A few weeks ago, my friend Chow, a prolific food writer who publishes at BangkokGlutton.com, invited me to help her write some Thai food recipes to include in the updated version of her handy book, “Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls”. One or two afternoons a week, we have gathered ingredients in her kitchen and tested and modified different recipes to try and make ones that are easily accessible to home cooks anywhere in the world.
While I can’t share the recipes here, I will share some pictures of two of our recent dishes: pad thai and tom yum goong.
Pad thai is a common fried noodle dish that is notable for its distinct, sweet-sour sauce. Thai restaurants in the west sometimes try to make a tomato based sauce or use ketchup as a flavoring, but that isn’t an acceptable substitute for the main ingredient: tamarind. These days, tamarind is increasingly common in many countries, thanks to its use in Latin American and Indian cuisines, cultures that have large diasporas. Not long ago, I was in suburban Seattle and was able to find fresh Mexcian tamarind, using the flesh to make a sweet and sour sauce for steak.
The pad thai also makes use of (moving left to right from the top row, down) pickled daikon radish, garlic, eggs, shrimp, the tamarind sauce, lime, toasted peanuts, bean sprouts, green onions, firm tofu, dried shrimp, and red chili flakes. Most of these ingredients are readily available. The pickled daikon can be replaced with well-rinsed sauerkraut in a pinch. Not shown are the dried rice noodles that form the base of the dish. These are available at any Asian market and at better-stocked supermarkets with an Asian foods section.
The end result is a stir-fry of all the ingredients with an engaging flavor that is tangy and sweet, slightly spicy, and a little bit sour. A perfect balance of flavors. Now, one thing about Thai cuisine that non-Thais don’t always understand: noodle dishes (both soups and stir-fries) are generally a single-plate food. Most Thai food is served family style, with various curries and other dishes in the middle of the table to be shared and eaten along with rice. Noodle dishes, though, are usually ordered for lunch, a snack, or dinner and are consumed by a single person. So when you go to a Thai restaurant and, along with all your other dishes, order some pad thai to share, it is a little strange. I’m not saying you can’t do it – by all means, order whatever you want – but it isn’t the way the dish is eaten by Thais.
The next dish we made was a tom yum soup. This herbal soup is not only rich in flavor but has significant health benefits from all the different herbs. The main ingredients, from top left, are lime, peppercorns, fish sauce, kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, chilies, galangal root, cilantro, and mushrooms. We also added prawns, called “goong” in Thai. You could also make it with chicken or tofu.
The soup is made by bruising the herbal ingredients (literally beating them with a cleaver, mallet, or other heavy object) to release the oils. These are then simmered in water or, cheating a little, some broth. The fish sauce is added to make the flavor more complex and many people also add fermented chili paste. The mushrooms are cooked and then prawns are added a minute or two before serving.
The end result is a clear broth with lots of herbal flavor, a delicately cooked prawn, and a bit of spice. An alternative version of this soup, tom kor gai, is made with chicken and is finished with some coconut milk to add richness. Usually served near the start of a Thai meal, the soup is like an appetizer, with the herbs whetting your appetite and preparing you for the complex flavors of the meal to follow.
I will share more photos as we continue to experiment with the recipes.