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Authentic Thai Cooking

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 From?

Thai Herbs and Spices 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.

Fruit Carving - rose carved from a tomato 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

Food preparation 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.

Tom Kai Gai - chicken in coconut soup 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.

Tom Yum Soup and Red Curry

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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.

Pestle and mortar with Thai spices 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

Thai cooking books 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 Stay

Thai ingredients and condiments 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

Thai fried rice presented on a locally made ceramic plate 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 by:
Samui Institute of Thai Culinary Arts.

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