As part of my gastronomical tribute to Southeast Asia, I will be doing a five-part series covering Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore. To start with one of the most popular cuisines across the world, I am dedicating the first part to Thai cuisine, which is also one of my favourites because of its sheer splendour and variety. In the recent past, I had the opportunity to spend over a month touring the country and travelled right from Chiang Mai in the north to Krabi in the south. The cuisines across these various regions are quite different as they are based on the availability of spices, fresh produce and the climate. Thai food in general is quite easy to make, provided you have the right ingredients. In my recipes below, I have simplified most of the ingredients, keeping intact the core flavours of this beautiful cuisine. I have not covered some of the touristy green curries, but focused more on the slightly less common but absolutely delicious delicacies of Thailand. My only request: Try not to use ready pastes (unless absolutely necessary). Making the pastes are really quite simple and worth the effort. Moreover, once you get used to it, you’ll never take the shortcut again.
PAD PAK BOONG (THAI STYLE KALMI SAAG/WATER SPINACH)
Thai cuisine is not complete without a green leafy side dish. This dish is typically popular in the remote villages of Thailand as it is cheap and quick to make. Nowadays, you find this served with equal splendour across some of the hotspots in Bangkok.
Morning glory/kalmi saag: 1 big bunch (separate the stem from the leaves)
Garlic: 4 large cloves chopped fine
Red bird eye chilli: Chopped fine
Yellow soya bean: ½tsp paste (most of the big stores have it)
Oyster sauce: 1tbsp
Soya sauce: ½tbsp
Sugar: ½tsp, or according to taste
- Heat 2tbsp of oil. Add garlic and the chillies. Saute till the garlic browns a little but is not burnt.
- Then add the stems first because they take time to become tender. Saute them for only a minute.
- Sprinkle a little water if the wok gets too dry. Then add soya sauce, oyster sauce and sugar and salt to taste. Add the leaves and stir fry. Add a tablespoon of water if too dry. This should take only a minute. Serve hot.
TOM KHA GOONG
One of the most popular soups in Thailand, Tom Kha is a creamy, sweet and sour, slightly spicy bowl of pure goodness. The beauty of this soup is that its stock combines some of Thailand’s most aromatic herbs and spices. Best paired with prawns, you also have versions with chicken or just mushrooms for vegetarians. Due to the coconut milk, this soup is often loved by tourists who aren’t crazy about spices.
Large prawns: 8-10 (head removed but tails intact)
Galangal: 1½-inch peeled and sliced very finely.
Lemon grass: 2 pieces (use the white part and pound a little)
Onions: 2, diced into small cubes (can also use 4
Tomato: 1, cut into 6 thin slices
Mushrooms: 50g, cut into thick slices
Lemon juice: 2-4tbsp (or according to taste)
Kaffir lime leaves: 3 pieces, remove the stalk in the middle
Fresh Red Chillies: 3 pieces, sliced finely
Coriander roots: 2 stalks, separate the roots from the leaves
Fish sauce: 4-5tbsp
Coconut milk: 1 cup
Sugar: 1tbsp (or according to taste)
Spring onions: Green part chopped for garnishing
- Boil 3 cups of water with the galangal peel, coriander roots and the shells and heads of the prawns. Boil for 10 minutes and then strain the stock.
- To the stock (back on simmer) add galangal, lemon grass, onions and chillies. Add 1 cup chicken stock.
- Now add 4tbsp fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, mushrooms and coconut milk. Let simmer for about 10 minutes.
- Then add the prawns and cook till tender. Then put the sliced tomatoes. Check for seasoning and serve hot!
- Garnish with a little green of spring onions and a little red chilli sliced.
THAI CHILLI AND BASIL FRIED RICE
Oyster sauce: 2tbsp
Fish sauce: 2tbsp
Soya sauce: 1tbsp
White sugar: 1tsp
Cooked jasmine rice: 3 cups, chilled
Garlic: 6 large cloves, chopped
Thai red chillies: 2, chopped
Red bell pepper: 1, chopped
Onion: 1 medium, chopped
Medium prawns, chicken, tofu, etc.: 250g
Thai Basil leaves: ???? cups, whole
Coriander leaves: ½ cup, optional
- Whisk together oyster sauce, fish sauce and sugar.
- Heat 3tbsp of oil on medium-high heat. Add the garlic and red chillies and stir fry for 30 seconds. Then add the red pepper, onion and chicken and saute till the chicken is tender.
- Now add the prawns and cook for a minute till prawns are translucent.
- Push the ingredients in the wok to one side and quickly scramble the egg.
- Add the oyster sauce mixture and stir together.
- Raise the heat to high and add the rice. Stir until blended with the sauce and other ingredients.
- Now add the basil and mix well and garnish with cilantro (optional, but a lip-smacking necessary garnish with a fried egg when serving)
Probably the most popular street food of Thailand, Pad Thai is one dish you cannot miss. It is a maze of flavours and has to be eaten right off the wok. This is one dish you cannot re-heat due to the glutinous texture of the noodles. The freshness of the bean sprouts, green onions and lemon are a perfect ‘yang’ to the ‘yin’ of the red chillies.
Flat rice noodles: 280g
Mint: 4 cloves
Uncooked prawns/chicken or firm tofu cut into small pieces: 300g
Fresh bean sprouts: 1 cup
Red bell pepper: 1, thinly sliced
Green onions: 2, chopped
Dry roasted peanuts: ½ cup
Lime juice: Of 2 limes
Coriander: ½ cup, fresh chopped
For the pad Thai sauce:
Fish sauce: 3tbsp
Soya sauce: 1tbsp
Brown sugar: 3tbsp, or according to taste
Tamarind paste: 1tbsp
Sriracha hot sauce: 1tbsp, or according to taste
Creamy peanut butter: 1tbsp (optional)
- Cook noodles just until tender. Rinse with cold water.
- Mix the sauce ingredients together and set aside.
- Heat 1½tbsp of oil in a wok over medium-high heat.
- Add the chicken, garlic and red bell pepper and saute for two minutes. Then add the prawns and saute for three to four minutes.
- Push everything to the side of the wok, and put a little more oil and add the beaten eggs, and scramble them till semi well done.
- Now add the noodles, sauce, bean sprouts and peanuts (keep some peanuts aside for garnishing).
- Then add the Pad Thai sauce and toss everything to combine.
- Serve garnished with green onions, peanuts, coriander leaves and lime wedges. Often served with a side of refined white sugar and red chilli flakes.
STICKY RICE WITH MANGO
Sticky rice with mango and coconut milk sauce is a very popular Thai dessert. It is extremely delicious and a favourite of people of all ages. Thailand is also probably the only country I know of where mangoes are available round the year.
For coconut milk sauce
Coconut milk: 1½ cups
White sugar: ¾ cup
Salt: A pinch
For the slurry (mix the ingredients):
Coconut milk: 2tbsp
For the sticky rice:
Water: For steaming the rice.
Glutinous rice: 1 cup, soaked in water
Alphonso or any sweet mango: 1, sliced or cut in cubes
White sesame seeds: 1tsp, toasted
- In a pan, add the coconut milk and the sugar on low flame till the sugar is dissolved completely (do not put the heat on very high, otherwise the milk might curdle).
- Then pour the Slurry into the pan.
- Raise the heat a little bit and keep stirring till there are no lumps and the sauce is smooth.
- Remove from the fire, add a pinch of salt and our coconut milk sauce is ready.
- Heat the water for steaming the sticky rice.
- Put the soaked glutinous rice in a muslin cloth and put it over the pan of steaming water.
- Then close the lid and let it steam for 30 minutes to 40 minutes.
- Take out the rice and put it in a bowl and add the coconut milk sauce to it.
- Cover the bowl for 30 minutes so that the rice can soak up the sauce.
- Serve the rice with sliced mangoes on one side and garnish with white sesame toasted seeds. Pour over any extra coconut milk over the rice and mangoes and run as fast as you can, or else you may have to share!!!
CUCUMBER PINEAPPLE THAI SALAD
Thai salads are known for their fresh ingredients. Salads with fruits and seasonal vegetables are essential because of the tropical climate and the need to stay hydrated. Plus, they pack in a punch with the often sweet and spicy dressing. This salad is one of my absolute favourites and best had on a hot summer afternoon to help stay hydrated, but more importantly smiling with divine pleasure.
Fresh pineapple chunks: 1½ cups
Cucumber: 1, cut into bite-size chunks (with skin)
Spring onions: 3, sliced
Red bell pepper: 1, sliced thinly
Fresh coriander leaves: 1 cup
Fresh basil leaves: ½ cup, chopped coarsely
Cashews: ¼ cup roasted and halved
For the dressing:
Garlic cloves: large minced
Fresh red chilli: 1, chopped very fine or 1tsp chilli sauce
Soya sauce: 1tsp
Fish sauce: 1tbsp
Lemon juice: Of half a lemon
Brown sugar: 1tsp
- Combine all the dressing ingredients in a cup and set aside.
- In a bowl put the pineapple, cucumber, red bell pepper, spring onions and cashews. Add basil and coriander (keep aside little for garnishing). Chill in the refrigerator for an hour.
- Before serving, pour the salad dressing and toss well. Garnish with coriander and spring onions and check for seasoning. Best served chilled.
CHICKEN IN PENANG CURRY (PHANAENG KAI)
Penang chicken curry is extremely tasty. It’s very similar to red curry but made Penang style.
For the curry paste:
Dry red chilli: 1
Galangal: 1-inch piece
Garlic: 4 large cloves
Lemon grass: 1, outer layer peeled and chopped
Coriander roots: 5, chopped
Kaffir lime leaves: 6
Lemon rind: 2-3 slices
Shrimp paste: ¼tsp (optional)
Coriander seeds: 1tsp, roasted
Cumin seeds: 1tsp, roasted
Lime juice: Of half a lime
For the curry:
Chicken thighs boneless, cut into chunks: 500g
Coconut milk: 1 cup
Palm sugar: 1½tbsp (or brown sugar according to taste)
Fish sauce: 1½tbsp
For the garnish:
Thinly sliced kaffir lime leaves
Finely sliced fresh red chillies
For the curry paste:
- Soak the dry red chillies in water for 15 minutes, then chop them. Retain the water.
- Peel and finely slice the galangal. Put these and the rest of the ingredients in a blender to make a smooth paste. You can add some liquid of the soaked chillies for blending. Keep aside.
- For the curry:
- In a pan heat oil and add half the curry paste.
- After you see the oil separate from the paste, add the chicken and sear. Saute it with the curry paste for some time till the paste becomes aromatic and the chicken is well coated.
- Lower the flame and add the coconut milk. It is important to lower the flame so that the coconut milk does not split. Simmer for at least 30 minutes on low flame.
- Add palm sugar and fish sauce. Check the seasoning and consistency of the curry. Garnish with thinly sliced kaffir leaves and fresh red chilli.
- Serve with steamed rice!
Durri Bhalla is a cookery expert and author of Indian Bohra Cuisine and Inner Truth To Good Health And Weight Loss. You can find her at @DurriBhallaKitchen on Instagram, Durri’s Kitchen on Facebook and Durri Bhalla on YouTube