COMPLETE THAI COOKING
Welcome to the world of Thai cooking - a cuisine full of colours, flavours and sheer vibrancy, where the natural good taste of the most delicious ingredients is never disguised. Blessed with rich natural resources and a reliable climate, Thai cooks have been able to develop and refine a cuisine that is unique. It is not difficult, however, to spot the influence of near neighbours China and India in Thailand's stir-fries and curries, yet there is always the distinct Thai style with the use of herbs, spices and the ever-present coconut. The result is light, aromatic and zestful food that can also be hot, robust and full-flavoured. Spicy 'heat' is one of the unmistakable characteristics of Thai food, reflecting the fact that more than half a dozen of the world's hottest chillies are indigenous to the country.
The uniqueness of Thai food can be sampled in the light stir-fries which are not thickened with cornflour (cornstarch) as they are in China, curries based on a freshly pounded paste of fresh herbs and spices, rather than the blends of dry flavourings that are used in India, and the liberal use of coconut milk.
Thai cuisine centres around the country's bountiful rice harvests and its rich supplies of green vegetables, herbs, spices and fruit. The thousands of miles of coastline and numerous inland waterways also mean that at least one fish or seafood dish - be it sizzling prawns (shrimp), a spicy fish curry or a baked whole fish wrapped in banana leaves -usually features in every meal. Meat, including beef, cattle and poultry, also contributes to the varied cuisine, as the country's religious groups impose few of the dietary restrictions which are commonplace in nearby countries.
Meals and menus
When a Thai family or group of friends sit down to enjoy a meal, numerous dishes are served at once, with a large bowl of rice holding pride of place in the centre. Everyone will simply help themselves without being expected to wait until they are served. International hotels in Thailand and Thai restaurants around the world cater for Western conventions by separating soups and appetizers into separate courses, but that is not the traditional Thai style.
A typical family menu may include a clear soup, a steamed dish, a fried dish, a slowly cooked curry, a bowl of sauce for dipping individual portions into and a salad. When a dessert is served it will be a liquid or dry sweet dish, or a beautifully presented platter or carved basket of fresh fruit. Thai salads, elaborate combinations of vegetables and fruit with strips of meat and seafood, are assembled with the intention of achieving a balanced mix of colours, flavours and textures.
Unlike many of their neighbours in South-East Asia, Thais prefer using spoons to using chopsticks, except when eating noodles, so when a meal is served there won't be any serving spoons and all the dishes will be served communally. Everyone will have a plate for rice in front of them. The diners use their own spoons to scoop up a small portion of one the dishes and bring the food back to their plate to eat with the rice before moving on to the next dish. This will continue until everyone has had as much to eat as they want.
The Thai are great snackers and eating between meals is a regular feature of everyday life. Street vendors on almost every corner sell tempting selections of small, often sweet appetizers and other finger foods. These can be anything from fried rice cakes, skewers of barbecued meat with peanut sauce or noodle dishes to thick, juicy slices of exotic fruit.
Rice is such an important part of Thai culture as well as its cuisine that a host or hostess starts a meal with the refrain kin-khao, literally 'eat rice'. Most Thais will eat rice at least once day, and may well have some with every meal. Modern influences are breaking down age-old traditions, but not long ago most Thais would begin the day with rice porridge or a meat and rice soup for breakfast.
Long and short grain rices are staples of the Thai kitchen, and are prepared in a variety of ways - boiling, stir-frying and deep-frying. The bland flavour of simply prepared rice provides the perfect counter-balance to spicier, more flavourful ingredients.
Thai jasmine rice has a lovely aromatic scent and long, slender grains. It is sold in specialist Thai food stores and adds an authentic flavour to any Thai meal.
Short-grain rice is commonly called sticky rice because the grains can be literally squeezed together into a solid mass after it has been cooked. Popular for serving in desserts, sticky rice is also often wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. The short grains are also ground into a fine flour that thickens very liquid dishes and is used for making dumplings, cakes and pastries.
Creamy coloured rice noodles, made from ground rice, are also popular and regularly included in soups and stir-fried and deep-fried dishes. Although they are virtually tasteless, they are appreciated by cooks because they absorb the flavour or any other ingredients they are cooked with. Clever Thai cooks also deep-fry the noodles as an edible garnish for other dishes.
Attractive, inviting presentation of food is just as important to Thai cooks as the balanced flavouring of dishes. Great care is taken not only with the careful selection and preparation of ingredients, but also with the intricate fruit and vegetable carving used to decorate dishes when they are served.
Skilled artisans work calmly and delicately to make the most elaborate carving from almost any fruit and vegetable, including cucumbers, firm carrots and radishes. Almost as if by magic, an accomplished Thai carver can transform a piece of fresh ginger into lifelike looking crab, complete with long sharp pinchers. Pineapples and melons are hollowed out with elaborate patterns carved in the skin or peel to make decorative containers for serving from or to make a table centrepiece.
Thailand's cuisine is quick to prepare and cook - a valuable asset when time is at a premium for cooks everywhere. It is reassuring, too, to know that mastering the art of Thai cooking is not difficult and the basics can be absorbed very quickly. Although Thai dishes may seem exotic and unusual, the everyday cooking techniques used in Thai kitchens are familiar to Western cooks.
Boiling Most evening meals include a soup, in which the ingredients have been boiled together. Thais also boil water for pouring over several types of dried noodles to reconstitute them before quickly stir-frying with other ingredients. If you want to cook noodles or rice in salted water, remember to add the salt to the water after it comes to the boil because salted water takes longer to boil. A conventional heavy-based saucepan is ideal to use, but a wok works just as well.
Deep-frying Crispy, deep-fried foods are popular throughout Thailand, many of which, such as fish cakes, are served as snacks by street vendors.
The technique used by Thai cooks is identical to that used in Western kitchens, and the same guidelines for success apply. Use a vegetable oil such as sunflower, corn or peanut, with little flavour and a high smoking point, because it should be heated to about 190°C/375°F. It is a good idea to attach a deep-frying thermometer to your wok or saucepan so you make sure the oil stays at the right temperature: if it is too cool, too much oil will be absorbed and the finished dish will be greasy and unpleasant; if it is too hot, the outside will burn before the middle is cooked.
Grilling or barbecuing Thais are fond of grilling foods, especially fresh seafood, over charcoal. Meat and seafood are often marinated before they are grilled. A well-known example of a delicious, tender Thai grilled dish is satay - tender pieces of beef, pork or chicken grilled on bamboo skewers and served with a spicy peanut sauce. Originally Malaysian, there probably isn't a Thai restaurant menu in the world that doesn't feature it.
Steaming One of the most basic of all cooking techniques, steaming is well suited to the Thai cuisine because it preserves flavours and retains much of the natural moisture in ingredients. Tender steamed dishes also provide an interesting contrast in a meal to the crisper texture of ingredients that have been stir-fried or deep-fried. Steaming, which is simply cooking over boiling liquid - not in it - is an ideal way to cook delicate ingredients, such as freshly caught fish and seafood. This is because the food is not subjected to the fierce heat of frying and there isn't any oil to mask the subtle fresh seafood flavour. The steam circulating around the food creates a moist cooking environment so food remains tender because it doesn't dry out. There are health benefits from steaming food because vitamin C, present in bean-sprouts and other vegetables, is not destroyed as it is when food is boiled.
Steaming is a good technique for busy cooks without much time because several dishes can be cooked at once if you use a tiered steamer or stack several bamboo steamers on top of each other.
Thai cooks are fond of wrapping rice, meat or seafood in banana leaves with fresh herbs and spices and then steaming them to create aromatic parcels. (Large lettuce and vine leaves make acceptable alternatives.)
The most important thing to remember when steaming is to make sure the container you use is tightly sealed. This retains the heat and moisture.
Stir-frying All Thai kitchens are equipped with at least one large wok, and the list of ingredients that are suitable for stir-frying includes just about everything in the Thai daily diet - rice and noodles, fresh vegetables, meat, poultry and fish and seafood.
This fast and very easy cooking technique was developed centuries ago by the Chinese and has been adopted whole-heartedly by Thai chefs. Because stir-frying is so quick, vegetables retain their flavour and texture and meat remains tender. It is also a healthy way to cook because ingredients retain the nutrients that are destroyed by longer exposure to heat in other cooking methods.
Stir-frying involves constantly stirring small pieces of food in very little oil over a very high heat until they are cooked through. The food is cooked by both the heat of the oil and the heat of the pan. A wok is the most suitable cooking utensil for stir-frying in, but you can also use a heavy-based frying pan (skillet).
It is vital to have all your ingredients prepared before you start stir-frying.
The Indian influence on Thai food is most evident in the popular curries, but the curries served in Thailand have their own style. This is because the Thai cooks start by pounding fresh herbs and spices, and occasionally other ingredients, together to make a wet paste, unlike in India, where curries are flavoured with blends of dry herbs and spices. Quick-cooking Thai curries are usually simmered uncovered in coconut milk and tend to contain a small proportion of solids to liquid, as the hot, spicy juices are absorbed by the rice that is the usual accompaniment. It is also an economical way to feed more people.
Green and red curry pastes are the most traditional, and every cook has a personal recipe, although there are recipes that start with orange or yellow pastes. Pastes were traditionally made by pounding ingredients in a deep, stone mortar with a heavy pestle, but as many customs are abandoned in the universal quest to save time, some modern cooks use commercially produced curry pastes, now sold in all supermarkets, and electric food processors replace the mortar and pestle.
Red curry paste, coloured by generous amounts of dried chillies, forms the basis of many beef curries, while green curry paste is usually used for chicken curries, although there are many exceptions.
You don't have to buy lots of expensive equipment to cook delicious Thai meals. In fact, most Thai kitchens are modest rooms with a supply of basic, traditional utensils. Even today there are fewer gas or electric ovens and grills (broilers) than in the West, and in rural areas family meals are still cooked on open charcoal stoves. Any utensils that you don't already have can be bought in most good kitchen supply stores, large supermarkets or Oriental food stores.
Chopping boards Much Thai cooking involves chopping or slicing ingredients into small pieces, so a sturdy chopping board is a good investment. It will protect the blade on any cleaver or knife, as well as your working surface!
Cleavers and knives Traditional Thai cooks may well use only a cleaver for all their meat and vegetable preparation, while others will have a selection of knives similar to the ones found in any Western kitchen. Made in carbon or stainless steel, cleavers have a firm, trapezoid blade and can be used for chopping, slicing, mincing (grinding) and even cutting through bones. A cleaver inevitably gets lots of heavy-duty use, so buy one that has the blade forged into the handle, which means it should last longer. Large cleavers can be quite heavy; the heaviest ones are for cutting through meat bones.
If you want to use a more conventional knife, however, make sure you have a good, general-purpose kitchen knife, also called a cook's or chef's knife. The blades come in a variety of lengths, but one 20-25 cm/8-10 inches long is useful for most preparations and easy to handle. Formal or celebration meals in Thailand often feature elaborately carved fruit decorations and this is done with a small fluting knife. Smaller than most paring knives, the blade on this type of knife is curved into a half-moon shape and it has a very sharp point.
Cutting utensils made from carbon steel can be given razor-sharp edges, but they tarnish and have to be carefully washed and dried immediately after each use. Stainless-steel blades on the other hand can't be made as sharp but they don't tarnish or rust. If you are buying a new cleaver or knife, it is simply a matter of personal choice which material you select, as both make excellent knives.
Deep-frying ladle This simple strainer with a long wooden handle and a coarse wire basket at the end is used for removing deep-fried food from hot fat, or scooping ingredients out of boiling liquids. You can substitute a slotted draining spoon.
Ginger grater Many Thai recipes require the refreshing flavour of fresh ginger (ginger root) but not its texture, and this is achieved by using a grater specifically designed for ginger. The grater's surface has rows of tiny, spike-like bumps which bruise and break down the ginger's fibres to release the juice, rather than just cutting or shredding the flesh, which is what happens when a standard Western grater is used. These graters are traditionally made out of white ceramic but you can also find wooden ones. Also popular with Japanese and Chinese chefs, these are often sold in Chinese supermarkets, or specialist kitchen shops.
Pestle and mortar Most Thai homes own two of these traditional pieces of equipment for grinding spices and crushing herbs and other ingredients into pastes: a coarse stone one strong enough to withstand heavy pounding to make a finely ground mixture, ideal for preparing moist curry pastes in, and a wooden one for more gentle blending. A small food processor or coffee grinder, used exclusively for grinding herbs and spices, makes a less labour-intensive substitute.
Saucepan A large heavy-based saucepan is ideal for cooking rice, an essential component of Thai meals. Make sure that any saucepan you use for cooking rice has a tight-fitting lid. Numerous saucepans hanging from the ceiling were once a regular sight in Thai kitchens but they are now being replaced by electric rice cookers.
Steamer Inexpensive bamboo steamers that could be stacked over a pan of boiling water were once the norm in Thai kitchens, but now these are being replaced by multi-tiered aluminium or stainless-steel steamers. Stainless-steel steamers with interleaved perforated panels that fit inside saucepans are inexpensive and work well, although they only hold a limited quantity of ingredients.
Steamers are not expensive and are good investments even if you do not intend to do a lot of Thai cooking because they can be used for a lot of Western-style cooking as well. If you buy one of the ones that doesn't have a built-in saucepan on the bottom, be sure to check that it fits comfortably in or on top of your saucepans. The top must be able to close completely for it to be effective.
Wok This economical and versatile cooking utensil will become invaluable if you cook a lot of Thai food, although a large, heavy-based frying pan (skillet) is an adequate substitute. A large wok can be used for stir-frying, deep-frying, boiling and even steaming when you place a bamboo steamer inside it. Chinese food stores are a good source of inexpensive, but well-made, woks.
Like a frying pan, a wok is used directly over the heat source, but its design, with its curved sides and rounded base, distributes the heat evenly, creating a cooking surface much larger than on a similar-sized frying pan.
Woks are made in all materials, including some with non-stick surfaces. Most woks have one long handle but another useful and widely available design has two handles on the sides, which makes it easier to handle.
The two features to look for when buying a wok are a wooden handle that won't get too hot and a round burner ring, also called a wok stand. This goes over the gas flame or electric element on top of the stove and stabilizes a round-bottom wok, so it remains stable while you are cooking.
The wonderful, exotic flavours of Thai food are created by a combination of ingredients, many of which Western cooks are very familiar with, while others are not as well known. Here is a guide to the most frequently used ingredients in Thai cooking. Some of these are easily found in supermarkets, while others are only available from stores selling Asian and Oriental groceries.
Bamboo shoots These cream-coloured shoots add a crunchy texture to stir-fries. They are not sold fresh, but you will find cone-shaped whole shoots or slices in cans and occasionally dried ones, which need to be soaked in water before they are used. Once canned shoots have been opened, drain off the liquid and transfer any unused ones to a bowl of water and store in the refrigerator for up to five days, changing the water daily.
Banana leaves Thai cooks use these large green inedible leaves for wrapping around food before it is steamed or baked, and sometimes as large platters for serving food on. During the cooking process, the leaves impart a slightly aromatic flavour and sometimes a pale green colour. Do not eat these leaves.
Basil A species of basil grown in Thailand, called Holy basil or Thai basil, has a much sharper, more pungent flavour and thinner leaves than that of the sweet basil commonly grown in the West. Thai basil is not eaten raw, but instead is added to meat and fish curries while they cook. Look in specialist Oriental food stores for this; even if you can't find the fresh plant you may find seeds which are easy to cultivate. Substitute sweet basil if unavailable.
Bean sauce Sold in cans or jars, this spicy, thick sauce is made from crushed yellow or black soya beans, flour, vinegar, salt and a selection of spices. It is used to intensify the flavour of many cooked dishes, and salt usually isn't needed after this rs'added. You might find it labelled as 'salted black beans'. The sauce will keep almost indefinitely in its container at room temperature, unless you live in a hot, humid area, where it should be refrigerated.
Bean-sprouts Tiny, crunchy mung bean sprouts are added to salads and stir-fries. Fresh sprouts, available from supermarkets, are best eaten on the day of purchase, although they can be kept in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for several days. Canned bean sprouts are sold but they have less texture and taste.
Chilli paste Made from ground roasted chillies and oil, this is sold in small jars, and may be simply labelled 'ground chillies in oil'. The flavour is concentrated and usually very hot, so only use a small amount at a time. It will keep indefinitely in a sealed container.
Chilli sauce Thai cooks occasionally add this flavouring to other ingredients while they are cooking, but usually it is served as a side dish for dipping crispy fried or grilled (broiled) foods into. Whenever you prepare a Thai meal, be sure to put small bowls of chilli sauce on the table. Chilli sauces with varying degrees'of heat are used throughout Asia, but in Thailand they tend to be slightly sweetened and have a clear, bright red appearance with small pieces of dried chillies. Numerous commercial brands are sold, and some Oriental grocers make up their own recipe. You will often find bottles of Thai chilli sauce labelled as just chicken or fish sauce.
Chillies, dried A good substitute for fresh chillies, these are generally added whole to other ingredients but sometimes a recipe will specify to halve them first. In either case, they are usually removed from a dish before it is served. Dried chillies should keep for up to a year in a cool, dark place.
Chillies, fresh More than half a dozen of the world's hottest chillies grow in Thailand, and it is the tiny but searingly hot bird's-eye chilli that produces much of the heat in Thai recipes.
Chilli peppers come in a variety of colours and shapes with varying degrees of heat, but as a general rule, the smaller a chilli is, the hotter it will be. Many of the chillies regularly used in Thai cooking are familiar to Western cooks and easily available - Anaheim, cayenne, jalapeho, New Mexican, serrano and bird's-eye chillies. If you are new to Thai cooking, use one of the milder chillies, such as the Anaheim, and then gradually replace it with one of the hotter ones. Chopped fresh hot chillies can be replaced with chilli paste or chilli powder in recipes, but the result will be slightly different. Take care not to rub your eyes or mouth after you have prepared fresh chillies without first washing your hands.
Coconut In one form or another, coconut appears in most Thai meals, with the fresh meat used in both sweet and savoury cookery for its characteristic flavour. When you buy a coconut, make sure it feels heavy for its size and has enough liquid inside that you can hear it sloshing around when you shake the coconut. An uncracked coconut will keep for about one month at room temperature. After you crack it open, keep the flesh, well wrapped, in the refrigerator for up to five days.
Coconut milk This liquid is not the liquid found inside coconuts - that is called coconut water. Coconut milk, used to flavour meat and fish dishes, as well as desserts and drinks, is made from the white coconut flesh soaked in water or milk and then squeezed to extract all the flavour.
You can make your own coconut milk using a fresh coconut, or buy it in cans. It is also possible to buy solid bars of creamed coconut, which produce coconut milk when mixed with boiling water. Do not confuse coconut milk with coconut cream, or cream of coconut, a thick, sweet liquid used for cocktails.
Coriander (cilantro) Both the roots and leaves of this fragrant herb are used in Thai dishes. The roots are usually added during the cooking process, while the leaves are more often used fresh for adding flavour to cooked dishes; the stems are also ground and used to make curry pastes. Although this is a member of the parsley family and looks similar to flat-leaf parsley, the flavour is very different, and the two herbs are not interchangeable. Coriander (cilantro) will keep in water for about five days, or in the refrigerator in a plastic bag.
Curry leaves These look like bay leaves but are not as thick. They are highly aromatic when chopped, and are often included in slow-simmering dishes, such as curries, reflecting an Indian influence on Thai cuisine. Olive green in colour, curry leaves are sold fresh or dried.
Fish paste Made from fermented fish or shrimp and salt, this thick paste is used in small amounts because it is so strong. Anchovy paste makes a good substitute.
Fish sauce An essential staple throughout Thailand, this thin brown sauce with a pungent flavour is used as a seasoning during cooking and at the table, much like soy sauce is used in China and Japan. Consequently, very little salt is used in Thai cooking. Fish sauce is made by layering fish and salt in large barrels and then leaving the mixture to ferment for about four months, when the liquid is poured off. You will usually finds bottles of this labelled with its Thai name - nam pla.
Galangal Resembling fresh ginger root in appearance, this rhizome has pale yellow flesh and pink shoots. It is also known as Thai ginger, or laos. The root is not used alone, but usually ground and then combined with other ingredients to make the base of red or green curry pastes, or it is added to soups and steamed vegetables. Fresh and dried galangal are sold at Asian food stores. Store the fresh root in an air-tight container in the refrigerator.
Garlic A common ingredient in the Thai kitchen, garlic is also served pickled as a side dish or thinly sliced and deep-fried as a crispy garnish. Thai garlic bulbs tend to be smaller than the ones sold in the West, so they need not be peeled before use, but peeling is necessary for Western garlic, unless it is very young and tender. Store fresh garlic in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Kaffir lime leaves These are dark green, glossy leaves with a lemon-lime flavour that are used as bay leaves are used in Western cooking. If you can't find any, substitute the finely pared rind of 1 lime.
Lemon grass This aromatic plant, with its distinctive slight citrus fragrance and lemon flavour, looks like a fibrous spring onion (scallion) and is frequently included in Thai soups and stews. Only the stalk is used, and it should be bashed or split along its length to release all the flavour during cooking. It is then usually discarded before the dish is served. Some Asian shops also sell dried lemon grass.
Limes Used for flavouring and garnishing, limes are an important ingredient in many Thai dishes.
Oyster sauce Despite being made from dried oysters, this thick, rich brown , sauce doesn't have any hint of the flavour of oysters. Instead, it tastes salty-sweet and is usually used to flavour stir-fries. It is sold in bottles, and once opened, it should be stored in the refrigerator.
Palm sugar A thick, coarse brown sugar with a slightly caramel taste. It is sold in round cakes or in small round flat containers. Soft dark brown or demerara sugars are good alternatives.
Rice All Thai meals include rice, both the long-grain fragrant Thai rice and the shorter, glutinous 'sticky' rice, called this because its high gluten content cooks into a sticky mess. Although sticky rice is often used in desserts, it also features in main courses as stuffings or wrapped in leaves with meat and spices to make parcels that are steamed or boiled. When fragrant Thai rice is unavailable, substitute basmati or another high-quality long-grain rice; use Italian arborio rice as a substitute for sticky rice.
Rice vinegar This slightly sweet vinegar is less acidic than most Western vinegars. Cider vinegar can be used as a substitute.
Shrimp paste Similar to fish paste, but made exclusively with shrimp, this is very pungent and should be used sparingly. Cooking transforms the off-putting odour, so shrimp paste is fried or roasted before it is combined with other ingredients. It is sold as a bar of fresh paste or as a ground powder. If you have
the paste, store it in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed container or its strong odour will permeate other foods.
Tamarind One of the ingredients that gives Thai cuisine its special sweet and sour taste. The pulp of the tamarind tree is compressed into a dark-brown slab which needs to be soaked in boiling water before use to remove the fibres and seeds. Asian grocery stores sell tamarind paste and tamarind juice, both ready to use. Vinegar diluted with water or water can be used as substitutes but neither the flavour nor colour are exactly the same.
Tofu Also called bean curd, this creamy coloured, mild-tasting ingredient is made from compressed soy beans. Available plain or smoked, tofu is a good source of protein and ideal for vegetarian diets. It is useful for cooks as it absorbs the flavours of other ingredients it is cooked with. Pressed tofu can be cubed for stir-frying or cooking with other ingredients, while the softer, creamier silken tofu is used in dressings or desserts. Store tofu in the refrigerator in a bowl of water for about five days, changing the water daily.
Water chestnuts Sometimes sold fresh at Asian food stores, these are more commonly available canned. They add a crunchy texture and slightly sweet taste to dishes. Store like bamboo shoots.
Wonton skins These are thin sheets of pale-coloured dough used for wrapping around sweet and savoury mixtures before they are fried or steamed. Filo or strudel pastries makes good alternatives.
No Thai meal is complete without beautiful garnishes made from fresh fruit or vegetables. Here are some simple techniques that can add style and flair to your presentation.
Chilli flower Use a long, thin fresh chilli. Carefully make 6 slices in the chilli from almost at the base to the tip all the way round, to make the petals. Chill in cold water for at least 30 minutes until the strips curl into petals.
Use a very sharp paring knife to cut the skin off a tomato in a long strip, starting at the top and working around to the bottom. Roll up the strip, starting very tightly but then rolling more loosely until the roll resembles a fullblown rose.
Cut a piece of spring onion (scallion) stem about 7.5 cm/3 inches long. Cut very thin slices from both ends that almost meet in the middle; do not cut all the way through. Chill in cold water for at least 30 minutes until the sections curl into petals.
Use a vegetable peeler to cut very thin strip of carrot, cutting the whole length. Roll up the strips, then spear three with a wooden cocktail stick (toothpick). Chill in cold water for at least 30 minutes. Remove sticks before using.
Thinly slice peeled cloves of garlic. Heat a wok over a high heat, then add vegetable oil and heat until it is 180°C/350°F or until a cube of bread browns in 60 seconds. Add the garlic slices and deep-fry until golden brown and crisp looking. Remove with a deep-frying ladle and drain well on paper towels. Use to garnish rice dishes.
Use a cleaver of heavy cook's knife to halve a pineapple lengthwise; do not cut off the grey-green leaves at the top. Use a small paring knife to cut out all the flesh. Do not worry if you can not get the flesh to come out in one piece. Cut out any small brown 'eyes'. Remove the core, then finely dice the flesh.
To make an exotic fruit salad to serve in the pineapple basket, mix the pineapple flesh with a selection of other tropical fruit and squeeze over fresh orange juice and lime juice. Gently toss together with your hands, then return the fruit salad to the hollowed-out pineapple. Sprinkle with freshly grated coconut.
1. If you are using a round-bottomed wok, put it on a wok rack so it rests securely.
2. Only half-fill the wok with oil.
3. Use long chopsticks or a long-handled wooden spoon for stirring the food while it fries.
4. Use a thermometer to control the heat of the oil.
5. Never leave the wok unattended over a high heat.
6. Use a wooden-handled ladle to remove cooked food from the hot oil. Drain the food well on paper towels.
1. Have all your ingredients prepared before you start. Thai cooking is quick, so once you start frying there won't be any time for chopping or slicing.
2. Cut ingredients to similar sizes so they all cook in the same time.
3. Heat the wok over a high heat before you add the oil; don't add any oil until smoke rises from the wok.
4. Pour the oil down the sides so they are well coated. This prevents foods from sticking.
5. Cook meat first, then add other ingredients according to how long they will take to cook, so all ingredients are tender at once.
6. Pat dry marinated fish, meat or poultry before you add it to the hot oil to prevent it from splattering.
THE CUTTING EDGE
If you ever wateh a professional Thai chef chopping or slicing with a cleaver, he or she will work at lightning speed. This is because they are working with razor-sharp cutting instruments. If you intend to cook Thai food regularly, you should get into the habit of quickly sharpening your cleaver or knife each time you use it.
Using a steel is a quick and easy way to keep any blade sharp. There are several methods for using a steel but one easy technique is to use one hand to hold the steel vertically on a non-stick surface. Use your other hand to grip the handle of the cleaver or knife like a tennis racket. Hold the blade at a 20° angle to the shaft of the steel, then in a smooth, continuous movement pull the blade downwards along the length of the steel. Repeat about five times, then follow the same procedure on the other side of the blade.
A WELL-SEASONED WOK
To prevent food sticking while it is being stir-fried, you should 'season' your wok before using it the first time, unless it has a non-stick surface, in which case, follow the manufacturer's instructions.
To season a wok, heat it over a high heat until the surface is hot. then remove it from the heat and stir in about 1 tablespoon of flavourless vegetable oil. Use a double thickness of kitchen paper (paper towels) to rub the entire surface with oil. Repeat this process twice more, then rinse the inside of the wok with water and dry it thoroughly. If it isn't dried thoroughly, rust will develop and you will have to scour it and season it again.
Some recipes specify to grate ginger before it is cooked with other ingredients. To do this, just peel the flesh and rub it at a 45°angle up and down on the fine section of a metal grater, or use a special wooden or ceramic ginger grater.
Always heat your wok before you add oil or other ingredients. This will prevent anything from sticking to it.
OPENING A FRESH COCONUT
Use a metal skewer to pierce the three round 'eyes' on the top of the shell, then shake out the liquid. (This is coconut water and can be added to curries and other dishes but it doesn't have much flavour.) Place the shell on a hard surface and tap it around the middle until it cracks in half. Prise the white meat away with a sharp knife and peel off the thin brown skin. Cut the meat into pieces or grate it. It can be frozen for up to two months.
MAKING FRESH COCONUT MILK
Place about 250 g/8 oz/1 cup grated coconut in a heatproof bowl and pour in 600 ml/ 1 pint/2 Vi cups boiling water, or enough to just cover the coconut. Leave for 1 hour. Strain through a colander lined with muslin (cheesecloth), then gather up the muslin and squeeze out as much of the thicker liquid as possible. You can also use unsweetened desiccated (shredded) coconut.
USING CREAMED COCONUT
Bars of creamed coconut make coconut milk that is creamier and richer than when fresh coconut meat is used. Instructions will be on the package, but as a rough guide, crumble a specific weight of creamed coconut into a heatproof bowl and then stir in twice as much boiling water. For example, to make 250 ml/ 8 fl oz/1 cup, use 75 g/3 oz/ 6 tbsp creamed coconut and 175 ml/6 fl oz/3A cup water.
The tamarind pulp sold in Asian and Oriental food stores has to be soaked in boiling liquid before it is used to give food a sharp and sour flavour. All you have to do is soak about 30 g/1 oz pulp in 300 tnl/% pint/1 lh cups boiling water for about 20 minutes. Then strain the liquid through a non-metallic sieve (strainer), pressing down on the pulp with a wooden spoon.
Many different varieties of noodles are used in Thai cooking, and most are interchangeable. Dried noodles need to be soaked in cold water before they are used, during which time they will double in weight. They then require only a very short cooking time, and are ideal for using in stir-fry recipes. Fresh noodles are ready to use and also only require a short cooking time. The most typical Thai noodles are:
Cellophane noodles Made from ground mung beans, these are thin, almost transparent and flavourless. They are also called bean thread noodles and often used in Thai soups and some stir-fry dishes. Always sold dry.
Egg noodles Sold fresh in Asian markets or dry, these are made from wheat flour, eggs and water so they have a yellow appearance, and are rolled very thinly. These can be boiled or steamed.
Rice noodles Similar in taste and appearance to cellophane noodles, except that these are made with ground rice rather than mung beans. Rice ribbon noodles are long and cut to a width similar to Italian tagliatelle, while rice stick noodles are shorter. Rice vermicelli are long, thin noodles that cook almost instantly; just soak quickly and drain before adding to a stir-fry, but deep-fry without soaking.
C. Bowen, C. Hobday, S. Ashworth - Complete Thai Cooking