Step #1: Buy a Mortar and Pestle
December 29, 2010 8:37 AM   Subscribe

Just got David Thompson's Thai Cooking and I'm overwhelmed! Where to start?

I just got a copy of Ask Mefi's favorite Thai cookbook and I can't wait to cook something out of it - but it's terribly overwhelming. I am an experienced home cook, and I'm not afraid to hunt for unusual ingredients or make something that is going to take all day, but this thing is still pretty damn intimidating.

Thai cooks - what are your favorite (authentic) Thai dishes? Fans of the book - what are your favorite recipes?

I'm also interested in what kind of modifications people make to Thompson's recipes - for instance, am I going to be upset if I throw 10 bird's eye chilies (/chillies) into a dish, like recipes often call for? Do I really need to crack and grate a whole coconut to get coconut cream, or can I use canned?
posted by rossination to Food & Drink (12 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
This site explains coconut cream pretty well.

If ya open a good can of coconut milk ( we use Chef's Choice, no guar gum) the solids on top are essentially coconut cream don't know how many cans you'd have to separate for enough cream for a recipe though.
posted by Max Power at 8:55 AM on December 29, 2010


am I going to be upset if I throw 10 bird's eye chilies (/chillies) into a dish, like recipes often call for

Always make it like the recipe says the first time. You might be upset, but you'll also know what 10 birds eye chilies taste like.

My go-to Thai cookbook is called It Rains Fishes, and has a decent bunch of its chapters online, you can check it out over here (these days it's out of print and way too expensive to buy). There's extensive discussion of flavors and ingredients, especially if you follow all of the 'see also' links at the bottom of the chapters. It might be good supplementary information for you.

The absolute best best best best best thing you can do for your Thai cooking abilities is this exercise in flavor balancing. I shill for it every time there's an AskMe like this, but I swear it's to blame for any and all of my Thai cookery skills.
posted by soma lkzx at 9:05 AM on December 29, 2010 [9 favorites]


I've been experimenting with Thai cooking for the last couple years. One of the first things I learned when researching Thai cooking is that how much spicy/sweet/sour you put into any given dish is mostly a matter of personal taste. I have not read the book you refer to, but however many chilies he tells you to put in is just a guideline, and you can put in however many you feel comfortable with. Once you get the basic cooking techniques down and what flavors result, you can feel comfortable playing around with it.

I've also noticed that a lot of Asian cookbooks give you painstakingly detailed instructions on how to prepare various sauces and pastes yourself, while a lot of actual Asian cooks just buy jars of the sauces and pastes premade at the grocery store. If you want to take that shortcut, the trick is knowing what brands are good. This obviously becomes much easier if you have access to an Asian market and aren't stuck with whatever they sell at Stop & Shop. If the book doesn't recommend any particular brand, there are Thai cooking sites that are happy to tell you what they prefer.

I personally have had good results making gai pad khing, red curry (using canned curry paste), and tom yum soup. The recipes come together easily as long as you can get your hands on real deal ingredients like fresh kaffir lime leaves and chinese broccoli.
posted by wondermouse at 9:13 AM on December 29, 2010


I'd start with a green curry. Most thai curries are quite similar in terms of preparation - they involve making pastes which usually have common ingredients, frying them then adding coconut milk and/ or stock and the other ingredients. Once you can make a green curry, then making a red, yellow or jungle (stock) curry is pretty easy.

You can use any kind of meat in the curry and although thai vegetables are great, western ones such as cauliflower, carrots, etc can work well too.

One tip I would offer is that pastes made in a pestle and mortar seem better than pastes made in the blender.
posted by rhymer at 9:17 AM on December 29, 2010


With regard to curry recipes which call for peanuts, a great substitute is peanut butter.
posted by gman at 9:20 AM on December 29, 2010


Never heard of the book so I can't suggest a recipe from it. I love black sticky rice with mango and, a dash of coconut milk. Fish with tamarind sauce (heck anything with tamarind in it, I looove the sourness of tamarind) and, curry with thai eggplants.

A company called Grace sells blocks of creamed coconut. Depending on the grocery store I'd check the Indian food section for it. Avoid tamarind blocks from India, they have a lot of the outer shell, fibrous bits, seeds and are quite dry. The blocks from Thailand are softer and, only have a few seeds.

Upset? Depends on how hot you like it. If you're unsure halve (or more) the amount of heat the recipe asks for, imho I'd rather have something that's edible than so unbearably hot I can't taste anything else.

Btw, if you ever buy fresh kaffir limes try growing the seeds for your own fresh supply (it'll take a few years) of lime leaves. soma lkzx flavour balancing link has information on how to grow them.
posted by squeak at 10:03 AM on December 29, 2010



Btw, if you ever buy fresh kaffir limes try growing the seeds for your own fresh supply (it'll take a few years) of lime leaves. soma lkzx flavour balancing link has information on how to grow them.


Yeah we had so much trouble finding kaffir lime leaves we bought a tree.
posted by Max Power at 10:13 AM on December 29, 2010


Hey!

I make a ton of Thai food, and am a big fan of Kasma Loha-Unchit. I went on one of her Thailand trips several years ago, and that woman knows food. (One of the most wonderful experiences of my life, btw. Highly recommended). I own both the David Thompson book as well as It Rains Fishes, and I've found them equally useful, albeit in different ways.

Making Thai food that really "pops" requires above all else a lot of sensory involvement during the process. Ingredient amounts will differ each time you cook, should differ. You need to taste and smell and listen and watch as you are cooking. Adjust, adjust, adjust when necessary to achieve the flavor you are looking for.

It takes practice. Eventually, you will not use recipes for many go-to dishes, or you will just use them as a guide. Thai food lends itself to an intuitive style of cooking that is tough to nail down in recipe form.

wondermouse brought up an excellent point w/r/t prepared ingredients. As it so happens, Kasma has a page where she talks about her favorite brands. I use many of these, and have found her recommendations to be spot-on. Makes the life of the neophyte Thai cook much easier; you can always make your own nam prik pow later. (Note: If you do that last part, please warn anyone that you live with well ahead of time. It can get... Fragrant.)

Have fun!
posted by turing_test at 10:15 AM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


My very favorite Thai dish - larb/laab/larp - is so easy to make and you can do it with ground pork or chicken. Sour, salty, sweet and spicy - and so good. That website, by the way, is a terrific resource for well-priced ingredients.
posted by CunningLinguist at 11:17 AM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


CunningLinguist: "My very favorite Thai dish - larb/laab/larp - is so easy to make and you can do it with ground pork or chicken. Sour, salty, sweet and spicy - and so good. That website, by the way, is a terrific resource for well-priced ingredients."

Larb is indeed amazing, but really it's a Laotian dish. The Thais certainly do serve it, but mostly in Isan province, which borders on Lao. Although a bit different, the Thai version is Phad Kaprow ________. Phad = fried, Kaprow = basil, and substitute "_________" for tofu or a meat of your choice. Unfortunately, in the West, most restaurants use strips of meat, rather than ground meat, and this totally ruins it for me.
posted by gman at 11:54 AM on December 29, 2010


Lots of stuff on the youtube. I loveLao sticky rice.
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:13 PM on December 29, 2010


In Thai Food, David Thompson is a bit.. precious about not making substitutions etc. And he's right - some are just not the same. But yes, fresh coconut milk/cream is better, but don't worry about using canned (many recommend Chao Koh brand, or Mae Ploy). Better to make it, than not at all. In his "Thai Street Food" book, he is a bit more forgiving and recognises that we just don't all have time or equipment for grating coconuts.

I would make the tom khaa gai (Dtom khaa gai? don't remember what transliteration he uses), which is a chicken soup with coconut milk and galangal. It is a relatively easy recipe from the book, and is also a really good recipe for practicing balancing Thai flavours. I usually eat it with a plate of steamed rice on the side.
posted by AnnaRat at 6:14 PM on December 29, 2010


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