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Thai Cooking

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Post your questions here -->> Q&A

Thai Cooking

Authors: Matthew Amster-Burton (mamster) and Pim Techamuanvivit (Pim)


Why cook Thai food at home?

Matthew: Even if you have a Thai restaurant across the street from your house, like I do, you can produce better food and a wider variety of dishes at home. Unlike Chinese food, Thai food doesn't require a blazing hot wok for most dishes, and Thai ingredients are now widely available in large supermarkets.

What do we plan to do in this class?

Pim: After discussing what to cover for this class, Matthew and I came to an agreement that it would be far too ambitious to even try to cover the subject of Thai food in just one class. Our plan instead is to give you an introduction to Thai ingredients and teach you how to make three dishes, each one representing a different approach to Thai cooking. We hope that these three recipes will at least whet your appetite and give you a bit of inspiration to learn more about the cuisine.

The three recipes given here are for Massaman Curry, Nam-sod Kao-tod (pork salad and seasoned rice patties), and the perennial favorite, Pad Thai. I chose the Massaman curry because it is one of the best and most approachable Thai curries. It need not be fiery, rather aromatic, spicy and, of course, delicious. The principles of making curry paste, discussed at length here, can also be used for other types of curry pastes. The Nam-sod recipe is chosen because of the popularity of the Laab Thread. Nam-sod is sort of a cousin to Laab, so I thought it would be a fun thing to make together here. To close, Matthew provides his favorite Pad Thai recipe. Pad Thai is arguably the most famous of Thai dishes, and Matthew swears by his rendition. We hope you try them all. Enjoy.

Key ingredients:

(by Matthew with comments from Pim)

Chilies. Thai chilies if possible, but substitute serrano chilies.

Availability: Supermarkets and Asian groceries.

Fish sauce. Made from salted, fermented anchovies, fish sauce smells terrible and tastes incredible. For those who love it, living without fish sauce would be like living without oxygen.

Availability: Supermarkets, but worth going to an Asian market, where it will be cheaper and available in a wider quality range. Look for Squid (inexpensive and medium-quality), Tra Chang (high quality), and Baby (aka Golden Boy, high quality). Even the high quality brands shouldn't cost more than $2 for a large bottle.

Tamarind paste. Tamarind trees, a member of the bean family, grow all over Thailand and produce pods full of tart and sticky pulp. Harvested and compressed into a one-pound brick, tamarind paste should be reconstituted in hot water and strained before using. It gives a tart, woody flavor to a variety of sauces and curries.

Pim’s comment: Tamarind paste should not be confused with fresh tamarind in pods available at certain well-stocked Asian markets. The tamarind pods are “sweet tamarinds”, which are different from the type of tamarind made into paste. The sweet tamarinds, as the name suggests, are not sour enough to be used as a seasoning, and are for eating plain.

Availability: Asian groceries.


Galangal. If you could take a length of ginger root, skin it, and inflate it to an embarrassing diameter, you'd have something that looks like galangal. Often called "Thai ginger" (though regular ginger is also widely used in Thai cooking), galangal has a much stronger flavor that includes pine pitch notes not unlike retsina. It's used most often in chili pastes for making curries, soups, and salads.

Availability: Asian groceries and large supermarkets and health food stores.

Lemongrass. We humans eat a lot of grass, and I don't mean that in the Alice B. Toklas sense. Rice, wheat, and corn are grasses. Lemongrass is one of the few grasses where we eat the leaves rather than the seeds. These hardy stalks need to be peeled of their tough other layers, then thinly sliced. Slices of lemongrass are simmered in soups and stocks (and are not meant to be eaten) or pounded into curry pastes.

Pim’s comment: There are two general ways of preparing lemongrass. If the lemongrass is to be eaten as part of the dish, as in salads or in curry pastes, only the tenderest part should be used, and should be sliced very thinly. On the other hand, if the lemongrass is to be used as an aromatic only, as in soups, you would only need to peel off the outer most layer of the stalk. The rest can be cut into 1-2 inch pieces and perhaps smashed slightly before adding to the soup.

Availability: Supermarkets.

Shallots. Think French cooks use a lot of shallots? A Thai cook can handily out-shallot Jacques Pepin. These small onion relatives are essential, along with garlic and chilies, in most curry pastes. Some cooks say that the shallot-garlic balance determines whether the paste will make a better curry for fish or meat, with fish preferring a shallot-heavy paste.

Availability: Supermarkets, but often better at farmer's markets, where you can find smaller shallots similar to those used in Thailand.

Garlic. In season (mid-summer through fall), it's worth seeking out hardneck purple garlic, which is easier to peel and has better flavor than white, softneck supermarket garlic. Used in curry pastes, stir-fries, and salad dressings.

Palm sugar. Made from the cooked sap of the coconut palm, palm sugar is a vital ingredient in many curries, where it rounds out the sour, salty, and hot flavors without making the curry taste sweet. Buy palm sugar in compressed blocks and break them up into small chunks with a hammer and chisel. Don't buy palm sugar in a tub, because you will never get it out.

Pim’s comment: I think Mamster’s testosterone is getting the better of him here. :smile: I don’t usually resort to the hammer or chisel> I find that using a sharp knife to slice off small pieces is quite sufficient.

Availability: Asian groceries.

Curry pastes. We will teach you to pound your own curry paste in a mortar and pestle, but you can also buy decent commercial pastes at Asian groceries and well-stocked supermarkets. Our favorite brand is Mae Ploy, which lasts months in the refrigerator. You can also make a hybrid paste by starting with commercial product and pounding in fresh garlic, shallots, and chilies. Pounded pastes are used in soups, salads, and stir-fries as well as curries, so many cooks call them "chili pastes."

Availability: Supermarkets and Asian groceries.



No special equipment needed, but a Thai mortar and pestle will be helpful for this class and a variety of other kitchen tasks. You know that small ceramic mortar and pestle sitting in the back of your cupboard? Give it to your pharmacist and get a real one. Thai mortars and pestles are made of indestructible green granite and weigh a ton. They are made for turning tough, fibrous ingredients like lemongrass and dried chilies into smooth pastes. Pounding garlic and fresh chilies together to begin a Thai salad dressing will make your kitchen smell like heaven, and that's even before you stir in the fish sauce.

A wok is useful for deep-frying, but for stir-frying (especially noodles), a 12" nonstick skillet works just as well.

The Recipes:

Recipe 1

Massaman Nuea (Beef Massaman Curry)

(by Pim, courtesy of her Aunt Chawiwan)

for about 4-6 servings

This recipe looks daunting, but I promise it will be the best Massaman Curry you have ever tasted. Even if you opt for the canned paste rather than using this recipe, the process of marinating and simmering the beef in coconut milk and the addition of spice during the cooking will improve the taste dramatically.


Massaman Paste

15 medium pieces of dried chili, soaked, seeded, chopped

1/4 cup sliced garlic

1/3 cup sliced shallots

1 Tbsp coriander seeds

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp white pepper

1 tsp lemongrass, chopped

1 tsp galangal, peeled, chopped

1 tsp kaffir lime zest

1 tsp cilantro roots, scraped, chopped

1 Tbsp salt

1 tsp shrimp paste, roasted

Beef and Marinade

1 kg. beef (I use the Chuck cut)

1 tsp ginger, julienned

2 cups coconut milk*

2 tbsp fish sauce

To finish the curry

2 Tbsp oil

2 cups coconut cream*

1 Tbsp cardamom leaves

1 Tbsp whole cardamom

1 inch piece of cinnamon

150 g peanuts

5 whole shallots, peeled

¼ cup palm sugar

1 Tbsp tamarind, mixed with 1/3 cup warm water and strained

2 Tbsp fish sauce

The Massaman paste will have to be used the same day if there's any water added. Otherwise it will keep for a few days in the fridge. It does not, however, freeze well.

On Coconut milk: In Thailand, the first extraction with very little, if any, added water is called coconut cream (Hua Gati). This compares to sort of an extra virgin pressing of olive oil. The next extraction, with added water, is called coconut milk (Hang Gati). If you use canned coconut milk, just spooned off the thick "cream" part to separate it from the milk.



First you marinate the beef:

Cut the beef into large chunks and marinate them in the coconut milk and julienned ginger. Set aside for at least 30 minutes before proceeding to the next step. Simmer the beef chunks in the marinade in for another half an hour.


Next you pound the curry paste:

(Note: This step is optional. You could just skip it if you opted for a commercial canned version. The resulting Massaman won't be as good, of course, but still quite acceptable.)

While the beef is simmering, grind all the Masaman paste ingredients together in a blender until the paste resembles a fine puree. You can add a little water to the paste if it became too thick to be processed. Take care not to add too much water or the paste will create a nasty splash when cooked.

If you want to use the Thai mortar and pestle to pound the paste, read the section “On the pounding of curry paste” below.

Now you make the curry:

Heat up a large wok or sautee pan with 2 Tbsp oil, add the massaman paste and cook for a few minutes, stirring vigorously. Add a cup of the coconut cream to the pan and cook, stirring frequently, until the paste is completely dissolved into the coconut cream. Let the mixture bubble for a few minutes until a layer of oil begins to separate from the mixture. Add the rest of the coconut cream and let it bubble away for another few minutes until the oil begins to separate again. Add the whole cardamoms, cardamom leaves, whole shallots, peanuts, palm sugar, tamarind water, and fish sauce. Add the contents of the beef pan, and continue to simmer until the beef is tender. Be careful not to let the curry boil too vigorously at this stage or the coconut cream will curdle. Just let the pot simmer gently until the beef is tender.

Check the seasoning before turning off the stove. The taste should be spicy (not too hot, but very spicy), salty, sweet, with an ever-so- slightly sour aftertaste, in this order. Do not let it be cloyingly sweet.

Serve with freshly steamed Thai jasmine rice, or Naan bread.


On the pounding of curry paste

I know the thought of pounding your own curry paste could be quite intimidating, however, there is no need for alarm. There is definitely an order to this seeming chaos. First, you will need an appropriate tool. For this I suggest a good quality Thai mortar and pestle (Krok and Saak). I hope you know what I am talking about. Otherwise watch Jamie Oliver, his Krok is a constant presence on the countertop.

You will need to "mise en place" all your ingredients. If your recipe calls for some ingredients to be roasted, do so. You can use your toaster oven or just dry roast in a pan. You should, however, roast the shrimp paste regardless of what the recipe says. Wrap it loosely in foil and roast in the toaster oven for about 5 minutes at 450F.

Dried chilies are a main staple for all curry paste. Soak them in warm water for at least 15 minutes or until soft. Seed and chop them finely. While waiting for the chilies to soften, turn your attention to the other ingredients. Chop them as finely as you can. You can use your old workhorse Cuisinart for this, but don’t chop all the ingredients together, do each separately.

When the ingredients are prepared and ready, start your pounding. The first ingredients into your Krok are chilies and salt.


Pound them until very fine, then add the harder stuff such as kaffir lime zest, cilantro roots, galangal, lemongrass, turmeric, or others. Pound them until fine, it will help if you do one at a time. Then add your garlic, again pound finely.


The next ingredient is a shallot.


After you’re done pounding the shallot to a fine paste, the mixture in your Krok will be quite moist. This is the time to add powdered spices were they called for in the recipe. The last to go in should be the shrimp paste, since it is, as the name implies, already in paste form.

Remember not to stare too closely while admiring the progress in your Krok, lest your eyes burn with excruciating pain from flying bits of the paste. If you are new at this, take a piece of paper or foil,cut a circle slightly larger than the diameter of your Krok, position the circle over your Saak or pestle and push gently downward. Your Saak should now be dressed with a homely little skirt. This will save your eyes from flying ingredients.

After all the pounding, you should end up with a very lovely fine paste in your Krok ready for the next stage.


You can keep the paste for up to a week tightly wrapped in the fridge, though the sooner you use the better it will be.

Should you find yourself in a pit of self pity and depression after reading this, do not despair. It is entirely acceptable to dump all the ingredients at once into a good sturdy Cuisinart or even a blender, and let it do the dirty work for you. Your paste won’t be so lovely, and you will never pass for a good Thai daughter-in-law. Unless the latter is somehow your goal, your curry paste will do just fine.

If you still not liberated from the bottom of the pit, get over to the nearest Asian supermarket and buy yourself some ready-made curry paste. Just don’t tell anyone, at least not around here.

Recipe 2

Nam-sod, Kao-tod (Nam Pork Salad and Fried Rice Patties)

By Pim


Kao-tod (rice patties)

1 Tbsp galangal, finely chopped

1 tsp dried chili, soaked in warm water for 15 minutes then seeded and finely chopped

3 Tbsp lemongrass, finely chopped

3 Tbsp shallots, finely chopped

2 Tbsp garlic, finely chopped

2 cups cooked jasmine rice

2 Tbsp fish sauce

1 egg

Nam-sod (Nam Pork)

4 Tbsp finely chopped garlic (about 10 cloves)

1 pound ground pork

2 oz. pork skin, boiled for 10 minutes then sliced very thin

½ cup cooked jasmine rice

2 tsp salt

To finish the salad

1/3 cup shallots, finely sliced

3 Tbsp cilantro, chopped

1 Tbsp green onion, finely sliced

½ cup young ginger, julienned

3 Tbsp lime juice, or to taste

½ cup of peanuts

10-15 dried chilies

2-3 Tbsp fish sauce

2 more limes, each cut into six slivers

Making Kao-tod

Pound the galangal, dried chili, lemongrass, shallots and garlic together into a fine paste. This is best done in a mortar and pestle. You could use a blender, but do not add any water, otherwise your rice patties will splatter during the frying.

In a medium bowl, mash the herb paste, rice, egg, and fish sauce together by hand.



Cover and set aside for later.

The Kao-tod should not be fried up too long before serving as they will become soggy.

Making Nam-sod

Pound the garlic into a fine paste.

In a large bowl, use your hand to forcefully mash together the garlic, ground pork, pork skin, jasmine rice, and salt. Knead the mixture a bit to build up gluten which gives the Nam a nice structure.


Roll the ingredients into about 10 equal size balls.

Steam the Nam balls for about 10 minutes or until just cooked. Do not over-cook them as the salad will be dry.


Make-ahead note: You can make both Kao-tod and Nam-sod up to one day ahead. Follow the recipe to finish the salad before serving.

To finish the salad:

First you prepare the Kao-tod. Pat the Kao-tod mixture into patties, each about 3 inches in diameter and ¾ inch thick. Fry these in hot oil until golden brown. Set aside.


Quickly fry the 10-15 dried chilies, only for 10 seconds or so, until crisp. Be careful not to let them turn too brown.

In a large bowl, break up the Nam balls and mix in the lime juice and fish sauce.

You can serve the salad two ways

a) mix all the ingredients together, garnishing with the Kao-tod, fried chili and slivers of lime.

b) on a large plate, put the Nam-sod in the middle. Arrange the rest of the ingredients around the Nam-sod and let your guest mix their own salad at the table.


Recipe 3

Pad Thai

Adapted by Matthew from Cook's Illustrated, July/Aug 2002


2 Tablespoons tamarind paste

3/4 cup boiling water

3 Tablespoons fish sauce

1 Tablespoon rice vinegar

3 Tablespoons sugar

3/4 teaspoon cayenne

1/4 cup peanut oil

8 oz thin rice stick noodles

2 eggs

1/8 tsp kosher salt

12 oz shrimp, peeled

2 cups water

1/4 cup kosher salt

1 Tablespoon minced garlic

3 Tablespoons minced shallots

2 Tablespoons minced preserved radish

6 Tablespoons chopped roasted unsalted peanuts

3 cups bean sprouts

5 scallions, sliced

1/4 cup cilantro leaf

lime wedges


Make tamarind water by pouring boiling water over tamarind paste. Let sit for a few minutes, stir well, and strain. Discard the solids. To the tamarind water, add fish sauce, vinegar, sugar, cayenne, and 2 tablespoons oil.

Soak noodles in hot tap water 20 minutes. Drain. Beat eggs with 1/8 teaspoon salt.

Dissolve the 1/4 cup salt in 2 cups water, and brine the shrimp in this solution for up to 30 minutes. Drain the shrimp and dry well on paper towels.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in 12" skillet over high heat for 2 minutes. Add shrimp. Stir-fry for 2 minutes or until nearly cooked through.


Remove shrimp to plate.

Add the last 1 tablespoon oil. Place over medium heat and add garlic and shallots. Stir constantly for 1.5 minutes. Add eggs and scramble 20 seconds. Add noodles and salted radish. Toss with two wooden spoons to combine with eggs.



Add sauce and raise heat to high. Toss constantly until coated. Add 1/4 cup peanuts, bean sprouts, most of the scallions, and shrimp. Toss 2-1/2 minutes or until noodles are tender. Add up to 2 tablespoons of water if it begins to look too dry.


Transfer to platter. Top with remaining peanuts, scallions, and cilantro. Serve with lime wedges.

Optional: If you can get good dried shrimp, a couple of tablespoons added to the pan along with the noodles is a nice touch.


Recommended reading

Now that we've whet your appetite for Thai home cooking, here are some recommended books and web sites for learning more:

Web sites

thaifoodandtravel.com. Kasma Loha-unchit is the author of two cookbooks (see below) and she and her husband publish many fine recipes and articles on their web site.

Pim’s comment: Her site also contains very good information of sources for Thai ingredients for those in the US.

pai-kin-khao.com. Based in Thailand, this site has extensive Thai food articles, recipes, and menus.

Pim’s comment: I find articles in this site to be quite interesting, but I am less impressed with some of the recipes there. My impression is that the site is more in the mold of Martha Stewart rather than the serious cooking of, say, Julia Child. The recipes there are mostly simplified, or even a bit too “fusion” for my taste.


It Rains Fishes and Dancing Shrimp by Kasma Loha-unchit. Two excellent introductory books, the first a survey of Thai cooking and the second a book of seafood recipes.

Thai Food by David Thompson. The biggest and most complete Thai cookbook available in English, but not for beginners.

Lonely Planet World Food Thailand by Joe Cummings. More travel guide than cookbook, the author attempts to fully document Thai cuisine as it exists on its home turf today. That's a tall order, but Cummings, who has lived in Thailand for decades, is up to the task. Do not travel to Thailand without this book.

Post your questions here -->> Q&A

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