I was enjoying a dish last night from my very favorite Thai restaurant anywhere in the country (Royal Thai here in Nashville) and was musing on what makes Thai food so irresistible. As a cuisine, there’s been an explosion in recent years of Thai restaurants and ready-to-eat Thai food in North America, as well as increased access to Thai ingredients. Let me offer a couple of ideas of why I think Thai food borders on addictive.
The most unique aspect of Thai cuisine would definitely be its distinctive flavors. Just walk into a Thai restaurant and you’ll be asking yourself, what is that wonderful aroma? I’d nominate Thai basil. Although several varieties of Thai basil are used in Thai cuisine, the most common in the US is “bai horapha” (Ocimum basilicum thyrsiflora). I find it has a slightly richer flavor and aroma than Italian or Genovese basil, with more pronounced flavor of anise. Not only can you find Thai basil seed fairly easily, but garden centers are increasingly apt to have Thai basil seedlings for your garden, so you can grow your own and enjoy that magic aroma any time.
Sherry’s Note: If you are in Philadelphia, visit Chabaa with your friends and enjoy the wonderful Thai dishes on their menu. They are located in Manayunk, a Philly suburb and one of the best Thai resto me and my family really like.
Three other herbs and spices that make Thai food unique are lemongrass, kaffir lime, and galangal or kha. Lemongrass imparts a light citrus flavor to salads or soups. Knobby, wrinkled kaffir limes give a stronger sour citrus flavor to curry paste, salads, and soups. Galangal is in a class of its own, somewhat like ginger on steroids. The roots are usually larger than most ginger in US supermarkets and the flavor is more peppery. Fresh galangal is harder than ginger and requires more cooking time to soften; it can also be bought frozen or dried, but as with most spices, fresh is best.
The second draw of Thai cuisine is heat. Chilies are a New World ingredient, originating from Mexico to South America; they were brought to Thailand and other Asian countries by Spanish and Portuguese explorers. The type most often called “Thai” chile (also known as bird’s-eye chile) is about an inch long and really packs a punch, reminiscent of a habanero. If you’re a heat wimp, you can still enjoy the flavor impact of chile, used with a light hand and tempered perhaps with a cooling coconut sauce—but the endorphin rush of chile heat is what draws people to come back to Thai food time and time again.
The third unique aspect of Thai cuisine is variety. The food of Thailand has been influenced by neighboring countries in all directions, from the Chinese noodles that form the basis for the universal favorite pad thai to Indian curries. Sometimes these influences make a delicious collision, such as in Thai curried noodles. (Buddhism from China and India also imparted a vegetarian tradition into Thai cuisine.) Custards from Portugal were adapted by using coconut cream and crêpes, cakes, and other sweets came from the French who occupied neighboring Vietnam.
>> By | Healthy Eating Catalog
Buddha’s Table, written by Thai native Chat Mingkwan, is a wonderful cookbook and great resource for anyone wanting to recreate vegetarian dishes here in the west with authentic Thai flavors. For Centuries, Thai vegetarian chefs have modified their meals to include only plant-based ingredients. This collection represents the most successful Thai recipes in terms of taste and execution for the home cook, adjusted to please healthy Western vegetarian tastes. Enjoy salads, soups, stir-fries and curries, beautifully illustrated with full-color photographs throughout the book. The author regularly appears as a guest chef at major culinary schools, and his first book, The Best of Regional Thai Cuisine, was featured in Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine