Thai cuisine is one of the most delicious in the world and, by mastering the art of it, you will give your family and friends many delightful culinary experiences. The first thing is to get a pestle and mortar so that you can pound garlic, chili, herbs, and spices together to form a paste. Some people use a blender, which is more convenient but this means adding water and so losing some of the fragrant aromas. You will also need a wok, or a large, deep frying pan with a lid, as most dishes (except for their accompanying rice and noodles) are cooked as “one pot meals”.
The basic flavours of Thai dishes are sweet, salty, and sour and getting the correct balance between these will really make your dishes sing. Thai people prize saltiness and they use sea salt or earth-mined salt and avoid refined table salt. Another source of saltiness is fish sauce, or nam pla, which adds a subtle unami tang and sometimes takes the place of salt completely. Coconut milk and palm sugar are staple ingredients and provide the sweetness. The sour tastes often come from fruits (quite often served unripe) such as lime, tamarind, mango, and pineapple.
Many dishes call for white peppercorns, which have a warmer and less intense flavour than black peppercorns. Another element of Thai cuisine is the use of cilantro, or coriander, roots. Their taste is bitter and sharp but their aroma is earthy and their fibrous texture helps bind together the ingredients in a seasoning paste. If you can’t find the roots, substitute cilantro leaves with roasted coriander seeds. When you’re buying chilies, look out for the small bird’s eye chilies, as they will provide the most authentic zest. Other spices that are irresistibly Thai are lemongrass and galangal.
Two types of basil are used in Thailand: sweet basil and holy basil. Sweet basil is the sweeter of the two and grows on purplish stems, topped with reddish purple flower buds. The flowers are edible and both leaves and flowers have hints of anise. Holy basil has the distinctive scent of clove and reddish tipped leaves and its flavour is spicy but not sweet. Both forms are used liberally in curries, salads, soups, and stir-fries. Holy basil is better cooked, while sweet basil can be eaten cooked or raw and is often used, as fresh mint is, as a decoration on finished dishes. And don’t forget the rice. Most dishes pair really well with sticky rice, which is not boiled but delicately steamed.
Thai food is an art form, learned best from a teacher. The Tropical Spice Garden in Penang has regular classes with Chef Devi Nadarajan on weekly basis where you learn how to make authentic Thai food and also can pick up all sorts in insider skills.