It may have been the pretty Thai girls who first received attention, but it’s the uniqueness of Thailand’s food that ultimately beguiled and enchanted the Wickedfood Cooking School film crew who were on assignment through Southeast Asia to learn more about the food and gather information for our Thai cooking classes and team building cooking classes.
A minor flirtation with their herbs and spices and fascinating flavours a few years ago, has today turned into a ravishing love affair with thousands of Thai eateries opening throughout the rest of the world, and Thai cooking classes are popular throughout the world. If one takes a closer look at this phenomenon it’s not difficult to understand why.
Thailand is totally bewitching – from its mystical golden palaces, temples and giant Buddhas beckoning the faithful with majestic serenity, the clouds of incense wafting lazily through the tropical air, to the pious gestures and serene expressions of the worshippers.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is the bustle and clamour from the mobile food vendors and hawkers responsible for satisfying the stomachs of millions of people daily. Such a rich tapestry of sights, sounds and aromas – a nation with a lifestyle so different from the west.
One’s first encounter with hawker food is one of initial scepticism, not only because of the informality of the transaction, but largely as a result of the seemingly unhygienic conditions of preparation. However, most hawker food can be regarded as mobile restaurants without clinically disastrous effects, so the visitor must use his or her own discretion as to, should I, or not? This depends largely on one’s courage and sense of adventure, as undeniably there is bound to be litter on the floor, wobbly chairs, piles of chicken bones in the corner and stacks of unwashed plates lying around.
A pastime much loved by the Thais is to go pai thiaw which is difficult to translate but roughly means to go for a stroll. Wandering from place to place to see what’s going on, it is customary to pause and sample some tasty dish here and an appetising morsel there and probably even take some home. Enter the food hawkers, with their incredible variety of offerings – titbits wrapped in banana leaves, soups in plastic bags, peeled and chopped fruits – steamed, fried, boiled and grilled dishes, trays of golden deep-fried roaches and other strange looking bug-like creatures, little dessert parcels – an endless parade of tantalising delicacies and intimidatingly unfamiliar goodies.
But Thailand is recognised as one of the greatest rice-growing countries in the world and exports of rice account for almost half of the country’s export revenue. There are as many, if not more, ceremonial rituals attached to the planting and harvesting of the rice in Thailand as there are in other Asian countries, where rice represents life and is revered as such. Small wonder then that Thai meals are based on rice, but the number and variety of dishes served with the rice is limited only by the cook’s time, imagination, patience and budget. The traditional table will be groaning with as many as 20 dishes, – meat, fish, vegetables and fruit, which can be put together in any combination desired with one’s rice. In this way, the rice is always fused with the flavours of the chosen dish. Rice is never cooked with salt and Thais never tire of rice. The rice and its complementary dish become one – like yang and yin.
Although there are important differences from country to country, cooks all over south eastern Asia use similar ingredients and cooking techniques, like grilling, frying steaming, boiling and stir-frying. But the characteristics of Thai food depend on who cooks it, for whom it is cooked, for what occasion and where it is cooked. Dishes can be refined and adjusted to suit all palates. Originally, traditional cooking reflected the characteristics of the Thai’s waterborne lifestyle. Aquatic animals, plants and herbs were major ingredients. With their Buddhist background, Thai people also shun the use of big chunks of meat – they prefer rather the shredding and slicing of meats, either stir-fried or deep fried.
The Thai people seek variety, contrast, balance and harmony, – not only in life, but also in their meals. They have become masters at juggling and combining the basic flavours of sweet, sour, salt and spicy, while other dishes are bland. Creating these flavours in unique and imaginative ways provides Thai cooks with a significant weapon in their never-ending search for contrast and variety that is such an integral part of the traditional Thai meal.
Westerners usually rely on lemon juice and vinegar to produce a sour flavour, but the Thai repertoire is infinitely larger. Tamarind, the pulp from the long slender tamarind pods, is soaked, squeezed and strained to produce a thick, brownish liquid that has a delicate sour flavour with a hint of raisins. Lemongrass is another ingredient used to produce a sour and lemony fragrant taste. The essential Thai flavours cannot be produced without the use of the wild kaffir lime, that grows throughout Thailand. The leaves of the tree are often added whole to dishes during the simmering process, much like a bay leaf, whilst at other times the leaves are finely shredded or pounded with a mortar and pestle and added to curries and a wide variety of other dishes. The grated rind of the knobby lime fruit, (which has no juice at all) is also used to produce a sour taste. Regular limes as used in the West are also used in many dishes.
The people of Thailand love their food hot and spicy, to which most people who have ever sampled anything Thai, will attest. The colourful chilli peppers for which Thai food is famous, come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Thai cooks don’t however, achieve their unique flavour sensations by simply throwing a handful of chilli peppers into every dish they create. Generally speaking, the larger the chilli, the milder the flavour. But this is a word of warning, approach any chilli floating in a Thai dish with caution, and don’t assume that a green chilli is milder than a red one, either. The heat produced is exactly the same. The fiercest of the lot is the tiny prik kee noo, literally, mouse-dropping chilli. Chillies are used in both fresh and dried form.
And then there’s fish sauce, an ingredient that no self respecting Thai dish can be made without. Westerners use ordinary salt in cooking – the Thais use fish sauce or – Nam Pla. Fish sauce is made from fermented anchovies, or other kinds of seafood, that are pressed to extract a salty liquid. This sauce, with a distinct odour that many people initially find disagreeable, is rich in minerals and protein. The Thais take their fish sauce very seriously and there’s much debate over which brand tastes best. However, fish sauce is not the only salty ingredient used, – soy sauce, bean paste and yellow bean sauce are other examples. They use both light and dark soy sauce, and the thicker bean pastes are used as flavourants as well as thickening agents.
For sweetness, ordinary white granulated sugar is sometimes used, but mostly a dish will be sweetened by palm sugar. Palm sugar is made from the sap of a tree and boiled down to produce a brownish sugar that tastes lightly of caramel. The quantity used is mostly small and this product is often used as a flavour-enhancer rather than a primary flavour.
Like the country itself, Thai cuisine offers an incredible variety of new flavours – and once discovered, most Westerners are totally hooked on this harmonious marriage of centuries-old eastern and western influences combined into a taste sensation so uniquely Thai.
A proper Thai meal should consist of a soup, a curry dish with condiments, and a dip with accompanying fish and vegetables. There must be harmony of tastes & textures within individual dishes as with the entire meal.
Thai food is eaten with a fork and spoon. Even single-dish meals such as fried rice with pork, or steamed rice topped with roasted duck, are served in bite-sized pieces or chunks obviating the need for a knife. The spoon is used to convey food to the mouth.
To read more on our Thai adventures click here
Cooking schools in South East Asia
Thai House cooking school • Thailand
Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School • Thailand
Red Bridge Cooking School • Hoi An • Vietnam
Great Asian recipes – Click here:
Kaeng kari ka – yellow curried chicken
Phanaeng Beef Curry in sweet peanut sauce
Warm squid salad in a pineapple
Sunninghill – (011) 234-3252 firstname.lastname@example.org
Wickedfood Cooking School runs cooking classes throughout the year at its purpose-built cooking studios in Johannesburg. Cooking classes are run in the mornings and evenings 7 days a week (subject to a minimum of 12 people). This team building venue is also popular for corporate events and private functions – team building cooking classes, birthdays, kitchen teas, and dinner parties with a difference.
Our cooking classes are hands-on, where every person gets to participate in the preparation of the dishes. They are also a lot of fun where you not only learn new skills, but get to meet people with similar interests. For corporate groups and team building cooking classes these classes are a novel way of creating staff interaction or entertaining clients.