Salt, garlic, cilantro root, and Thai white peppercorns—the Big Four, as I like to think of them—are the essence of Thai cooking. The ritual of Thai food preparation invariably begins with pounding these ingredients, sometimes along with other herbs and spices, into a paste. Pounding with a mortar and pestle is the most important technique in Thai cooking because it releases the oils and scents of herbs and spices. The spice paste, which lasts for a month and can be made ahead in batches, is used to flavor all kinds of dishes, from stir-fries to roasts.
The recipe for a Thai chicken and vegetable stir-fry makes a great introduction to the Big Four flavors, but don’t stop there. Once you become familiar with the Big Four, I encourage you to experiment with these flavors in your own cooking.
The Big Four ingredients
The dominant flavor of traditional Thai food is saltiness. There are two kinds of salt from Thailand: sea salt, which is intensely salty, and salt mined from the earth, which has a metallic taste. Thai salt is coarser than the table salt with which most people are familiar. If you can’t find Thai sea salt, French or Italian sea salt or kosher salt make better substitutes than regular table salt.
Garlic is highly prized in Thai cooking for its subtle peppery flavor. It’s typically added to salt, and it’s often used in pounded spice pastes because it helps break down other ingredients and enhances other flavors. Thai garlic cloves are smaller and more aromatic than garlic grown in other countries, but for our purposes regular garlic cloves are fine. If the garlic is very mature and has started to grow green shoots, remove them before mincing. Always store unused garlic in a basket out of direct light.
Thai white peppercorns (prikk thai)
White peppercorns are mature black peppercorns that have been soaked and then rubbed and ground to remove their outer layers and smooth their surfaces; they’re therefore less intense than black peppercorns. After their initial pungency has dissipated, they leave a glowing warm sensation in the mouth. White peppercorns may be white, yellow, or gray with a few specks of black. Thai white peppercorns are grayish white and more flavorful than other varieties. White peppercorns packed in Thailand also tend to be less expensive than other types, but they need to be picked over before use to remove any debris. If you can’t find Thai white peppercorns, regular ones will work as well.
Cilantro roots (rak pakk chee)
The use of cilantro, or fresh coriander, roots was borrowed from southern Chinese cooking. Today, cilantro roots have all but disappeared from Chinese cooking, but they remain a defining element of Thai cuisine. They’re used not so much for their taste, which is bitter and sharp, as for their aroma, which adds a musty, earthy perfume to a dish. Their fibrous texture helps bind the ingredients in a seasoning paste. In American supermarkets, cilantro isn’t usually sold with its roots still attached, though you may occasionally get lucky. To compensate, I’ve adapted the Big Four Paste to use roasted coriander seeds in combination with cilantro stems to maintain the correct balance of flavors. (Yes, this variation really turns the Big Four into the Big Five, but who’s counting?) If you do find cilantro roots, by all means use them. Clean them first with water and a vegetable brush. Mince them by smashing them with the flat side of a chef’s knife or cleaver and then chopping them finely. Unused whole cilantro roots can be wrapped well and frozen for two months, so buy them when you see them.
Experimenting with the Big Four Paste
Grilled foods: For every pound of meat, fish, or shellfish, coat with the juice of 1 lemon, 1 tablespoon olive oil, and 1 teaspoon Big Four Paste. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour before grilling.
Stir-fried foods: Use 1 tablespoon Big Four Paste for every 1/4 to 1/2 pound meat, fish, or shellfish, plus 2 to 3 cups sliced vegetables or 2 cups noodles and 1 cup sliced vegetables. Stir the paste into the hot oil in the stir-fry pan just before adding anything else.
Roast chicken or turkey: For a 3-pound chicken, rub the bird with 2 tablespoons olive oil and the juice of 1 lemon, and then rub 1 tablespoon Big Four Paste all over, including under the skin and in the cavity. Seal tightly in a plastic bag and refrigerate overnight. For a 16-pound turkey, use 1 cup olive oil, the juice of 2 lemons, and 3/4 cup Big Four Paste.
Meatballs and meatloaf: For every pound of ground meat, add 1 tablespoon Big Four Paste along with the other ingredients.