A Few Words About ‘The Hot Stuff’!

Many people seem to think that ‘real’ Thai food has to be spicy – and some sadly avoid eating Thai food altogether because they are afraid of the heat. This is a sad thing, because it is not at all the case that all Thai food is laden with chilli. True, there are many authentic Thai dishes – for example some relishes and curries – that would not be right without a good hit of heat from chilli, however there are many Thai dishes that are mild or even without any heat.

Thai people were seasoning their food for eons before the introduction of chillies, said to be around the start of the 16th century. Subtle heat was obtained from various peppers such as white, black and green peppercorns, still a favorite in Thai cuisine today.  There are many Thai recipes that predate the introduction of chilli – so, myth busted!

The heat in Thai food comes from a great variety of possible sources, only one of which is the much touted (and sometimes feared) ‘mouse s**t’ chilli. A red curry will usually derive its colour from the dried red chillies in the curry paste. If you are making your own curry paste you get to control the heat. There is great variability in the heat of fresh and dried chillies, so the first time you use some from a batch you are experimenting with the level of the heat. If you leave the seeds in the curry paste will be hotter. Fresh chillies, even of from the same batch, can vary a lot in intensity. You could sample one and find it as mild as a capsicum and another could make your eyes water. My tip is to respect the palates of your guests and either make them Thai food with a level of heat that your are confident they will enjoy, or make them a Thai dish without any heat that is perhaps less familiar to them but just as authentic.

I recently read an article by a ‘Thai Food Expert’ that claimed that Thais cook with green and yellow chillies as well as red – so that is why there are green and yellow curries! This is NOT true! While green chillies are usually included in a green curry paste, the main colour comes from the herbs in the curry paste, including basil and kaffir lime leaf. The colour of yellow curry usually comes from turmeric. This ‘expert’ also advocated substituting paprika or cayenne for red chilli – this would mean that your dish may still be enjoyable but could not longer proudly call itself Thai!

When dining on Thai food that you have not prepared yourself you can usually see the chilli and so can work around it if you don’t like it. This is easier to do for a salad or stir-fry and harder when the chilli has been added through a paste or relish.

A very common thing when dining out in Thailand is that the restaurant will give you a basket of condiments to season your food. This is common even at street-side places. Some people think that you are ‘disrespecting the chef’ if you adjust the flavours at the table – but that is why you are given the opportunity – because all palates are different. The condiments usually include white sugar so you can adjust the sweetness, dried chillies for extra chilli flavour and heat, fish sauce for pungency and vinegar with sliced fresh chillies for extra sourness and heat if you want it. Some people ask for ‘nahm prik ’ on the side – this means ‘fluid chilli’ and will generally be chopped fresh chillies in fish sauce. My own favourite additive is just the chilli without the fish sauce and most eateries in Thailand happily respond to a request for “chopped chillies”. If you are struggling to get this across ask for “prik” and make a chopping gesture with one hand into your palm!

Here is a simple recipe for a very Thai tasting whole fish – and you get to decide how much (if any) chilli you will include.

Thai Whole Fish with Basil

One 600 to 800 gram whole fish – I use snapper and in Thailand it is very common to be served tilapia

Rice flour (or tapioca flour, or corn flour) for dusting the fish

Three large cloves of fresh garlic

Your choice of chilli – one or more teaspoons of dried flaked chilli, or one or more fresh chillies. This is where you decide – the recipe is just as tasty without any chilli at all and you can serve chopped chilli on the side for heat-loving diners

Three tablespoons of white sugar

Half a cup (125 mls) of fish sauce

A bunch of Thai basil (bai horapha) – purple stem, green leaves, often with flowers. If you substitute European style basil you dish will still be delicious but will not be so ‘Thai tasty’

Method

Dissolve the sugar in the fish sauce.

Pound the garlic with a little salt in a mortar and pestle until it turns into a paste and then the pound in the chilli if you have decided to add it.

Wash the basil and discard the stalks.

Dust the fish with flour.

Heat enough oil in a wok to semi-submerge the fish for frying. You don’t need to cover the fish with oil because you will turn it half way through cooking. When you have the oil very hot the fish will cook cleanly and you will be left with almost as much oil as you started with after cooking.

Fry the fish for around 8-10 minutes each side, testing with a knife to ensure it has cooked through.

Remove the fish from the wok, drain almost all of the oil and then quickly stir-fry the garlic. Tip in the fish sauce and sugar mixture and stir through quickly, then add the basil just until it wilts. Serve the fish on a platter adorned with the dressing and herbs.

I serve this delicious fish with steamed sticky rice as part of a Thai family style meal – more on that in another post coming up!

A pinch of this, a peck of that – it’s balance that’s the most important thing.

The authentic flavour of Thai food depends greatly on the balance of textures and seasonings.  Eating at Thai restaurants outside of Thailand will probably have given you a very one dimensional view of the taste, appearance and variety of Thai food – so hang on for some surprises!

One of the most basic factors in seasoning Thai food is to get the best balance of sweet, sour, hot and salty.  A bit like listening to someone singing or playing ‘off key’ – when you eat a Thai dish that is not well balanced there will be a jangling … you will know that something is not quite right, but may not be able to identify just what that is.  Recently I had a pleasant salad at Middle Fish – a popular inner Melbourne Thai restaurant run by a Thai/Aussie couple.  The salad ingredients were fresh, but the dressing was very sparse and did not ‘sing’ …. when I asked the waiter whether they were using fresh lime juice he replied that they were using lemon juice.  No, no, no – lemon juice is not an appropriate substitute for fresh lime juice …. if a Thai restaurant is going to dress a salad and fresh limes are expensive then they should adjust the price upwards rather than substitute lemon juice for lime juice.

Sweetness in Thai food often comes from sugar and there is a place in your Thai pantry for many kinds of sugar, for example white sugar, palm sugar, coconut sugar and yellow rock sugar.  Getting the right balance of sweetness is a matter of taste, and I find that many Thai restaurants overdo sugar in seasoning – if your panang curry is overly cloying or rich it is probably due to an inbalance in the sugar.

Sourness usually comes from lime juice and also tamarind.  You can use bottled tamarind however a better result usually comes from rehydrating tamarind pulp in hot water.  Never lemon juice!  You could substitute bottled lime juice in an emergency, however this will compromise your dish.

Hot – yes, Thai dishes often have a chilli component but the strength of the heat is up to the cook.  I have often made Thai food for friends adverse to ‘hot’ food, giving them Thai dishes that leave out the chili altogether.  A sense of heat in the balance is still available through various peppers – dried white and black pepper and green peppercorns all feature in Thai cuisine.   Where the flavour of chili – as opposed to the heat –  is a key flavour in food I would not compromise, just serve something else where the chili is not a key taste.  I also avoid commercial Thai curry pastes and cooking sauces because the balance is generally skewed towards heat at the expense of the more delicate flavours …. and making your own pastes and sauces is rewarding and gives you a much better outcome.

Salty taste often comes from fish sauce, and there are many brands and qualities on the market at a similar price, so why not buy the best?  While price is not always the best indicator or quality it is often a reasonable guide.  One great brand of fish sauce that I buy Is Laughing Baby.  You really cannot substitute anything for fish sauce.

To help develop your authentic Thai taste palate – here is a simple method … and it will result in a classic dressing that you can use for a salad of, say – fresh vegetables and grilled prawns.  You will need a reasonably robust mortar and pestle ….

Note – when Thai recipes suggest using a mortar and pestle – try not to compromise and use a blender.  There is a good reason for this – the gradual layering of tastes through the pounding releases food oils and combines the tastes progressively so that you will achieve an authentic outcome.

Pound a large clove of fresh garlic with a half teaspoon of salt, and after the garlic seems to ‘mash’ add in a chopped small red chili and continue to pound.  Add another large clove of garlic and continue pounding – then add a tablespoon of white sugar and pound until dissolved.  Add a tablespoon of freshly squeezed lime juice and mix – then carefully taste.  You will notice that while the sugar dominates you will get a sense of the heat of the chili – and they all differ in heat, so care is necessary.  Adjust by pounding in extra chili if you want a hotter dressing, then pound in a tablespoon of palm sugar (or white sugar if you don’t have any).  Mix in 2 more tablespoons of lime juice and taste – it should be quite tart.  Then mix in a tablespoon of fish sauce and taste again – the sweetness and tartness should now start to be balanced by the sourness.  A further tablespoon of fish sauce can be added now – if it is your first attempt at this dressing I suggest adding the rest of the fish sauce slowly and tasting as you go.  While the exact components of this dressing are balanced by you, the overall effect sould be to allow the four tastes to compliment each other rather than compete.  As this was an experiment in Thai tastes you might need to make a larger quantity for your salad – just try not to take a shortcut with your blender!

This is really a very brief introduction to obtaining a balance in authentic Thai tastes – hopefully I have whetted your appetite for more!

Why My Thai?

At last I have decided to muster the pixels in order to share my passion for authentic Thai food.  Way back in ancient Melbourne history – 40 years or so ago – we were introduced to the wonders of Thai cuisine, and what a strange new thing it was!  Well, it could have been – if the first Thai restaurants had brought us their old family recipes as well as more formal Royal Thai dishes, and educated us in how to appreciate them.  Instead, we were given menus that were somewhat familiar …. in those days Melbourne Chinese restaurant menus were pretty much indistinguishable from each other, with little recognisable as genuine Chinese food.

Sadly, the same seems to have happened with Thai restaurants and so we have floundered in the badlands of historical precedent and been starved of what I believe to be one of the most interesting and unique cuisines of the world.

Leap forward to my first trip to Bangkok in 1989 – where I walked around in complete culinary amazement.  Foods that I had been led to believe were Thai staples – spring rolls, fish cakes, tom yum soup, red curry, green curry, pad thai noodles and various things stir fried – were hardly to be found.  Instead there were wonderful foods and dishes that I did not recognise, and the pursuit of them has remained a strong theme in my life ever since.  While i don’t eat absolutely everything on offer (for example – animal blood products and offal don’t appeal to me) I have experienced the most wonderful taste sensations both in Thailand and back at home – although never in a Melbourne Thai restaurant.

My hope for this blog is to bring some of these sensations to the surface in Melbourne.  Maybe we can create a kind of ‘Slow Thai Food’ movement and start putting some pressure on our local Thai eateries to put some authenticity into their offerings.  After all – the basic ingredients cost the same, so there is nothing to lose for the restaurants and much to gain for the diners.

I also plan to share the things I have learned about preparing and serving the simplest, best and most authentic tasting Thai food you can easily make at home.  And when I travel to Thailand I will document and share my food experiences along the way!

I love authentic Thai food, and I want to share my love with everyone!