On this day last year, I began blogging about Thai food. When I started out, I had a fairly basic understanding of Thai cuisine that I had amassed from the boyfriend and his parents over the past several years. But with the start of this blog, I pretty quickly began to branch out and try new recipes that I hadn’t been explicitly taught how to make.
One of the first dishes I tried to make on my own last year was pad Thai. I didn’t realize at the time how ambitious I was being! I’ve since learned that pad Thai is actually one of the harder Thai dishes to get right. It requires not just a good recipe, but also a good understanding of Thai cooking techniques, ingredients, and tastes that most novices just don’t have. I certainly didn’t – I remember experimenting with this dish for weeks before finally producing a dish that the boyfriend deemed “acceptable”.
Through these experiments, I learned a lot about making pad Thai. And over the last year, I’ve learned even more about cooking Thai food in general. So in celebration of this blog’s one year anniversary, I’ve compiled a list of the top 5 things I’ve learned about Thai food over the last year.
My “Top 5 Truths About Thai Food”:
1. Thai food is not just curry.
When I tell people that I have a Thai food blog, their immediate reaction is always, “I love curry!”. And as much as I love curry too, I have to tell you that it really is not the mainstay of a Thai meal. In fact, I can count on my hands the number of times the boyfriend and I have eaten curry over the last year. We more commonly eat stirfried vegetables, steamed fish, and soup. And when we do have curry, it’s eaten alongside these other dishes, not as a stand-alone dish. This, I think, is more representative of how Thai people really eat.
2. Great Thai dishes start with great Thai ingredients.
Over the last year, I’ve seen a lot of recipes for Thai food. There are some great ones out there… and then there are some that you look at and just know they won’t turn out. Why? Because they suggest substitutions for hard to find ingredients – like ginger for galangal, lime peel for kaffir lime leaves, and ketchup for tamarind paste. You just can’t expect to get good quality results if you don’t start with the proper ingredients. So instead of spending time tweaking these recipes, I’ve found it much more worthwhile to put my efforts towards finding a sustainable source of these more elusive ingredients.
3. Thai flavors are bold, never timid.
This is one that I struggled with at first, I think because Thai flavors are so unique from those of any other cuisine. It took a little while for my tastebuds to adapt to these flavors and then some more time to build up to stronger and stronger versions of them. Now, when the boyfriend’s dad tells me that a dish needs more flavor, I’m much more amenable to adding another handful of chilis, another quarter cup of fish sauce, and squeezing the juice from an entire lime into the pot to achieve those characteristically bold “in your face” Thai flavors.
4. Cooking Thai food requires the use of your tastebuds.
It’s true. Cooking Thai food is an active process that constantly requires you to taste what you’re making and adjust the flavors accordingly. If something is too sweet, salty, sour, or hot, you have to be able to correct for those flavors. And generally, you have to do this very quickly as many dishes are cooked over super high heat within a matter of minutes. This process of tasting and adjusting is a skill that the boyfriend learned early on, but I have managed to pick up over time (and if I can, so can you!).
5. You can’t just dump peanut sauce on top of a dish and call it Thai.
When I ask others what they think of when they think of Thai food, I commonly get responses involving peanut sauce (vegetables and pineapple with peanut sauce, noodles with peanut sauce, beef covered in peanut sauce, etc). I think it’s safe to say after a year of cooking Thai food that none of these are typical Thai dishes. I’m not even sure they’re Thai dishes at all, although I can certainly understand the temptation to smother anything and everything with this delicious sauce.
So with this knowledge and a year’s worth of experience making and tasting Thai food behind me, I decided to give pad Thai another shot. Last year, my two biggest stumbling blocks were 1) the rehydration of the noodles and 2) the balance of flavors in the pad Thai sauce.
The noodles were difficult because, as I’ve since learned, I wasn’t rehydrating them enough beforehand. If you start with hard noodles, it’s going to take much too long to cook them in the wok with all of the other ingredients. The opposite is also true though, if you start out with noodles that are too soft, they’ll turn into a gloppy mess when cooking.
So this year I performed some scientific experiments with a handy kitchen timer and found the perfect rehydration time for my noodles in my kitchen is 6 minutes in a pot of very hot water. I’d encourage you to do the same experiment at your home and see what works for you.
Whereas the noodles can be figured out with a bit of scientific experimentation, the sauce is harder to master, at least for me. This is because there isn’t a set recipe for it. You start with equal parts tamarind paste, palm sugar, and fish sauce, but because there is such variation in the sourness of the tamarind, you have to adjust the other ingredients by taste alone to get a perfectly balanced sauce. The first pad Thai sauce I made last year elicited a very emphatic “ugh!” from the boyfriend. Fortunately, after a year of tasting Thai food, making this sauce has gotten easier for me, which means I don’t get quite so many disgusted faces from the boyfriend these days.
Now that I’ve gotten these two fundamental things figured out, I can consistently make a pad Thai that the boyfriend approves of. My last attempt even got a 5-star rating! Of course, there’s always room for improvement. Perhaps over the next year, I’ll work on incorporating some of the more traditional ingredients like salted radish and shrimp paste into my pad Thai. For now, though, as long as the boyfriend is happy with this dish, I am too.