One of the main features of Thai cooking is the use of fresh ingredients and the ability of the dish to be shared, as eating is considered a social gathering in Thailand. While presentation is also important, it is not as much a culinary art form as say, Japanese dishes, but non the less Thai dishes are normally bright and colorful and often decorated with carved fruit, vegetables and often flowers.
While Asian food shops in western countries like America have traditionally stocked mainly Chinese food, now they stock an incredible amount of Thai ingredients and in many cities there are active Asian markets for fresh ingredients. Lets look at a really simple Thai dish that you have probably never heard of before with practical tips for a western home kitchen.
Although many Thai dishes use ingredients that are not commonly found in a home kitchen, there are not that many essential common ingredients,and often herbs can be bought in your supermarket which have long shelf lives in refrigerated tubes or dried.
Lemon Grass Curry and Chicken
This dish is quick and easy using common Thai ingredients. It is in two parts, the curry paste itself and the bulk of the fresh ingredients as the second part of the dish. It is designed for four Thai people.
2 chopped kaffir lime leaves
6 chopped coriander roots, (there is much more flavor in the roots, if you can’t find these, just use the stems and chopped leaves otherwise).
2 gloves of western sized garlic
2 green chillies that have the spicy seeds removed and chopped.
1 table-spoon of turmeric
1 table-spoon of shrimp paste
1 inch of galangal that has been peeled and chopped.
1 stalk of fresh lemon grass
You want to make the above in to a smooth paste by what ever method you have available to you. Many people just use a food processor but the traditional way is to pound it with a mortar and pestle.
Cooking and the Ingredients
500g of skinless and boneless chicken, thighs or breast that are chopped into bite size pieces. (1 1/4bls)
3table spoons of any vegetable oil
2 cloves of crushed garlic
1 table-spoon of table sugar
3 table spoons of Thai fish sauce
120ml of chicken stock ( 1/2cup)
1 big stick of lemon grass, crush it with the back of your knife then slice it into 4
5 kaffir lime leaves, fresh is best, final sliced. (Tip: roll them into tubes then slice those)
Garnish, some of the sliced kaffir leaves, roasted peanuts that have been chopped and fresh coriander (cilantro). A Thai orchid is also a great addition for presentation, but is not essential or is edible.
Firstly make your curry paste as above, then heat the oil to a low temperature in a Thai wok or just a large frying pan is also ok, heavier the better. This dish cooks very fast so make sure you have everything reading at this point. Cook the garlic, stirring constantly until it is starting to brown, do not burn it, or it will become bitter. Add the curry paste and stir this vigorously for only about 30 seconds, you will have ‘sensory overload’ with the fragance from this paste, again, it is not a burning hot oil temperature for this, be very careful not to burn the paste.
Now combine the chicken pieces to coat them in the oily paste, you may wish to increase the heat now as well, but I have found with a heavy pan it is often not required. Quickly stir in the sugar, chicken stock and Thai fish sauce for only about 2 minutes and reduce the heat if you added more before.
Then add the majority of the kaffir lime leaves and the lemon grass to simmer for 10 minutes adding some water if needed to prevent it drying out to much. Most people prefer to remove the lemon grass at this stage, then just serve into 4 bows with rice and garnish with some of the kaffir lime leaves, coriander and peanuts.
John Shoane lives in Bangkok and works as a florist at Gogo Flowers. He contributes regularly to their blog which has excellent information for people wanting to learn tips about visiting and living in Thailand.