Thai Food, Explained

I’m no musician, but I do love music. Perhaps that’s because I happen to think music has a lot of parallels with cooking, as I’ve previously explained. But one of the biggest parallels between music and cooking is structural. Take classical music as illustrative.

We have the great composers of history who write awe inspiring pieces of music. Musicians pick up these compositions to play for us, but this is by no means self-fulfilling. Like the composer, the musician is an artist and the music only comes alive, not via an unemotive but precise rendering of what is on the page of sheet music, but via an expression of love by the musician, rendering with full knowledge and depth, the composer’s vision of this music. But the musician only has so much space in which to be creative. In playing Johann Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, for example, stray too far from the original composition and you end up creating a bit of Brahms-inspired hackery.

When you think about it, this is a lot like great chefs creating recipes and cooks at home trying to reproduce them. Classical music in this sense is a lot like the great European cuisines, such as French and Italian: Fundamentally rooted in tradition and only to be fucked with at your own peril. Cooking and eating these foods can be greatly rewarding but you only have so much room to play until you come to be regarded as unhinged.

But then there is jazz. Jazz is improvisational, highly personal, inherently arousing to the senses, in your face and yet playful, casual and nonchalant. Whereas French and Italian food are the classical music of the culinary world, Thai food is the jazz. Now, don’t get me wrong. When you cook Thai food, like when you play jazz, you must understand your art deeply, you must have a command of your tools and use them with technical exactitude.

In jazz, you start with a familiar rhythmic phrase and this acts as a scaffolding around which a musician improvisationally develops an entirely original melody, composing something new in real time. Likewise, Thai food starts with a familiar scaffolding. In the case of Thai curries, these are (rather often) chili peppers, garlic and ginger. Upon that scaffolding, depending on the seasonality of ingredients and what a cook has at her disposal, you improvise on the basis of taste and intuition. Like jazz, a Thai food recipe is only a suggestion of a starting place. With love, feeling, intuition and a good amount of practice, you can improvise on that recipe and create some truly inspired Thai food.

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A Starting Point

This may all sound a bit intimidating at the moment. But after reading this, you’ll be well equipped to start your exploration of Thai food and flavors. You’ll need to know a couple of key concepts before you start (all of which, I’ve written extensively on and will be reviewing here). One is the function of umami, another is understanding taste balance and, finally, you’ll need to have a primer on spice blending. Below, I apply my previous work on the topic to Thai food in particular (so it’s worth continuing even for avid readers of my work).

Mastering Umami

Umami can be a confusing taste. But part of the reason for this is it’s not as intuitive a taste as the more familiar sweet, salty, sour and bitter. The reason we even call it a “taste” has more to do with the scientific definition of “taste” rather than the subjective experience of it. We have receptors on our tongues that are triggered by different taste molecules and give rise to the respective sensations: Sweetness is triggered by sugar, saltiness by salt, sourness by acidity and bitterness (interestingly) by a variety of compounds that are generally toxic to us, but in some (nontoxic) cases, are quite pleasing.

Umami, on the other hand, is referred to as an appetitive taste. It’s more nondescript and complex than any of the other tastes, even bitterness, and is thought to contribute to the general palatability of certain foods. Although we often hear umami described as synonymous with “meatiness” or “savoriness,” it’s actually much more than that. Early research in the West variously described umami as increasing the “amplitude,” “mouth fullness” or “bloom” of a food’s taste. More recent research suggests that these early descriptions were not necessarily far off. Umami not only provides a meaty, savory taste to foods, but also harmonizes, sustains and, yes, amplifies (up to eight times) existing tastes in a dish.

Thai food uses four key sources of umami, at least some of which you’ll need to familiarize yourself with before you start cooking: (1) Fermented anchovy sauce (nam pla), (2) fermented shrimp paste (kapi), (3) fermented soy sauce (see ew kwaw for light, see ew dahm for dark) and (4) fermented soy paste (tai jiew). All contain varying amounts of umami, salt and other flavors. There are also many other variations on these ingredients based on geography and culture. Through discovering all of this, you ought to note that the choices you make on your umami are going to affect your ultimate product a great deal, perhaps the most so of any single other ingredient choice.

In sorting through this litany of umami, I’d suggest buying the highest quality with the fewest listed ingredients. Certainly, buying Thai ingredients is ideal given the subtle variations in style and flavor across countries and regions. That said, if you can’t find a Thai fermented soy paste without artificial flavors, sugar and preservatives, it may be best to opt for a high quality and mild kome miso, for example.

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Taste Balance

Bringing all the taste sensations into harmonious balance is the one of the keys to great Thai food. In total, there are actually seven “tastes” to deal with in balancing. There are obviously the four conventional tastes of sweet, sour, salty and bitter, plus the fifth, umami. These five are considered tastes in scientific terms because they each have unique taste receptors, mostly concentrated on our tongues. Eat something salty and we taste it as a result of actual ions hitting a taste receptor, the experience of which is then registered with our brains. The final two are more sensations, namely of peppery heat or picante along with richness or fat.

How they interact with each other is best described in two figures. The first, a table, differentiates between three types of associations. To start, there is a primary balancing effect, in which items round out or compliment others (for example, sweet and sour). Next, a secondary balancing effect, is which one item restrains another by obscuring it. The third, a magnifying effect, raises the volume of items.

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To further articulate the point, the following is a graphic depiction:

 

Article 015 - Chart (2)

Your main balancing tools in preparing Thai food will be magnifying salty, savory flavors with umami, as well as balancing sourness with sweetness and picante with richness.  That is, if your dish turns out with a little too much chili pepper picante, you can add additional fatty coconut milk to balance. The additional fat in the coconut milk actually restrains chili’s picante, making it far more palatable, as is the case with sourness (lime juice) and sweetness (palm sugar).

Spice Blending

Thai food makes extensive use of aromatics, including herbs, spices and vegetables. Knowing how to use them, however, in terms of how they impart flavor into a dish, how they play off one another and, generally, in what proportion to use them, is critical. Thankfully I can be helpful here too. With considerable study and experimentation, I’ve sorted out aromatics into four categories (savory, sweet, delicate and pungent) and derived some rules of thumb on how to use them.

Savory and sweet can be thought of in a similar manner to yin and yang: They harmonize and balance one another. Without some of the one, the other tastes overly harsh. Think of savory cumin unrestrained by the softening, sweet flavors of cinnamon. Delicate aromatics, like coriander seeds, exist in the background, adding nuance and lightness. These are characterized by their subtlety and knack for adding complexity without much modifying other flavors. You’d generally be hard pressed to make delicate aromatics the dominant category. They exist in their own, delicate space. Pungent aromatics, like cloves, are extremely sharply flavored and bold. They directly perturb savory and sweet aromatics, in low quantities to enhance them. The following chart illustrates the general relationship between the four categories of aromatics:

Article 020 - Charts - 1 (2)

In higher quantities, however, pungent aromatics tend to take over a dish and become the star themselves, with savory and sweet serving a supporting, enhancing role in a curious reversal. This pungent-dominant space is generally where Thai food tends to find its home and the relationship can be described as follows:

Article 020 - Charts - 4 (2)

Pungent aromatics such as garlic, ginger, lemongrass, Thai round cardamom, caraway and star anise tend to find their way in to Thai dishes fairly regularly. On the delicate side, coriander seeds, citrus leaves and zest, onion, chili peppers, tamarind and turmeric are abundant. Between savory and sweet, however, the list is comparatively short: Thai coriander leaves or cilantro for savory and Thai basil for sweet.

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Generally, the proportion of one category of aromatics with respect to another is also important. In the case of Thai food, this is less so since we are focusing mainly on pungent aromatics. Our proportions will, therefore, be between pungent aromatics themselves. Based on the dish and our preferences, we’ll need to focus on the ratio of, for example, garlic to ginger to lemongrass, all of which are pungent aromatics.

Another complexity when making use of aromatics is extracting their flavor with cooking and ultimately losing that flavor to cooking. Very basically, the flavor components of all aromatics can be broken down into three basic categories, what I’ll refer to as initial, base and deep extracted flavors. The initial extracted flavors come out first, are light, volatile and generally the most complex. These flavors are lost first as aromatics grow stale with time as well as when cooking for too long. The base extracted flavors are what we more commonly associate with any particular aromatic. They’re the pleasant core flavor, are less complex than initial flavors and generally linger even after the aromatics begin to turn stale or if extracted for too long. Finally, there are the deep extracted flavors. These flavors are what remain with long, slow cooked dishes, are rich but lack complexity. They are the last stand of the flavor of a spice and can be best represented in the following chart:

Article 020 - Extraction Curve

On the basis of which flavors we want to extract from an aromatic and in what quantity, therefore, we would not only vary the amount of aromatic relative to others, but also vary when we add one aromatic relative to others. If we want to capture mostly the base flavors of an aromatic, we would need to cook it for longer whereas if we only wanted to capture the initial flavors, we would have to add it towards the end of cooking as a finishing ingredient.

Bringing It All Together

Traditionally, making a Thai curry has three steps. You grind your curry paste which contains all of the aromatics, cook it up in oil, add coconut milk and some finishing touches and you’re done.

Modernizing this approach requires a little more effort, but not a lot. Our curry paste will be the ground wet ingredients only, which we’ll cook without oil. Neutral oil reduces the flavor intensity and we’re not after the browning that occurs in the more intense heat of oil. Next, we’ll add the dry aromatics for long duration cooking, those we want the base flavors of. After some simmering, we’ll add the finishing aromatics and the coconut milk. The final balancing will be done with any combination of additional umami, salt, acid, sugar or fat.

The Thai food jazz will start in what we include in our basic scaffolding: Our curry paste. For green curries, this is usually green chili peppers, ginger, garlic and lemongrass. The improvisation comes in when we consider which chili peppers to use and what ratio of chilis to ginger to garlic to lemongrass.

Furthermore, which dry aromatics do we infuse for long cooking? How much in relation to our curry paste and to each of the other dry aromatics? The same thing again for our finishing aromatics. How much additional fish sauce, citrus juice, palm sugar and coconut milk do we want to add as a finishing touch? Which protein, vegetables or both do we want to add? All of these questions have an infinity of answers to consider. Some answers, like in jazz, are just better while others are matters of taste. This is where you start to hear the music coming together in Thai cuisine and it’s up to you, the Thai culinary jazz master, to bring it home.

The Recipes

Below are two recipes, one for Thai green curry and the other for Thai red curry. Although the preparation is identical, the ingredients lists are varied. Note that although I specifically spell out the listing of ingredients, I expect all of you to culinarily riff on this recipe to the best of your ability.

Another item to note is that I use a combination of traditional and nontraditional ingredients to deepen and add complexity to traditional recipes. My curries are also about twice as thick as traditional curries, which is an intentional choice. Thicker means denser flavor and more intensity, which is how I like it.

Lastly, if you’d like to try your hand at a simpler Northern Thai street food dish, you can see my recipe for one here. It’s quite delicious and versatile in that it can be made with a variety of proteins and vegetables.

Have a question? Ask me anything!

Ingredients – Four Servings

Thai Green Curry (Kaeng Khiao Wan)

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Curry Paste
6 large green jalapenos, stems removed and quartered
2 large green Thai bird chilis, stems removed (additional, as desired)
1 stalk lemongrass, peeled and rough chopped
20 g (a piece approximately 2 cm in across and 2 cm deep) fresh ginger, peeled and rough chopped
30 g (about 4 to 5 cloves) garlic, slivered
2 medium green onions, rough chopped
40 g (about 2 tbsp) Thai extra virgin fermented fish sauce

Long Cooking Aromatics
3 Thai round cardamom pods, seeds finely ground, husks discarded

Finishing Aromatics
4 g (about 1 tbsp) coriander seeds, finely ground
1 g (about 1.5 tsp) kaffir lime leaves, finely ground, or lime zest, finely grated

Other Finishing Ingredients
80 g (about 2.5 fl oz) Thai coconut milk
15 g (about 1 tbsp) fresh squeezed lime juice, strained
10 g (about 2 tsp) Thai Coconut palm sugar

Garnish
3 large sprigs Thai basil, leaves only, sliced
2 large sprigs Thai coriander leaves or cilantro, leaves only, sliced

Additional Items
Neutral oil
Fine sea salt

Thai Red Curry (Kaeng Phet)

IMG_5316

Curry Paste
1 medium red bell pepper, dry oven roasted, deseeded, peeled and rough chopped
2 large red jalapenos, stems removed and quartered
6 large dried red Thai bird chilis, stems removed, soaked in water for 30 minutes (additional, as desired)
1 stalk lemongrass, peeled and rough chopped
20 g (a piece approximately 2 cm in across and 2 cm deep) fresh ginger, peeled and rough chopped
40 g (about 5 to 6 cloves) garlic, slivered
100 g (about 3.5 oz or 1 small) yellow onion, peeled and rough chopped
40 g (about 2 tbsp) Thai extra virgin fermented fish sauce
15 g (about 2 tsp) Thai fermented shrimp paste

Finishing Aromatics
4 g (about 1 tbsp) coriander seeds, finely ground
1 g (about 1.5 tsp) lemon zest, finely grated

Other Finishing Ingredients
100 g (about 3.5 fl oz) Thai coconut milk
10 g (about 2 tsp) fresh squeezed lemon juice, strained

Garnish
4 large sprigs Thai coriander leaves or cilantro, leaves only, sliced

Additional Items
Neutral oil
Fine sea salt

Suggested Accompaniments for Either Curry

250 g (about half a medium) Japanese yam, cut into 2 cm (about 0.75 inch) cubes
3 medium Thai eggplants, stems removed and cubed into eighths

200 g (about 7 oz or 1 medium filets) flakey white fish such as swai

Six cups of cooked jasmine rice, prepared based on producer instructions

Preparation

  1. Select either green or red curry. Add curry paste items to a molcajete and grind down to a smooth paste or place ingredients in a blender with a little water and blend until smooth. Taste the curry. It should be harshly pungent from the aromatics, very picante with strong umami taste and slightly salty. These characteristics will mellow with cooking and the additional balancing ingredients.
  2. Preheat oven to 200 °C (392 °F). Coat yams with oil and place evenly in a single row in a baking sheet. Roast until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside.
  3. In a small frying pan over medium heat, warm enough neutral oil to coat the pan to 225 °C (437 °F). Saute eggplant until lightly brown on two sides, about three to five minutes. Set aside.
  4. Add curry paste to a large, heavy wok or frying pan and place over medium heat, bringing to a steady simmer. Add long cooking aromatics, if required, and fish. Reduce to low heat and cover, continuing to simmer lightly until fish reaches an internal temperature of 55 °C (131 °F) at the thickest section, about 20 minutes depending on the thickness of the filet.
  5. Add eggplant, other finishing ingredients and half the basil, if required, and continue to simmer for one minute, stirring delicately to integrate but not break the fish. Add yams and continue to simmer for an additional minute, stirring delicately to integrate.
  6. Taste the curry, using the taste balancing chart below to harmonize. Add small amounts of umami/saltiness (fish sauce), saltiness (sea salt), sourness (lemon or lime juice, as required), sweetness (palm sugar), picante (additional Thai bird chili peppers) or richness (coconut milk), as needed for balance. Portion rice into four bowls and top with curry. Serve immediately.

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25 Comments Add yours

  1. Dr B says:

    My goodness Sanjay this is a symphony of a post! Speaking of which I have often seen the word “symphony ” used on menus to describe seafood starters or mixed desserts so I totally get the music connection too especially looking at the chef as a conductor! Jazz, classical I get but ….. Heavy Metal? 😂😂👫

    1. Haha, thanks, Brian! I’ve never seen a seafood symphony dish, but a close friend attends an annual trade show in Alaska called the “Symphony of Seafood” concerning wholesale seafood industry matters. I googled seafood symphony and apparently it’s a mixed bucket of fried seafood at KFC Malaysia!

      1. Dr B says:

        I’ve just seen the Alaska reference too, but it’s a description often used in expensive British restaurants applied to French cuisine. I remembered it as soon as I read your post. KFC not something to be associated with your post though 😂😂😂

      2. Now that the US President has been outed as a KFC afficianado, I think we all must rally behind the Dear Leader. Someone must tell him about the Malaysian seafood symphony for his next state visit…

      3. Dr B says:

        Actually had a KFC bucket last week, the first after about 25 years. It was rather good and cheap too!

      4. Endearing yourself to the administration ahead of your US tour, no doubt!

      5. Dr B says:

        I like to be compliant wherever I visit!

      6. If you’d like some cheap, delicious fried chicken during your day in Chicago, I have a place in mind. 😉

      7. Dr B says:

        Brilliant, cheap is not a factor but quality IS! The reason I’m blind a little about our actual Chicago day is because the tour company wrote to us and said that the first day we arrive in Chicago is now a free day with the second day being guided tours etc. They have switched things around but we are waiting for formal confirmation.

      8. This is cheap and it also happens to be the among the best in town. Although, not exactly KFC cheap. Also, not to worry about schedules. There’s plenty of time to get sorted between now and then!

      9. Dr B says:

        Sure, looking forward to the whole trip so much and to meeting you too. Will Trump and Brexit over occupy our conversations? If so my wife will make sure I don’t see my 71st birthday!

      10. At times it’s difficult to avoid, but probably not. I do enjoy taking pot shots whenever appropriate.

      11. Dr B says:

        Me too. I keep my nose out of American politics though I have my opinions, not so much about Trump as a person or his policies but about the protesters, their stance and their methods. Here in UK we have quite outspoken critics of Brexit who accuse those who voted to leave the EU as racist, fascist, misogynistic homophobes and who have no intention of discussing anything in a rational way. Oops!

      12. I’m mildly pro-Brexit and staunchly anti-Trump, if you’re wondering.

      13. I’m certainly not a jerk about either view.

      14. Dr B says:

        I guess it’s about respecting other people’s countries and votes. I’m extremely pro Brexit and I hope for generally acceptable reasons of sovereignty, democracy and self determined laws.

      15. In principle, I like a united Europe, it’s only when I think seriously about administering such a project that I grow skeptical. I’m a bit more of a pragmatist about it, but I certainly appreciate and respect your view. I’ll introduce you to a Quebecoise friend of mine who is a professor of international affairs here in Chicago. He has a similar view and I imagine you’ll get along famously!

      16. Dr B says:

        Brilliant thanks! I’m relieved, thought you’d stopped replying! Opened a bottle of Burgundy to calm down😂😂

      17. Oh dear, certainly didn’t mean to work you up, Brian. You’ll find me difficult to shut up generally.

      18. Dr B says:

        Oh hell Champa thinks we’ll get on famously then!

  2. This is a very interesting post. Thank you for explaining this all!

    1. My pleasure! Happy eating!

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