The Secret is in the Preparation
The secret to cooking great Thai food successfully is in the preparation. This is particularly true for wok cooking when the cooking itself is fast and furious. The following tips will help to make your Thai cooking really good, easy and incredibly quick.
- Prepare your curry pastes ahead of time. Fresh curry paste will keep in the fridge for up to a week, but can also be frozen for up to six months. Once you have a good paste to hand, the rest is easy.
- If you buy ready made pastes – and there are some reasonably good ones about – the following tip will help you bring your purchased paste up to scratch. Note the list of ingredients on the label and supplement the paste with fresh ingredients and anything else that is not included. Most commercially made pastes are deficient or lacking in several important ingredients such as lime, coriander root and ground spices. At the very least I add extra garlic, coriander root or stems and lime rind if I use a ready made paste. Prepare and bottle quantities of Pad Thai and other sauces that you plan to use regularly. This is simply a matter of mixing together ingredients such as soy sauce, fish sauce, tamarind and other ready prepared sauces or ground spices so that you are not reaching for several jars and bottles once you start cooking.
- Roast, grind and store spices in small quantities ready for use.
- Use good quality, heat tolerant oils for your Thai dishes. Many Thai chefs use organic coconut or peanut oil but other good oils are sunflower, corn and rice bran. Non- GM canola is also good if you can get it.
Finding the Sweet, Sour, Salty, Spicy Flavour Balance
Balancing and harmonizing the four key flavours is the secret to obtaining those wonderful flavours characteristic of Thai food. The intensity of flavour is very much a matter of personal preference and you can use larger or smaller amounts of the four ingredients depending on how intense you want the overall flavour to be, but no one flavour should over-power another. Just as you might vary the amount of chilli, garlic or ginger in Indian dishes according to the taste and tolerance of the diner, you can vary the amount of the key flavouring ingredients in Thai dishes so that the intensity of flavour feels right to you. However, Thai food should never taste dull and there should be enough of each of the four flavours to create a lively symphony of flavour on your tastebuds.
It is also important to be aware that recipes for Thai dishes are, to some extent, guides only, because flavours of many ingredients such as fish sauce, limes and lemongrass will vary according to the season, where they come from and how old they are. Taste testing, therefore, is absolutely essential. Flavours of fish and soy sauce also vary from one brand to another so finding a brand that you like and sticking to it will help give you some consistency.
Extra fish sauce, soy sauce, sliced chilli and lime wedges should be served with the meal, much like salt and pepper, to cater for individual tastes.
Tips for Taste Testing and Balancing
- Too spicy hot. Add more fish sauce and lime juice to counter the heat and balance with a little sugar.
- Too salty. Add lime juice, lemon juice or tamarind paste dissolved in a little water and balance with a touch of sugar.
- Too sour. Add palm sugar or any sugar you have and balance with a little fish or soy sauce.
- Not spicy enough. Add fresh chillies, chilli powder, cayenne, ground pepper or chilli sauce.
- Not salty enough. Add fish sauce or soy sauce in preference to salt for a better depth of flavour.
- Not sour enough. Add lime or lemon juice or tamarind paste dissolved in a little water. Balance with some sugar if needed.
- Remember you can always add some coconut milk or cream to tone down the flavours too.
Experiment by making some sauce with a little stock or coconut milk and adding chilli, garlic, fish sauce, lime juice and sugar one at a time, tasting the sauce before adding the next key ingredient to experience the impact of each on the overall flavour.
Tips for Great Stir-Frying
Prior preparation is the holy grail of great stir-frying, followed very closely by a really hot, well seasoned wok or frying pan. Stirfries are cooked at high heat and super speed, a method of cooking that makes the food taste fresh and delicious and keeps the nutrients intact.
- Prepare everything you need as outlined in Before You Start Cooking section, page 33. There will be no time to start looking for this bottle or that piece of equipment once you start cooking.
- Start with a really hot wok which is well coated with oil, right up to about 2.5 cm (1 inch) of the rim.
- Cooking at high heat requires very little oil but if the wok gets too dry add a little stock, wine or water rather than more oil so that your food is not greasy.
- For the best stir-fried vegetables, slice thinner those that take longer to cook than those that cook quickly. For example, carrots should be sliced thinly whilst snow peas (mangetout) should be left whole. Cook vegetables only briefly until the colours brighten. They should be crisp and bright so it is important not to over cook them.
- For perfect stir-fried rice, use pre-cooked rice that is no more than a day old. Spread the rice onto a large plate or tray, spray or sprinkle with a little oil and gently work it through with your fingers until all the grains are coated. You will get beautifully fluffy results and no sticky clumps.