As anyone trying their hand at Thai cookery for the first time will quickly realize, many of the recipes call for a specific sauce to help create the very specific flavors in Thai cuisine. As you begin to stock the ingredients for your new Thai 'pantry' there are certain sauces that you really should consider stocking up on so that you have then readily at hand as needed. Understanding the characteristics of these sauces will also allow you to learn to determine, as you become a little more adventurous, which of them could be used to further enhance a dish or to give it slightly different twist:
Nam Pla (Fish Sauce)
Nam Pla is a component of a considerable number of common Thai dishes. It is a clear liquid that is created by allowing fish to ferment with salt. Used in the correct quantities it does not actually have too much of a 'fishy' taste at all but instead simply adds just the right amounts of saltiness. It is also a sauce used to enhance and elevate the flavors of an almost endless variety of dishes by adding a savory element that it is hard for any other ingredient to replicate.
In general, everything related with fish it's very common in Thailand due its benefits, read more here.
Nam Man Hoi (Oyster Sauce)
Nam Man Hoi is similar to its more commonly used Chinese counterpart but in this Thai version there is a slight sweetness that its Chinese cousin lacks that adds an extra dimension to the flavor of both Thai and Chinese dishes. Oyster sauce is often used in Thai cuisine but it is particularly good to use in vegetable dishes, especially stir fries.
One great way to add flavor and character to vegetable dishes is to simply combine chilies, garlic and oyster sauce and you can also use this versatile condiment to add some extra character to a number of traditional noodle dishes as well as to marinades for meat dishes.
See Ew Cow (Thin Soy Sauces)
See Ew Cow literally translates into English as 'white soy sauce' and it is indeed essentially a paler - both in color and flavor, version of the standard Japanese soy sauce that is more commonly used in the West.
Usually the various thin soy sauces are used in conjunction with other, slightly more robust options although some people do substitute it for fish sauce if they are cooking for vegetarians or vegans who have cut fish out of their diet.
See Ew Dam (Dark Soy Sauces)
Obviously these sauces are the complete opposite of See Ew Cow but they are not, as some mistakenly believe, simply a carbon copy of their Japanese counterparts. To begin with they come in two distinctly different forms; simple dark soy sauce and dark sweet soy sauce. The former is a major component in a very famous Thai dish, gai pad gaprow, a chicken dish that makes use of holy basil, while its sweeter cousin is what gives pad see ew, stir fried noodles with broccoli, its very distinctive taste.
Nam Prik Pao (Roasted Chili Paste)
Although this Thai staple is a thicker than the average sauce it is still considered to be one. Traditionally this paste is created by combining shrimp paste, fresh garlic, chopped shallots and roasted chilies to create a concoction that has a sweet and salty taste that makes it an excellent 'all in one' type go to sauce for a wide array of dishes, especially soups and stir fries. Read more about this sauce here
These are far from the only sauces used in Thai cuisine but if you manage to keep these on hand you should have just the right one for a great many of the delicious recipes that are just waiting out there for you to try.
Starting out as a Thai cook, you can probably get by with the utensils and kitchenware you already have, but as you get a little more serious (and it is hard not to do that, the food is simply so darn delicious) you'll probably want to make the investment in a few extra kitchen tools that will make the process of creating delicious Thai cuisine easier and more authentic. Most of the tools suggested here can be easily found at Asian markets but they are also readily available online as well.
An Electric Rice Cooker
Most homes in Asia in general contain an electric rice cooker. It may not be the most 'traditional' way to cook rice but it is certainly the most convenient and certainly a way to help ensure evenly cooked rice every time. Most such cookers allow you to whip up a large batch of rice in less than ten minutes, leaving you free to concentrate on the other, often slightly trickier to prepare , components of a Thai dish.
A Sticky Rice Steamer
If on the other hand you do want to try your hand at a slightly more authentic way to cook sticky rice then picking up a bamboo sticky rice steamer may be something to consider. This is basically a 'contraption' that consists of a generously sized bamboo basket designed to sit on top of an aluminum pot. The pot is filled with water, the basket is filled with rice and within 15 minutes or so (with a little practice) you should be able to create near perfect sticky rice every time.
A Three Tray Steaming Pot
Usually made from aluminium and rather generously sized, these handy pots allow you to steam several ingredients at once efficiently without allowing them to get all muddled and mixed up before you are ready to put your final dish together. This is actually a great utensil to have in your home in general, as steaming things that vegetables, fish and chicken really is the healthiest way to go.
There are those Western cooks who feel that there is no need to invest in a wok in order to create great stir fried Thai dishes and that a deeper skillet will do the job just fine. Most Asian cooks however will wholeheartedly disagree, and for many good reasons.
Firstly, the deep, curved shape of a wok allows for different temperature zones to be created - the sides are cooler, the bottom is hotter - which is a big help when frying meats and vegetables together. The meat can be cooked at the high heat it really needs while the vegetables, that often need slightly more delicate preparation so that they do not wilt can be cooked on the cooler sides without wasting any time (or creating more of a mess to clean up later!)
Secondly a wok is far more versatile than a skillet. It can be as easily used to create a delicious soup as it can to whip up a tasty stir fry, something that you really cannot do in a skillet.
Bamboo Serving Dishes
In Thailand usually rice is taken to the table for diners to serve themselves, along with extras like dumplings. These offerings are never left uncovered and lidded bamboo serving dishes, which are easy to find in Asian markets, are the perfect way to do all of this with efficiency and style. Many of the baskets you will find are carted with brightly colored woven patterns, adding a touch of Thai flair to the dinner table that is very attractive.
The Thai people do not have to be coerced into eating fruit in the way some Westerners do. It is consumed with almost every meal and can be found in markets and on street corners almost anywhere you go. Many of the most popular of these fruits are rather unrecognizable to Westerners though!
Increasingly however some of them are finding their way to North America and Europe, either in frozen or canned form or, very occasionally, as fresh imports. Still the sight of some of the fruits in the average Thai market would be quite confusing to Westerners seeing them for the first time. Here is a little about some of the most commonly consumed of them:
Durian is a large, spiky skinned fruit that is loved by the Thai people but often scares foreigners! Its spiked appearance aside durian - which is often referred to as 'the king of fruits' - has a very pungent smell that can be hard for those who have never consumed it before to get past to actually discover what the taste is like.
If they can however, they will discover it has a pudding like texture and perhaps the best description of its unique flavor came from British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace who, during a visit to Thailand in 1856 wrote; "This pulp is the edible part, and its consistence and flavour are indescribable. A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants neither of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect."
The jackfruit is as 'odd looking' as durian but much larger. In fact, this tree borne fruit is the largest such fruit in the world, reaching up to 80 pounds and three feet long. When it is broken open it contains dozens of seeds that are covered in a yellow flesh that tastes like a less juicy version of a pineapple. Oddly enough the century old classic American chewing gum, Juicy Fruit, is said to have been created around the jackfruit's flavor and that is in fact exactly how many Westerners describe the fruit's taste the first time they try it.
Dragon Fruit (Pitaya)
The one thing that dragon fruit certainly is attractive to look at, with its odd shape and bright pink skin. It is actually a cactus fruit and has a soft white, speckled flesh that is usually scooped out and eaten as a standalone dessert. In terms of flavor you could say it falls somewhere between a kiwi and a pear, although some dragon fruit is definitely sweeter than others.
A lychee is actually becoming a more common sight in North American supermarkets, especially in Florida where they are now cultivated. A small fruit with pink skin and white flesh their taste resembles that of a pleasantly sweet and juicy pear with a nice crispy bite.
Star fruit (Ma-phuang)
This is a fruit that looks exactly like its name would suggest. Its bright yellow flesh has a fresh, citrus taste that is very refreshing but slightly sour. Usually a star fruit is just one of those items of produce that produces a strong reaction in those tasting it for the first time; they either love it or hate it.
Sweet Tamarind (Makaam Waan)
Sweet Tamarind is a popular snack in Thailand as not only does it taste great - a little like a date - but thanks to its crunchy shell it is easy to carry and can be shucked like a peanut. It is also a very common ingredient in a number of delicious Thai soups.
Thais love to talk about their cuisine, but ask them to describe the essance of Thai food, and they are not likely to have a quick answer. They can be at a similar loss for words when attempting to describe their culture in general. In fact Thais dont really have a word that corresponds to the English term 'culture'. The nearest equivalent, watanatham, emphasises fine arts and religious ceremonies over other aspects usually covered by the western conception of culture.
But ask what it means to be Thai and the response is invariably two fold: to speak Thai, and to to eat Thai food. Appreciation for Thai food is so central to Thai cultural identity that many Thais naively assume that non-Thais are physically or mentally unable to partake of the cuisine. Long-time foreign visitors or residents wont be asked simply whether like to eat Thai food. Rather they will be asked 'kin aahaan thai pen mai?' (do you know how to eat Thai food?). It is almost assumed that to enjoy Thai cooking you must either be born Thai or trained in the difficult art of feeling exhilarated over a plate of well prepared phat thai (stirfried noodles).
Food lies very close to the heart of khwaam pen thai (Thai-ness), so much so that to truly appreciate what it means being Thai you must understand and appreciate the Thai food. If you become comfortable with both, perhaps you will then become kin jai (eat heart), that is, truly impressed and absorbed in Thai food culture. Finally you may come to understand what Thais mean when they say they are im jai (full heart), an expression that fuses culinary satisfaction with general contentment.
My objective with this site is to bring thai culture to the world.