Thai Cookery in a Nutshell

Thai food has been influenced over time by its Chinese, Malaysian and Indian neighbours and has evolved into a very distinctive style of its own.

The contrasting flavours of hot, sweet, salty and sour and the unusual combinations of fruit, chicken, meat and fish or seafood make this a truly fascinating cuisine.

A normal meal for a family of reasonable income will consist of rice, which is the country's staple food, together with a soup or similar, a stir-fried dish and a salad, all served at the same time. In the north of Thailand, pork and strong curries are popular, with the meat cooked in large pieces, whereas gentler coconut milk flavours the southern curries and the meat is chopped quite small.

In curries, traditional Indian ingredients such as cumin, coriander, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves are used in very small quantities but many of the flavourings and spices differ considerably from those found in Indian and Chinese cuisine. The most commonly used of these are:
  • Galangal - A root or rhizome which looks similar to ginger, but with a flavour all of its own. It can be bought fresh, powdered or dried in slices but fresh is best.

  • Lemon grass - As its name suggests, this has a lemony flavour but it looks somewhat like a fresh bamboo shoot. The outer leaves are very tough and should be peeled away, but even the inner core is fairly hard and needs to be sliced very finely for cooking or even grinding.

  • Kaffir lime leaves - These are the leaves of a Far Eastern lime, similar to a Western one but with a knobbly skin. The rind is also used in Thai cookery.

  • Fish sauce - This is called Nam Pla in Thailand and is made from salted fish or prawns. It is a pale brown liquid used much as soy sauce is in Chinese cookery.

  • Shrimp paste - Made from fermented shrimp, this can be bought in small pots. Use sparingly as it has a very strong flavour.

  • Chilli paste - A combination of chillies and fried shallots mixed with sugar and tamarind, it can be bought in jars and may be hot, medium or mild in flavour.

  • Other, more well known, flavourings commonly used in Thai cookery are fresh mint, basil and coriander, unsalted peanuts, fresh chillies, both green and red as well as chilli powder, lime and lemon juice and garlic.

    Noodles of differing types are often added to flavoured broths with vegetables such as bean sprouts or green beans and chicken or prawns, making a flavoursome soup for lunch.

    Dipping sauces are a popular condiment to accompany a Thai meal, particularly a deep-fried dish, and usually contain any combination of tamarind, sugar, lime juice, fish sauce, finely chopped chilli, garlic and spring onion.

    A Thai meal will usually end with an array of prepared fresh fruit such as mango, pineapple and papaya. Desserts are only served on very special occasions or at banquets.

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