Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Week 38: A Journey to Thailand

I enthusiastically anticipated this week of Thai cuisine.  I still recall my first taste of Tom Kha Kai.  I thought it was the most incredible flavor profile:  spicy, sweet, and luxurious.  From that moment forward, Thai cuisine became one of my favorites.  I lived across the street from a great Thai restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama, called Surin West.  I called them for takeout so often that they knew me and my usual orders with just the ring of their telephone.  Despite my adoration for Thai cuisine, the only Thai food I had cooked at home originated from a Thai Kitchen box or a jar of store-bought curry paste.  As I began my research, I quickly discovered that most of my favorite Thai dishes and, frankly, most dishes served in Thai restaurants, originate from Thailand’s Central region, which meant I needed to make an extra effort to study the dishes of Thailand’s other key regions (Northern, Northeastern, and Southern) if I wanted a more complete Thai experience.  Another resounding theme that I discovered in the recipes of bloggers and chefs with experience in authentic Thai cuisine is the absolute necessity for sourcing the proper ingredients and not attempting to make substitutions.  Keeping this in mind, I set out to create a challenging week of menus with three fundamental rules:

1.  All dishes must be homemade. 
2.  Dishes from regions other than the Central region must be included.
3.  No ingredient substitutions.  Source the real ingredients in order to experience the most authentic flavor profile.

Thai basil, Chinese chives,
Thai green eggplant,
lemongrass from Vinh An
With these ground rules in place, I looked at my calendar and wondered how I could possibly fit so many great dishes into my week.  After I determined a schedule and a list of ingredients, I headed to my favorite local market, Vihn An in North Miami Beach, to see if I could find the authentic ingredients I needed, and they did not disappoint.  As a matter of fact, they even had authentic ingredients that I hadn’t included on my list, such as banana flowers and Thai eggplant.  I left with two boxes of groceries and embarked on a week of exciting menus.

From the Northern Region
Northern Thailand is a mountainous region with a temperate climate.  Because its populations are isolated from the more populous Central region, its dishes have evolved with little influence from other regions.  Its flavor profile is primarily hot (from use of chiles, fresh ginger, galangal, and black pepper) and salty (from fermented soybeans, fish pastes, and salted land crabs).  Pork is the primary protein in the region's dishes, and because the area’s climate nurtures a fertile agricultural environment, the dishes focus on local ingredients, such as wild mushrooms, vegetables, and fruits.  Sticky rice and chile dipping sauces often accompany main dishes here.

nam phrik ong
Nam phrik ong is one of the most popular dishes in the Northern region, and its ingredients exemplify the definition of the area’s cuisine.  The dish includes ground pork seasoned with dried chiles and tomatoes.  It resembles a meat chili or Bolognese sauce.  Raw vegetables and sticky rice traditionally accompany dish.  Interestingly, most photos I saw of this dish online showed the dip with vegetables, such as carrot sticks or long beans.  I served the dip with carrot sticks, long beans, and raw slices of Thai eggplant, and I discovered that while it makes a pretty plate, it is completely impractical.  Because the dip is chunky, we found ourselves using forks to hold the dip on the vegetables in order to eat them together.  A cabbage or lettuce leaf would have offered a much easier solution to enjoying the dip with the vegetables.  That aside, the dish’s flavors were mildly spicy and quite delicious, and I enjoyed trying the raw Thai eggplant slices.  I had never considered eating raw eggplant, but I found several references to it being served with the dip and wanted to try it.  While the flavor was nice, I found the texture to be a bit “biting” for lack of a better term.  It had a sharpness to it that I didn’t particularly like.  The carrots were my favorite vegetable with the dip, and if I make it again, I will cut them on the bias in strips, instead of in sticks, to provide a surface for the dip.  Unfortunately, I did not serve sticky rice with this dish because I did not realize that it required eight hours of soaking time and did not plan accordingly.

From the Northeastern Region
The Northeastern region of Thailand is one of the poorest areas of the country with little infrastructure and an agricultural lifestyle.  Sticky rice is the staple of its cuisine, and its dishes are famous for being spicy and flavorful.  As it is not near the ocean, the dishes include preserved and pickled fish as flavoring components.  The area is renowned for its grilling and its most famous dish:  Som Tam, also known as Green Papaya salad.  I had great intentions of making green papaya salad and mu ping, grilled pork skewers, but I simply ran out of time this week.  I still have a green papaya in my refrigerator, so maybe I’ll make the salad this weekend.  It is one of my favorite Thai dishes!

From the Southern Region
The cuisine of Southern Thailand is known for its extreme spiciness and distinctively full-flavored curries influenced by its Muslim minority.  Without a doubt, kaeng matsaman, Massaman Curry, is the most famous dish from this area.  Interestingly, the dish ranked #1 in a 2011 CNN Go article featuring the world’s fifty most delicious foods (beating out Italy’s Neapolitan pizza, Mexico’s chocolate, Japan’s sushi, and China’s Peking duck).  As its name suggests, Massaman curry has Muslim origins and developed as a result of Arab traders traveling in Southern Thailand. 

Massaman Curry with
beef and potatoes
Having eaten this dish in Thai restaurants previously, I found its ranking in the CNN poll curious as I liked the dish but never thought it was better than anything else I had ever tried.  Feeling challenged, I set out to prepare an authentic Massaman curry.  I followed the Temple of Thai website’s recipe for a curry paste, which included coriander seeds, cumin seeds, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, shallot, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, coriander root (I substituted stems), lime zest, white pepper, dried red chiles, salt, and shrimp paste.  Then, I made their recipe for Beef and Potato Massaman Curry.  I wanted to love this dish, because I was so proud of my authentic undertaking, but I would not call this one of my more successful endeavors.  My fault was nothing but brazen conceit!  When the curry paste recipe called for 10-15 dried red chiles and 1-2 tbsp of shrimp paste, I opted for 10 chiles (not wanting to be wasteful and thinking that would be enough) and 2 full tbsp of shrimp paste (thinking that would make my curry more authentic and help me realize why this dish received that #1 ranking).  I was mistaken.  My palate is not that sophisticated, and I used too much shrimp paste.  The dish was pungent.  Don’t get me wrong…not inedible.  I ate it and considered the flavors with each bite.  However, there was so much strong fish flavor that the hubs looked at me confusingly and said, “Does this have fish in it?”  The potatoes soaked in so much of the shrimp paste flavor that he thought maybe his bite of potato was fish.  Truthfully, this dish would have been amazing with less shrimp paste, and I caught a glimpse of why people might love it so much.

From the Central-Bangkok Region
Ah, the dishes I love most…that make me swoon…that invoke happiness just at the mere mention of their names.  The cuisine of Thailand's Central region combines the best of all Thai regions with flavors ranging from mild to spicy.  I explored several of my favorite Thai dishes from this region discovering new preparations for them, as well as an appreciation for the tediousness of making them with fresh, authentic ingredients. 

tom kha kai
Tom kha kai (also tom kha gai) is such a simple soup, and it has always been my favorite part of a Thai meal.  The basic dish is a chicken and coconut milk soup infused with galangal, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves.  Most of the time, it also includes mushrooms and chiles, and it is seasoned with lime juice and fish sauce.  As I set out to find a recipe for it, I found strong opinions about the necessity for using authentic ingredients in a proper presentation.  On the blog, She Simmers, Leela Punyaratabandhu offers painstakingly detailed thoughts on a proper, authentic bowl of tom kah kai, which I followed precisely in order to create a fresh, fragrant, and delicious soup for myself.  As soon as I smelled the fresh galangal and kaffir lime leaves, I immediately understood why she so adamantly insists on their absolute necessity in an authentic tom kha kai.  Substituting ginger and/or regular lime zest would result in a complete loss of integrity here.  The galangal and kaffir lime leaves add an intriguing flavor and aroma, slightly floral even, that cannot be matched.  The only substitution I made in this preparation was to use Serrano pepper in place of fresh Thai chiles, which should not be a significant enough substitution to change the flavor profile.  I highly recommend making this dish at home.  It will surprise and delight you.

pad thai
Pad Thai is likely the most recognizable Thai dish on the planet.  Most people who have been to a Thai restaurant at least one time have tried this dish.  While we Americans think of it as a restaurant dish, it is actually a very popular street food in Thailand.  Food carts line up with vendors who have made this dish hundreds of times on a daily basis perfecting their recipes over the years.  On the website Thai Table, an authentic pad thai is described as “dry and light bodied, with a fresh, complex, balanced flavor…reddish and brownish in color. Not bright red and oily like…in the US.”  I followed the recipe posted on this site to create the freshest pad thai I’ve ever tried.  (For the optional items, I used bean sprouts, Chinese chives, peanuts, and shrimp.  Vihn An did not have banana flowers on the day I was making this dish, but they did have them later in the week, so by all means, try to find them.  I also omitted the preserved turnip because I couldn’t find it.)  This dish was so good that I’m not sure I will ever order it for take out again. 
tom yam goong
On Saturday night, I invited friends over for a Thai feast.  We began the evening with tom yam goong, a hot and sour soup with shrimp.  For such a simple recipe of just a few ingredients, this soup is packed with flavor.  Natty Netswan of Thai Table features her mother’s recipe for tom yam goong and offers interesting notes about its ingredients.  For instance, she notes that while most recipes for the dish include chicken broth, this is not only unnecessary, but inauthentic.  I used nam prig pow, a dark chili paste, from a jar for this dish, and it added incredible flavor.  (After making all of the curry pastes from scratch, I just didn’t have the energy to make the chile paste, too.  Besides, I only needed a small amount.)  Surprisingly, this turned out to be everyone’s favorite dish of the evening.  It was bright, flavorful, and spicy.  A real treat!

panaeng curry with
pork and kabocha squash
Next, I served two curries with steamed Jasmine Rice:  Panaeng Curry with pork and kabocha squash and Green Curry with tofu and Thai eggplant.  Panaeng Curry is another of my favorite Thai dishes, but I must admit that I do not think I got this one quite right.  It was good, but I’ve had better.  Maybe the ones I've tried before are just Americanized... who knows?  I will note that the use of pork and kabocha squash as a vehicle for the panaeng curry paste was quite brilliant.  (She Simmers featured this suggestion noting that her mother always made panaeng curry with this combination.  I loved the idea of it as it is not a presentation I have ever seen in a restaurant, yet it makes perfect sense that this mild, creamy curry sauce would complement the sweet profiles of pork and kabocha squash.)  For the panaeng curry paste, I used coriander seeds, cumin seeds, nutmeg, cardamom pods, black peppercorns, dried red chiles, fresh galangal, fresh lemongrass, lime zest, cilantro stems, shallots, garlic, and shrimp paste.  On the plus side, I did a much better job of balancing the shrimp paste in the dish than in my Massaman curry paste.  On the “just okay” side, the overall flavor seemed a bit bland.  I know panaeng should be mild, but this was much milder than I expected.  It needed more citrus to brighten it and more chiles to flavor it.  Not a total fail, but somewhat disappointing to me.

green curry with tofu
and Thai green eggplant
The Green Curry atoned for the lack of flavor in the panaeng.  Its flavor profile had the balance and the bold flavors I was craving.  I made a green curry paste from fresh green chiles, shallots, garlic, fresh galangal, fresh lemongrass, lime zest, cilantro stems, peppercorns, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, salt and shrimp paste.  This dish offered a great lesson in the difference between a jarred curry paste and a homemade curry paste.  The brightness and freshness of the dish was unlike any green curry I’ve had in a restaurant, and I loved it.  In addition to the green curry paste, the dish was flavored with coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, palm sugar, chiles, and fresh Thai basil leaves.  I made it with tofu and those little green Thai eggplants that I found at Vihn An, which turned out to be delicious when cooked in a curry.  It was so good that three grown adult men who admitted that they never like tofu agreed that they had never tasted it prepared this way and loved it!  I knew they would, too, because tofu offers such a great canvas for flavorful sauces.  (The problem is that most people haven’t had it cooked properly.  The key is to press it, even if you buy the extra-firm, and to fry it before you add it into a curry.  Texture is key.)  I really can’t say enough about how much I loved this presentation. 

As an added plus for the evening, I made homemade ginger ice cream for dessert.  It was so delicious that I forgot to take a picture, or maybe I was too worn out by the end of this meal to take a picture.  Either way, I can report that it was quite delicious and a nice way to end our Thai feast.

Thai-Inspired Cocktails
I can’t write this post without commending my friends Keena and Ralph for creating some amazing Thai-inspired cocktails for our Saturday night feast.  When they asked if they could help with Saturday night’s dinner, I said, “Sure.  Why don’t you come up with a Thai-inspired cocktail for the night?”  So, they showed up with three amazing cocktails including recipe cards!  I loved it.  The drinks were great.

Lemongrass Martini Swirl

Shake the following ingredients with ice in a martini shaker:
  • ¼ tsp minced lemongrass paste
  • 6 oz Lemongrass infused green tea
  • Splash of fresh lime juice
  • Splash of fresh lemon juice
  • Splash of Soda
  • 1 oz Kaffir Lime Infused Vodka
  • 1 oz Russian Standard Vodka
Garnish with Swirls of Lemon Peel.

Coconut Painkiller

Shake the following ingredients with ice in a martini shaker:
  • 1 tbsp crushed mint leaves
  • 3 oz pure coconut water with pineapple
  • 3 oz soda
  • Splash of Fresh lime juice
  • Splash of Fresh lemon juice
  • 2 oz Kaffir Lime Infused Vodka or Ciroc Coconut Infused Vodka
Garnish with Mint Leaves or Lime Wedge.

Kenny Powers Ginger Chili Mule

Shake the following ingredients with ice in a martini shaker:
  • 1/4 tsp Minced Ginger
  • 3 oz Ginger Infused Green Tea
  • 3 oz Fever Tree Ginger Beer
  • Splash of fresh lemon juice
  • 2 oz Russian Standard Vodka
Rim the glass with chile powder and a touch of ground ginger.

All in all, I learned so much about Thai cuisine this week.  Making the curry pastes illustrated the complex list of ingredients required to produce these dishes.  My failures and successes illuminated the importance of finding the proper balance between sweet, spicy, salty, and downright pungent.  Most of all, I found a new appreciation for dishes prepared with authentic ingredients.  This week offered incredible insight regarding the “Americanization” of many Thai dishes we love.  The good news is that I found out I like most of these dishes done both ways, but now I know the difference!

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