sweeter due to a higher content of molasses. You typically only want to put just a bit of dark soy cause in dishes as it can easily overpower a dish.
Tamarind paste is a popular option for adding some tangy citrus notes to the dish. You can either add tamarind paste or Kaffir lime. Regular lime will also work if it's all you can find, but Kaffir is the traditional way.
MAKE IT SPICY
Had to give this section its own flare because I am obsessssed with spicy food. Luckily, there is no shortage of spice in Thailand. There are a couple of ways you can add heat to your dishes. Everyone knows of Thai chilis. They come in green (hot but, not as hot) and red (hot hot). The seeds in Thai chilis are actually where the majority of the spice content is found, so if you really want to make your dish spicy, chop the chilis into tiny pieces and leave no seed behind. For a more mild spice, you can throw the chili in whole, or chop it up into larger pieces. The time at which you throw the chilis in makes a difference as well:
More hot = throw her in right at the start. Less hot = right at the end.
Okay, let's get down to specifics. Thai dishes can typically be categorized into two segments: Stir Fry and Curries. Some well-known stir fry options are Pad Thai, Holy Basil with Chicken, Chicken with Cashew Nut, and Pineapple Fried Rice.
For my cooking class, I chose to make Pad Thai.
The process was actually pretty simple, and with a bit of prep in advance, you can whip up a classic Pad Thai in under 10 minutes. All you really need is rice or glass noodles, bean sprouts, garlic, onion, an egg, chilis for heat and your choice of protein (in my case it was Tofu). The sauce is a blend of light and dark soya, sugar, tamarind paste, oyster (or mushroom) sauce and water. For garnish: lime, peanuts and Chinese chives.
Ingredients for 1 serving:
100g rice or glass noodles
50g protein of your choice
50g bean sprouts or sliced cabbage
30g thinly sliced carrots
20g spring onion or Chinese chives
1 Tbsp crushed garlic
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 Tsp ground pepper
1 Tbsp crushed peanuts (I love peanuts so I always put way more)
1 Tbsp sugar
1 Tsp dark soya
1 Tbsp light soya
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp taramind paste
1 Tbsp oyster (or mushroom) sauce
5 Tbsp water
When cooking Thai dishes, a wok is best. Heat some oil on low and add your protein. Next, add your garlic and onion until fragrant (you can add your chilis here or later depending on spice preference). Break and scramble an egg into the wok before adding the boiled noodles and whichever hard vegetables you prefer (carrot and cabbage are popular options). Once soft, stir in your sauce mix and sautee for about one minute. At the very end, add in your beansprouts. Adding the beansprouts at the very end keeps that crunch to add a mix of textures to the dish. Garnish with peanuts, lime and chives and voila! Classic Pad Thai.
If you were to ask me my second favourite Thai dish after Pad Thai, I'd say to you: green curry. There are so many different options of curries you can make, each one just as good as the other.
Green/Red/Yellow curries get their different colours based on the type of thai chili, paste and vegetables used (green curries have more green vegetables, red curry has more red, yellow curry incorporates a yellow paste with pineapple etc.) Pha-nag curry is typically no vegetable (except eggplant), high in meat and peanuts, while Massaman curry is usually heaviest with potatoes. For my cooking class, however, I wanted to pay tribute to Northern Thailand/Laos as that's where I was, so I chose to make Kaow Soi Gai.
Kaow Soi is a type of noodle soup curry which incorporates both fresh egg noodles and is topped with a crispy fried noodle for texture. A traditional Kaow Soi paste uses dry red chilis, lemongrass, and ginger (to just name a few elements), so it's on the spicier side out the gate.
Ingredients for 1 serving:
2 Tbsp Kaow Soi curry paste + 50g coconut milk
3 Tbsp oil
200 ml coconut milk +150ml of stock
100g chicken sliced 1cm
1 Tbsp palm sugar
3 Tbsp fish sauce (vegetarians can sub 1.5tsp of salt)
2-3 Tbsp sliced spring onion and cilantro
150g fresh egg noodle
Homemade Chilli Oil:
2 Tbsp ground chilli
3 Tbsp oil
Heat both on low until colour turns to a dark red
Homemade Crispy Noodle:
Fry 50g egg noodle in 1 cup of oil
To make Kaow Soi Gai, you want to first prep your sauce. The sauce is made using palm sugar, fish sauce, coconut milk, and stock. You're also going to want to prep your garnish, which includes pickled cabbage, lime, sliced shallot or red onion, and chilli oil.
Once your egg noodles are boiled, warm some oil in the wok over low heat and add your curry paste first. Once aromatic, add coconut milk and stir until you can clearly see the oil being separated from the milk. Next, add your chicken and cook thoroughly (this step can be skipped for vegetarians). Next, add your stock. Depending on how creamy you like your soup, you can play around with the levels of stock and coconut milk.
More coconut milk = creamier. More stock = lighter.
Season with fish sauce and palm sugar (these two balance each other out, so if you accidentally put too much of one, just add a bit more of the other). Pour into a bowl and top with the crispy noodle, spring onion, cilantro and lime. The garnish is usually placed along the side of the bowl so the eater can determine how much of each item they want in the dish. And there you have it - a hearty bowl of Kaow Soi Gai!
There is so so so much more to Thai cuisine than I could ever write out in a single blog post, but here you have the gist of the tip of the iceberg. I feel so spoiled having spent a month in Thailand eating the best meals, but I can now leave here with this new knowledge and appreciation of the cuisine as a whole.
Oh, and if curries and stir frys and spice aren't your style, you can always head over to Koh San Road in Bangkok and try out one of these: