Either you arrived at this
page out of curiosity, or you are a genuine Thai food lover. Your
trip will be an opportunity to greatly expand your knowledge of
the cuisine that is taking the world by storm. The reasons for
the growing popularity of Thai food are now well known. It is
light, nutritious, and wonderfully varied. What many don't
realize is that it is possible for those living in the West to
incorporate a steady diet of Thai food into their life by cooking
it often at home.
Even if your home kitchen is simply equipped,
assuming you have a wok, you probably already have the equipment
you need to cook most of the more popular dishes. If your burners
are gas you have a head start. If not, you may want to consider
installing at least one gas burner if you plan to cook Thai
often. Good control of the heat, and the ability to produce a
very hot flame for stir frying is important.
Developing Your Repertoire
Chances are (especially if this is your first
trip to the Kingdom) the range of Thai dishes you are familiar
with represents just a small percentage of the range of the
cuisine. Instead of sticking to the tried and true during your
travels here, why not make it a point each time you dine out to
order something you have never eaten before? While you may not
like some dishes as much as your favorites, if you dine Thai
style, (with others and sharing everything) there is bound to be
something to discover and enjoy.
Copy from the menu, the names of dishes you like,
and ask your waiter to write their Thai names next to them. This
is important, because sometimes the English names are vague.
"Fried Noodles" for example, could mean any one of 10
different dishes. Then enlist the aid of a Thai chef, cooking
instructor or acquaintance who has a knowledge of culinary
English, to rewrite your list with descriptions that will allow
you to shop for a few cookbooks that have these recipes in them.
There is no shortage of cookbooks for sale on Samui! You can now
return home - perhaps with an armload of supplies - roll up your
sleeves and start to get busy in the kitchen.
Where Will the Ingredients Come
The availability of Thai cooking
ingredients in Western countries is now better than ever and
improving all the time. Why not start by asking the Thai
restaurant nearest your home where they get theirs? They may be
reluctant to tell you, but it can't hurt to try. Visit the
nearest Asian grocer who is sure to carry some of what you need,
and ask him if he can get what you don't see. Finally, you
can supplement what is available locally with purchases made over
the Internet from one of several companies selling Thai
ingredients by mail order. One of the best is right here on
Samui, and they ship worldwide.
Which brings us to the next piece of good news.
Koh Samui is home to one of Thailand's most established and
respected cooking schools for foreigners. Recommended by the
"Lonely Planet", "Rough Guide", and
"Frommer's Guide to Thailand", Samui Institute of
Thai Culinary Arts' daily cooking classes have also been seen
on BBC World TV's "Holiday" programme. Classes are
taught in English, and held twice daily Monday through Saturday
year round in their air-conditioned facility. The menus change
every day. Lunchtime class meets 11:30 am and dinnertime class at
4:00 pm, Monday through Saturday.
For fastidious cooks/hosts and would
be restaurateurs for whom presentation is important, the
Institute's director and award-winner master food carver
Roongfa Sringam, teaches the Thai style art of Fruit and
Vegetable Carving in three day courses during which students meet
2 hours each day. Ornate flower patterns, carving garnishes and
plate decoration are covered.
To see SITCA's menus and make a booking, go
to http://www.sitca.net/. At their retail shop
you can find a wide range of ingedients including dried herbs,
spices, curry pastes, and "Easy-to-Make" recipe packs
to take home. Their instructors and sales staff are on hand to
offer advice. They also carry cook books and instructional
carving texts. And if you run out back home, all their products
are available by mail order through their website.
Preparing Authentic Thai Meals for Your
Family and Friends
In these pages we are going to share
a few secrets and perhaps dispel a few misconceptions. To begin
with, Thais are perplexed when they see visitors order individual
servings when dining out. Watch how the locals eat while you are
here. Even in pairs, they almost always share everything they
order, to get the most enjoyment possible from eating. Foreigners
who dine as guests of Thais are sometimes stunned by the number
of dishes of food that arrive to feed a small group. But the
majority consist of mostly healthful fare such as vegetables and
noodles. The quantities of meat used are small. Usually almost
everything is eaten, with great relish.
You'll be told that you should always serve
steamed rice. This is generally true. A portion is given to each
person, who spoons a little of this and that onto the rice, eats
it and then tries something else. Thais almost never put more
than one thing (exluding the rice) on their plate at a time, to
do so would be considered bad manners. BUT (we're going to
stick our necks out here) there is no rule that says you have to
eat rice with Thai food! In fact, if you prepare a delectable
assortment of dishes for your guests and they want to skip the
rice altogether so they can try more of what looks so good, that
is perfectably understandable. Even Thais sometimes skip the rice
at a special meal, especially those watching their weight. And
let's face it, some folks just don't care much for rice.
This is no reason to forego the pleasures of Thai food.
As a general rule you will want to
prepare at least one dish for every person dining, to make sure
there is plenty to go around. Go for a mix that includes a soup,
a curry, a stir-fry, a vegetable, perhaps something deep fried,
and some fish or seafood. (If you and your guests are vegetarian,
you will revel in the possibilities for non-meat feasts that the
cuisine affords.) An omelet is also often served. Its blandness
and spongy texture give counterbalance to some of the spicier
dishes, and omelet is very good with rice, especially with a
little fish sauce drizzled over it. Serving an omelet is also a
safe precaution when children or fussy eaters are in the group.
And the inclusion of a noodle dish is this case is also a good
choice, as most of them are typically not hot.
You'll want to mix up the flavorings when
deciding what to include in your menu. You probably already know
that Thai cuisine is not only hot (spicy) but also salty, sour,
sweet and sometimes bitter. Some dishes contain just one of these
elements while others, (papaya salad for example) burst with
many. The creative use of many flavors are the secret to the
glorious variety in the cuisine.
The basic principles that guide the preparation of any cuisine
hold no less true for this one. Always use the freshest and best
quality ingredients you can. Use fresh herbs whenever possible,
and whole spices will make your dishes explode with flavor. Take
care too, with your purchase of seasonings. Fish, oyster and soy
sauces are made by many manufacturers and they are not all the
same quality! Again, your trip here is an opportunity to acquaint
yourself with different brands, and perhaps take a home a bottle
or two of the best ones.
Hotness - How Much is Too Much? How
Little is too Little?
Not all Thai dishes are hot, or need be. However
it's true that a Thai meal without a fiery dish (or two or
three) is like a day at the beach without sunshine.
Here is one of the trickiest issues
for the Western host inviting friends to a home cooked Thai meal.
What if one couple like their curries and soups etc. with a kick,
while others have no tolerance for hotness? One obvious solution
is to ask only fire-eating friends to your Thai food nights.
Another is to go very light on the chilies in preparation, and
let your guests add their own at table. But let's look at why
from a gastronomic standpoint, the second option is not very
satisfactory for the Thai food lover.
When you make or buy a curry (or Tom Yum e.g.)
paste, its hotness depends on the number of chilies that were
ground into its production. It's that simple. To think that
you will get an equally satisfying kind of hotness by sprinkling
chili flakes on a dish right before eating it, is like thinking
you can leave the garlic out of the first steps of making a
marinara sauce, and then sprinkle it on your spaghetti just
before tucking in. It's just not the same.
Of course a third option would be to make two of
each dish, one with plenty of kick and one without, the way
restaurants serving a mixed clientele must do. But this is a lot
of extra work (not to mention waste) and that is one reason
visitors are sometimes frustrated in their attempts to get
"authentic" tasting dishes in restaurants that cater to
a largely non Thai clientele.
The heat by the way, comes from the oil in the
chilies, a fact you'll soon learn the hard way if you handle
one and then accidentally rub your eye. Sometimes the chilies are
put into a dish whole, sometimes crushed, sometimes sliced, and
sometimes chopped. Red chilies are simply green ones that have
ripened, and are hottest.
Expanding your Horizons
No matter how many Thai restaurants
you have dined at abroad and cookbooks you own, there will remain
unknown to you a world of regional dishes, unless you live or
travel extensively in the Kingdom. The only way to discover these
is to leave the beaten track and venture into restaurants where
tourists do not go, and that cater to a Thai clientele. One sure
way of knowing you have found one of these is the absence of
English on the menu. In restaurants like these (and on street
stalls) you will find dishes with unfamiliar and often strong
flavors. Many curries (especially in Southern Thailand) will have
a level of hotness you will not believe a human palate can
endure. The reasons Thai restaurateurs catering to foreigners do
not put these dishes on their menus are many, but there is one
main one. Simply put, they assume that Westerners cannot and do
not want to eat them. In many cases they are right - for these
are tastes acquired with time and "practice"; much the
way cheese is for many Thais who try it. The other thing that you
as cook must consider, is that these dishes are made with local
ingredients - the ones that are most likely to be unobtainable in
any form outside of Southeast Asia.
So how to learn how to use ingredients like
fermented shrimp paste; young coconut and hearts of palm and
bamboo; banana leaves;, fish bellies; and vegetables you have
never seen before, let alone tasted? There is only one solution
that we know of. Plan an extended stay. If you're really
serious, settle into a bungalow near a few local restaurants you
like, befriend the cooks, and try to learn a little of the
language. Good luck!
Stocking up on Ingredients During Your
We'll not go into the nitty
gritty of Thai food preparation here, we recommend you take some
cooking classes for that. But we will offer some advice on what
you might like to take (or ship) back home after you've
acquired some new knowledge and skills.
Firstly, be aware than many countries will not
allow you to bring agricultural products of any kind through
customs. In any case you will want to try and get your fresh
herbs at home from your local grocer. If you can't however,
consider taking home some packages of dried ones. While the
flavor isn't as good as fresh, dried lemongrass, galangal,
and others herbs, can be used with satisfactory results. Kaffir
lime leaves in particular can be tricky to find outside of
Thailand. If you can find a source for fresh ones you are lucky
indeed. If not, you may want to stock up on dried.
Enhancing your Presentation
As stated earlier, you probably
already have all the equipment you need to cook Thai. If you
don't yet own a wok or even if you do, you might take the
opportunity to purchase a good quality stainless steel one while
you are here. The best selection of kitchen equipment on Samui
can be found in the town of Nathon, in two or three shops and
markets located on the main street on the way out of town heading
north (away from Chaweng.) Other equipment you may want to take
or ship home include a large wooden mortar and pestle if you plan
to make pounded salads such as Som Tom; and a smaller stone one
if you plan to make your curry paste.
To set a table that evokes memories of the
Kingdom, you might also consider the purchase of some ceramic
plates and serving dishes made in Thailand in the local style.
One item sure to impress your guests (especially if they like
their soup nice and hot as Thais do) is a clay or aluminum fire
pot. This is a two piece set consisting of a base that holds
burning charcoal, and a soup tureen that sits on top like a
double burner. Placed on the table at meal time, a fire pot will
keep the soup piping throughout the meal, so that guests can dip
in as often as they wish. You may also want to pick up a ceramic
set of little bowls with spoons, specially designed for diners to
help themselves to extra sauces and chilies etc. Wooden chopping
knives and cleavers and knives are also excellent value.
The content in this page was contributed
Institute of Thai Culinary Arts.