Do you like delicious meals that are also easy to make? Well, do you also like sweating while you eat? Because if so, I’ve got something you’ll love: Thai food!
My own relationship with Thai food was born in part out of convenience. For the past year or so, I’ve been living in Hollywood at the (rather nebulous) border of Little Armenia and Thai Town. With Thai supermarkets around the corner, it was sort of inevitable that I’d end up trying my own hand at it. It’s easy to be intimidated by the idea of Thai cooking: it’s got all those strange ingredients and, unlike previous amateur attempts at Asian cooking, I can’t just dump soy sauce on everything and call it a day. It turns out, though, that you only need a few staple ingredients, and from there you can really experiment and make some wonderful stuff.
For my inaugural post, I’m going to stick to the basics of shopping for your Thai cooking adventures. The basic flavors of Thai food will be very familiar: lots of garlic, cilantro, lime, basil. There are a few more exotic touches, from the mainstream to the peculiar, and we’ll hit them here.
First, you’re going to want to get some staple ingredients. These keep forever and make it easy to whip up something delicious in the amount of time it takes you to steam some rice. They are:
fish sauce – This sounds gross, smells gross, but a tablespoon adds a wonderful flavor and aroma and, yes, seasoning to almost all Thai dishes. Think of it as liquid salt with a kick. Keep it in the fridge.
curry paste – There’s a whole bunch of these, but I recommend just getting red curry paste and panang curry paste to start; you can branch out more later. Keep in pantry until open, then fridge.
coconut milk – There will be cans and cans of this; buy the cheapest that still sounds Asian-y (here it’s Chaokoh or Mae Ploy or something like that). Keep in pantry. (Hint: you can never have too much coconut milk; not only is it the base of most curries, but it can be substituted for water when steaming rice to delicious effect.)
jasmine rice – This is wonderful Thai rice; I buy a big 10lb bag and keep it around forever. it’s probably not essential (I’m sure you can use whatever rice you like), but it’s good stuff and cheap, so why not? Pantry, obvi.
Good, we’ve got all the main stuff we need. Now you’ll need to pick up some perishables depending on what dish or dishes you actually want to make. Most stuff will be available at major grocery stores, but some specialty stuff you might need includes:
kaffir lime leaves – Available at any thai grocery, get these fresh if available, frozen if not. Also, if you ever have the opportunity to buy a kaffir lime plant, DO IT. they’re hardy, require little attention, and you only ever really use the leaves, so no worries if it never bears fruit. (I have yet to ever be able to get a citrus tree to fruit, but leaves, leaves I can handle.)
galanga – This is a root, looks like ginger, but tastes different. Again, get fresh if available, frozen if not.
lemongrass – Might be at your local grocery, as its pretty common these days, but maybe not. Always get this fresh.
thai (birds eye) chilies – Tiny, usually green, sometimes red or yellowy, these are some of the hotter peppers in the world. Get ’em fresh, and they’ll actually keep for a while (couple weeks, usually) in the fridge. Be careful when dicing them, as your hands will become fiery instruments of death to any mucous membrane (your nose, your eyes, God forbid your anus) for several hours afterwards.
shredded green (unripe) papaya – This is the key ingredient of the famous (and infamously spicy) thai papaya salad, but it’s really only going to be found at a thai market. if you come across unripe papaya somewhere, I’m sure you could shred it yourself, but I really don’t bother unless I can find it pre-shredded somewhere.
Don’t worry if you can’t find some of these things. Basically all that’s absolutely essential for a delicious meal are the curry paste, coconut milk, and rice. But grab the other stuff if it’s there!
Anyway, this post is long enough already. Check back next week for the next installment, when we’ll really get into making some food.