By: Alison A
I'm no Thai chef, but I sure have made my share of Thai green and
red curry in this life! To me, there's nothing like the taste of these curries,
with their rich exotic flavors of coconut, lemongrass, ginger and chili's.
Many of the ingredients that give Thai food its distinct flavors can be purchased here in the West, and not just in the Asian markets either. True, the really good stuff you'll be able to find only at the Asian stores or online, but decent substitutes for those of us who do not want to drive all over town can be found at natural foods stores and even some conventional stores around the US.
If you can't get (or if you just don't want to get) the fresh ingredients for Thai food at home, sometimes all it takes is to purchase a good jar of curry paste, which contains many of the exotic flavors, like galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and chili's, that give a Thai dish its authentic taste (see recommendation below).
To make it easy for a fast and flavorful lunch or dinner, I created a simple Thai Formula that can be used for a number of coconut and curry based dishes. Once you remember the basics of the Thai Formula, you can't really go wrong. Along with brown jasmine rice with a stick of ginger in the rice cooker, your meal is ready in 30 minutes. And the flavors only get better through time - your left-overs tomorrow will be richer and creamier than your dinner today.
Here's a few of the mandatory pantry ingredients needed for authentic Thai cooking at home:
Thai Fish Sauce - This distinctive sauce is a must-have for Thai at home - it adds just the right flavor to take your so-so curry and make it authentic. Have you ever wondered, "why doesn't my coconut curry taste like the ones I get in the restaurants?" This is why. Fish sauce has concentrated flavors so only 1-3 tablespoons are needed for most dishes. It can be found at most natural foods stores, specialty stores and of course Asian markets.
Thai Curry Paste - Good Thai curry paste should give the dish a rich, pungent flavor without taking over. Not-so-good curry paste will be over stimulating (i.e. your mouth and lips will burn) but the curry ends up lacking depth and overall flavor. Kasma Loha-unchit, Thai chef and cooking instructor from the Bay Area, recommends Mae Ploy brand curry pastes that come in plastic tubs rather than jars or cans. Red, green and yellow curry pastes are the most popular.
Coconut Milk - Coconut milk is a blend of the meat from the coconut with the coconut water (or sometimes plain water). It imparts a very rich, sweet succulently exotic flavor and a creamy texture to Thai and Indonesian food. Choakoh is the milk of choice of many Thai chefs and Cook's Illustrated. Find coconut milk on sale and stock up, you'll need it if you want to start experimenting with Thai cooking.
About the Author
Alison am a Certified Nutritional Chef, food writer and culinary instructor through Bauman College of Holistic Nutrition and Culinary Arts in Northern California. I teach cooking and nutrition classes through the Whole Foods Market Salud Cooking School and write a monthly eLetter, also entitled Whole Gourmet Natural Cooking, to a wide audience.