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Thai Ingredients Blend Into an Explosion of Flavor

Fine Cooking Issue 31
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Any number of Asian stir-fries begin with garlic cooked in oil. But if you add chiles, kaffir lime leaves, sugar, and fish sauce, a stir-fry takes on a delicious, unmistakably Thai flavor. The result is an explosion of salty, spicy, sweet, and sour flavors that sparkle with personality yet all harmonize on the plate.
To create such dishes at home, stock your pantry with some basic Thai flavorings. Once you understand the main players, you can use them to cook authentic Thai food or to give your own cooking a taste of Thailand.

Fish sauce—the salt of Thai cuisine

Fish sauce, called nam pla in Thai, is used much like salt or soy sauce as a flavor enhancer. It serves as a seasoning in cooked dishes as well as a base for dipping sauces. Made from the liquid drained from fermented anchovies, fish sauce is potent; it’s usually combined with other ingredients when used as a dipping sauce. For cooking, you can use it straight, but never add it to a dry pan or the smell will  be overpowering. 

As with olive oil, there are several grades of fish sauce. High-quality fish sauce, which is the first to be drained off the fermented fish, is usually pale amber, like clear brewed tea. Because it has a more delicate and balanced flavor, I use a premium-grade fish sauce, such as Three Crabs or Phu Quoc brands, in my dipping sauces. For cooking, I’ll use stronger-flavored, lower-grade brands, such as Squid or Tiparos, which are made from a secondary draining. Whichever grade I buy, I prefer it in a glass bottle; I find that fish sauces bottled in glass taste better and last longer than those packaged in plastic.

Fish sauce may smell pungent, but used correctly, its flavor is subtle and savory

Acidic ingredients add vibrancy

Thai cooks use great amounts of tart ingredients, such as lime juice and tamarind juice (made by soaking tamarind pulp in water), to wake up the taste buds. Lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves give a dish a refreshing, lingering lift.  Lemongrass, the most popular herb used in Thailand, is a tall, scallion-like stalk that has a subtle lemony and citrusy flavor and fragrance. Before using, peel away the tough outer layers and crush or chop the stalk to release its flavor. Wild lime (also known as kaffir lime) leaves impart a most intense floral and citrus flavor and are almost required in Thai curries. Lime zest, while not the same, will give the dish a similar refreshing citrusy flavor.

Limes, wild lime leaves, and lemongrass add a fragrant, citrusy note.

For heat, try fresh and dried chiles and ground chile pastes

If you like hot food, add chiles and chile paste to just about everything, as the Thais do. I start all my Thai stir-fries by foaming some little fresh bird chiles in hot oil with garlic. If you can’t find fresh Thai chiles, use fresh serranos or substitute dried. Chile paste, usually a mix of chiles, garlic, salt, and oil, is the base for many Thai soups, salad dressings, dipping sauces, and stir-fries.

Chiles—fresh, dried and made into pastes—are a must for Thai stir-fries.

Coconut milk and palm sugar for sweetness

The sweet element found in most Thai dishes isn’t cloying. Instead, it balances the heat and counters the sour notes. Coconut milk, often added to curries, stews, and stir-fries, tones down the heat with its creamy sweetness. Palm sugar, made from the sap of various palm trees, comes packaged in plastic jars or as round cakes. It has a caramel flavor that enhances the salty and sour flavors of a dish. If you can’t find palm sugar, substitute light brown or granulated white sugar, increasing the amount called for by about 20 percent.

Palm sugar (left) and coconut milk give Thai dishes sweetness.

Bright, fresh herbs are aromatic finishes

There’s another group of ingredients that further enhances all these basic flavors—the aromatics. Fresh herbs, such as basil, mint, and cilantro, are added to finished dishes in great quantities, sometimes by cupfuls, with leaves often left whole to give a burst of flavor with each bite.

Fresh cilantro, mint, and basil leaves—often left whole and added at the end—are frequently used in Thai dishes.

Experiment with Thai flavors

• For a delicious barbecue, try marinating meats with fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar, garlic, lemongrass, and chiles.

• Serve steamed or fried fish with a sauce made with equal parts of fish sauce, water, and sugar, and then accent with garlic, Thai chiles, and a squeeze of lime.

• For a flavorful Thai salad dressing, blend together lime juice, sugar, fish sauce, lemongrass, chiles, and sliced onions.

• Rub a chicken with lemongrass, cilantro, chiles, coconut milk, garlic, and fish sauce and roast as usual. Ten minutes before the chicken is done, baste it with the spice mixture and return it to the oven until cooked. This last-minute treatment creates a most aromatic roast chicken.

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