In order to achieve the greatest taste sensation from your Thai cooking, be sure to start with fresh ingredients. Dried and packaged lemongrass, for instance, is hardly worth comparing to the fresh version (fresh lemongrass is available in all Asian shops and markets). When shopping at Asian stores, note that ingredients such as galangal, pandan, or kaffir lime leaves may be available only in the freezer section. Frozen herbs and spices are nearly as potent as fresh, and youll have the convenience of having them on hand in your freezer at home for future use. See Shopping for Thai Ingredients for more helpful shopping tips.
Have the Right Equipment
Thai cooking requires a minimum of cooking tools and utensils. The wok is the primary cooking tool (a deep frying pan is a good substitute), used with wooden spoons or shovels (spatulas) to stir-fry ingredients. A pestle & mortar made from stone or pottery is also commonly used for pounding and grinding spices and herbs. A food processor is the modern equivalent; however, I still find my pestle & mortar does a better job of grinding whole spices such as coriander (If you do not own this particular equipment, a coffee grinder also does an excellent job).
I like to use my pestle & mortar to pound slices of lemongrass before putting them in the processorthis breaks down the hard fibers of the lemongrass, which are almost thread-like, making it easier to eat and even more fragrant.
A rice cooker is an invaluable appliance to have when cooking up a Thai meal, making rice preparation quick and easy. However, a simple stainless steel pot with a lid will work just as well.
Find a Balance of Salty, Sour, Spicy, and Sweet
In Thai cooking, taste-testing is a complete necessity. Following a Thai recipe is a good start, but because tastes vary from person to person, you will need to find your own balance of seasonings with each dish you make. Here are some tips to help you achieve that balance:
- To tone down a dish that is too spicy, add coconut milk or yoghurt. A little sugar may also diminish some of the fire.
- To tone down a dish that is too salty, add lime juice, lemon juice, or tamarind water (made from a little tamarind paste mixed with water).
- When you find a dish not salty enough, add fish sauce instead of saltor soy sauce if you are vegetarian. This way you will get more flavor as well as the saltiness youre seeking.
- To sweeten Thai dishes, you can use plain white sugar, although brown sugar is closer to the rock sugar most Asian chefs use. Since I prefer not to use sugar in my cooking, I substitute with xylitola sweet, sugar-like ingredient that does not raise blood glucose levels (available at health food stores). This is also an excellent substitute for diabetics.
- If you find your dish not sour enough, a little lime juice or tamarind water will suffice nicely (for tamarind water, see above).
- Not spicy enough? Thats easy! Add more fresh (or dried) chillies, cayenne pepper, chilli powder, or a teaspoon of Thai chilli sauce (available in Asian stores).
The most important cooking tip I have learned in terms of Thai cuisine is this: make sure adequate time is taken to prepare all ingredients before heating up your wok or frying pan. In Thai cooking, preparation is everything. Youll find that once all the necessary ingredients are sliced, ground, and ready to go, the actual cooking time required is minimal. Most Thai stir-fries (including many noodle dishes) are cooked at high heats and for only a few minutes, which is what makes them particularly fresh, delicious, and nutritious.
When stir frying, start with a well-oiled wok. Spread a good frying oil (like sunflower or canola) around your wok, including up the sides. Add ingredients when the wok is hot so that not too much oil will be absorbed by the food. When the wok gets too dry, I add a little water, broth, or cooking wine instead of more oil. This is a healthier option and works just as well. Add 1 to 2 tbsp. at a time as needed.
To achieve restaurant-quality stir-fried rice, it's important to start with left-over boiled or steamed rice - preferably at least 2 days old. It should be fairly dry and hard to the touch. To achieve this type of rice in a shorter time, place a pot of cooked rice in the refrigerator with the lid off.
When you're ready to fry the rice, first pour a tablespoon or two of oil into the rice and work it through with your fingers, gently separating the grains. This will make the rice nice and fluffy once it's fried - plus this way it won't clump or stick together.
Stir fried vegetables are done when the colors are enhanced (bright green for broccoli). Do not overcook, as this is one of the greatest health benefits of Southeast-Asian foods - the fact that vegetables retain most of their essential nutrients.