13 Sep Fiery Cuisines Part 19 – Thailand
Andrew’s Essential Fiery Food Facts that a Pyro-Gourmaniac needs to know part 25
Fiery Cuisines Part 19…… Thailand
A cuisine that I have always loved to cook and to eat, first trying these flavours in the old Red Hot Thai Restaurant at Kingscliff, then over the years enjoying meals whenever the chance was there.
Thai cuisine is a simple yet clever combination of Eastern and Western influences harmoniously combined. Sour, sweet, salty, bitter and spicy flavours work together to make each dish come alive. Thai food varies depending upon the area or region of Thailand the dish originates from. These regions include the north, northeast, south and central.
Historically, aquatic animals, plant and herbs were popular ingredients included in most meals. Large quantities of meat were mainly avoided, thanks in part to the Buddhist background, and instead strips of meat were flavoured with herbs and spices, or meat was cooked or roasted and then shredded.
Traditional Thai cookery involved stewing and baking, or grilling. However, the area that is now Thailand, Laos, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia and Vietnam were settled by the ancient Chinese an estimated 1,400 hundred years ago. The ‘Tai’ people migrated from valley settlements in the mountainous region of Southwest China (now Yunnan province) between the sixth and thirteenth centuries, into what is now known as Thailand, Laos, the Shan States of upper Burma, and northwest Vietnam. Influenced by Chinese cooking techniques, Thai cuisine flourished with the rich biodiversity of the Thai peninsula. As a result, Thai dishes today have some similarities to Szechwan Chinese dishes, frying, stir-frying and deep-frying of food became more popular techniques, and to this day pad thali (fried noodles) and khao pad (fried rice) remain classic Thai dishes.
The Portuguese brought their sweets to King Narai’s court in the seventeenth century. Some say Buddhist monks from India brought curry to Thailand. Indian curry and Muslim cuisine were introduced at a palace feast in honor of King Rama I at the turn of the 18th century. Thai curries are identified by their colour. There are four colours, green, red, yellow, and orange. The hottest of them is the green curry followed by the red, the yellow which is the Thai version of an Indian curry, and the mildest is the simple orange curry. In addition to the basic colour curries, there are two other curries that ae immensely popular, Panang and Massaman. They originate in the south of Thailand, with Malay and even Persian influences. They have a much thicker sauce than traditional Thai curries. Some of these dishes are still popular today including Masaman curry and yellow curry. Massaman curry contains many dried spices including Cinnamon and Nutmeg. Yellow curry can be spiced with Turmeric, Cumin, ground Coriander seed and red Chilli powder.. Tons of Chillies are generously used every day in restaurants and homes across the kingdom. In rural areas, just about every home grows its own Chilli bushes. The path of these chillies parallels the history of the Thai people themselves, whose ancestors , a minority people who migrated from Yunnan province in southern China to find a place they could call home.
Of all spicy flavours used in Thai cooking, the most popular comes from the smallest of Chillies, the Prik kee noo. Literally translated, the name means “mouse shit chillies.”
The Thais call them mouse shit chillies because mice are playful little creatures and like to hide. Thai Chillies are little guys much like mice, and they leave behind unseen evidence in the food they touch but you definitely know they have been there. Like mice, they like to hide, under Coriander leaves and behind pieces of Prawns and other food particles. When you least suspect, they find their way into your mouth and Bang, gotcha. The Prik kee noo is a Thai-cultivated variety of the New World chilli Aji now called Thai chillies when sold in Australian supermarkets. Small and slender, they are intensely hot. The smaller they are, the hotter they seem to be. In fact, there is a strain of Prik kee noo called prik kee noo suan, which is no larger than the head of a nail but packs a wallop of a bang. So don’t look down on little things; there is much spiciness and liveliness concentrated in small, unsuspecting packages. Beware of these Chillies for they can reduce a big and burley meat-and-potatoes man to nothing but a pool of tears. What an intense sensation, They have been known to have me swearing under my breathe. Prik kee noo is sometimes called, birdeye Chillies in Australia. Most likely because birds consume wild Chillies and helped to disperse the seeds. Africans have a similar Chilli in their Cuisine the Piri Piri. Birds are immune to the heat in Chillies because they do not have taste buds that register the hot sensation like humans and land mammals do. However, Chillies do have notable effects on certain birds. The Thai hill myna birds, kept as pets by many Thais, especially in the south, are much more gregarious and eloquent in their language skills when fed lots of prik kee noo Chillies. These very smart birds from the tropical rain forests can emulate most sounds they hear, much like Cockatoos. Chillies initially came to Thailand during the late 1600s by Portuguese missionaries who had taken a liking to the fiery ingredient in South America.
Their hotness, however, is not the only quality that has endeared them to the Thai people, they have a distinctive fragrant taste that spicy food enthusiasts grow to love. Substituting with other kinds of Chillies can be disappointing.
In Thailand, dinner tables are set not with salt and pepper shakers but instead with these tiny Chillies cut up and swimming in a dish of fish sauce. Easy to make for your next Thai meal. Cut the Chillies in small thin rounds, place them in a sauce dish and cover with fish sauce. Spoon Chillies and sauce over whatever needs heating up and, after a few times, you may find yourself addicted to these lovable little scuds. Thai people like to fry their eggs in very hot oil, making the edges of the whites crispy while the yolks are still partially soft.
Prik kee noo Chillies turn from a deep green to a bright red when they ripen. The green ones have a very strong and immediate bite to them, while some of the red ones may delay releasing their full potency, catching up with you when you are unsuspecting. They can be just as hot as the green ones. If you are not using your Thai Chillies fast enough, they dry easily for future use by being left out uncovered on a plate in the kitchen. The red ones dry more easily than the green ones, which require more air circulation and light. Placing them on a wire rack out in the sun will speed up their drying. Thai Chillies dry well because they are not fleshy like larger varieties such as Jalapeños or Serranos, they are primarily a bag of seeds held together by a thin skin. I never bother to go through the tedious task of deseeding them. I usually do not remove seeds from any kind of fresh Chillies except when I use the larger kinds of dried red Chillies when making Chilli pastes with a roasted flavour. I remove the seeds and discard them since the roasted dried pods are more flavourful, and I add more pods until the desired Chilli flavour is achieved, and a roasted aroma and heat level are obtained.
Besides Prik kee noo, there are many other kinds of Chillies used in Thai cooking. Among them are Prik leuang, an orangish yellow Chilli with good flavour and quite hot, though nothing close to a Prik kee noo suan, Prik chee fah, dark green or bright red when ripe, about the same size and hotness as a Serrano, and Prik yuak, a larger, light green Chilli similar to the yellow wax Chillies. Most are larger than Prik kee noo and come in varying colours, shapes and spiciness, but none is quite as hot as the little mice.
Thais are well known for their commitment and resourcefulness, and even in cookery they were adapt at replacing ingredients – for example the ghee used in Indian cooking was replaced by coconut oil, and coconut milk (which remain today two very popular ingredients in Thai cookery).
It might be hard to believe, but Thai food used to be a lot more spicy than it is now, but over the years to was toned down, and fewer and less spices were used in Thai curries, while the use of fresh herbs, such as Lemon grass and Galangal, increased.
The cooking in northern Thailand is generally milder than in the rest of the country, sticky rice is preferred, traditionally it is kneaded into small balls with the fingers. There is a strong influence from neighbouring Burma with popular dishes like Kaeng Hang Le, a Pork curry flavored with Ginger, Turmeric, and Tamarind.
North eastern Cooking
The food in the north east is influenced by Laos, as a general rule the food is highly spiced, and sticky glutinous Rice is the preferred staple for north-eastern dishes. Although there are plenty of meat dishes, historically meat was scarce in the villages, and the main source of protein were Prawns and freshwater Fish. These were often fermented to increase their shelf life.
The central region offers cuisine that is midway between the north and south, although fragrant Jasmine Rice is preferred to the sticky variety. What makes the central region cuisine special is that it is home to royal cuisine. This type of cooking which originated in the royal palace involves much more elaborate meals, put together with complex techniques. It is more of an art form than just regular cooking.
Southern Thai cooking is the most popular outside of Thailand since that is the main tourist region of the country. In southern cuisine there is much more use of coconut milk in many dishes. Coconut replaces Ghee for frying and there is a heavy use of seafood in the dishes. Appetizers in the south use a lot of Cashews from local plantations, and Coconut flesh as a standard condiment.
Thai food is traditionally eaten with the right hand while seated on mats or carpets on the floor as still happens in the more traditional households. It is now eaten with a fork and spoon. Despite China having such an influence on both the country and the food, chopsticks are rarely used, even when eating Noodles.