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Thailand - Cooking 101

Joanne 2008-01-23
The moment my taste buds became intimate with Thai food, I was hooked. My quest to learn to reproduce these culinary delights began so that when the time comes to leave, I may take a part of Thailand with us.

Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/20 at 04:55 [CIMG4402]
I had always associated Thai food with an unpleasant and undesirable burning sensation that comes with eating spicy foods. Prior to being in Thailand, my tolerance level for spicy would reach it's peak after a few small shakes of a pepper mill. I have since grown quite fond of the green and red 1-2 centimeter long chili's which are used liberally, packing a punch to the dishes and sauces they accompany. Each bite leaving a tingle on your lips that can be felt well after the meal is done. I may go so far as to say that I am addicted to this tingle and mini influx of endorphins that are released in response to the bodies perception to a painful stimulus- otherwise known as a good spicy dish. It is sought out daily.

Our tolerance for eating fiery dishes has adapted significantly, our digestive tracts no longer fight back with a vengeance the morning after.

Restaurants that cater to farangs (westerners), purposely serve a milder version so as not to scare their clients away from the smoke that would undoubtedly exit all of their facial orifices. These modifications now leave us unsatisfied and yearning for the authentic Thai culinary experience.

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While there is truth to my previous association of Thai food being spicy, I have since learned that this generalization is just that. The ideal Thai meal is a harmonious blend of the spicy, subtle, salty, sweet,and sour, while being equally satisfying to the eyes, nose and palate.

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So how does one go about learning the secrets of a Thai kitchen? Cooking classes, of course!

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Learning to cook in a formal setting offered a good base in which to begin my culinary quest, but was it authentic? How much of the experience was tailored for the farangs ease and enjoyment in the kitchen?

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The introduction to so many unknown vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices only opened up the gateway to my curiosity and left me wanting to learn more, to learn the subtleties that make Thai cuisine so gastronomically pleasing.

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I soon figured out that this hunger for learning could be satiated through vendors' stalls.

Thai's eat almost every meal outside of the home. The majority of meals come from rot khen - vendor carts. Vendors specialize in a particular dish and can be found clustered together at day markets along the roadside. There are plastic table and chairs set up, but often the dishes are spooned into a take away plastic bag and shuttled off by their customers on mopeds.

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Do not let these basic make shift kitchens fool you, these simple food stops are anything but. This is where the true authentic Thai eating experience is to be had and for a fraction of the price of farang restaurants. A satisfying lunch of fish, chicken or vegetable curry, heaping plate of rice and accouterments of fresh veggies that serve to cool the palate from it's spicy counterpart costs all of 30 baht- $1. It is here that I have been feeding not only myself, but with their open air kitchens, my culinary curiosities as well. Few words, if any, are exchanged. Standing along side, accompanied by their warm welcoming smiles, I learn through observation.

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I had developed such a nice rapport with one vendor, Oy, that Paul and I had the pleasure of going to her home one night, cooking and sharing a small feast together.

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Customarily, eating Thai food is done family style- it's a communal affair involving a group of people sharing common serving platters. The meals are served in whatever order the kitchen can prepare them in, unlike western tradition where all meals are brought in unison and placed in front of their rightful owners. Diners choose whatever they require for one mouthful from the shared dishes and add it to their own plate of rice. Soups are enjoyed concurrently with rice and other dishes, not independently.

Getting the food to your mouth also involves different customs than the west. Locals use a spoon and a fork but not in the way you think. Thais use a fork like we use a knife, to push food onto the spoon which then finds it's way to your mouth, followed by a huge grin. Dig in! Knives are never found on a dining table.

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Fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and fish are sold in open air warehouse type markets. These markets vary in size and complexity from a few hanging bananas to an array of goodies that would allow for a feast suited for the King and Queen of Thailand to be conjured up. I ride my bicycle to different markets almost daily finding new things to try or to learn about. With the ever present language barrier, my questions often get put on hold, but eventually someone is placed in my path who can show me the way, or at least tell me the name behind the mystery food, enter Wikipedia.

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Yesterday, Ole, the chef of the restaurant that is attached to the bungalows we currently call home, let me tag along to the markets with him as he loaded up on groceries. Upon our return, we unpacked them and then I proceeded to help him with kitchen prep. While my tasks seemed mundane, cleaning and chopping produce, my eyes were constantly darting upwards and in his direction hoping to catch a glimpse of his expertise and learn any new trick that he may impart my way. I smiled as the thought occurred to me, don't all apprentices start in the proverbial mail room? With this in mind, I continued to clean and chop with vigor, all the while enjoying cooking 101 in Thailand, in all the forms it takes.

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