What makes it Thai? This question about the characteristics of Thai food is often answered with “taste,” “spice,” “flavor,” “colorfulness,” “freshness,” or “healthiness.” The colorful, fresh, and healthy aspects are easily achieved by selecting the right colors and fresh ingredients. But when it comes to taste, spice, and flavor, especially with the Thai essence, a little research and getting used to is required.
Special herbs and spices make Thai food unique. Other ingredients and cooking methods from neighboring countries, however, have also greatly influenced Thai cuisine. For example, Thais have adopted the noodles from the Chinese to create the classic dish Pad Thai. Curries from India have filtered into Thai households and been modified for Thai taste. Surprisingly, from as far away as Central America, chilies have traveled on Spanish and Portuguese fleets to land on fertile Thai soil to become part of the signature spicy Thai dishes.
While these herbs usually grow in tropical climates and then find their way to Western countries, fresh Thai herbs can now be produced in the United States, especially in the hot climates of Florida and Hawaii, and in California during the summer months. As the popularity of Thai and Southeast Asian cuisine grows, so does the market for these popular herbs. Thai sweet basil, bird's-eye chilies, and fish sauce earn their shelf spaces commercially in the big-name grocery stores.
Of all the Thai herbs, the three most popular include lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime. These three give unique flavors and aromas that distinguish Thai cooking from other cuisine. These herbs are basically used in two ways: either by eating them directly or by extracting their essences into the food.
Lemongrass: Takrai (Cymbopogon citratus) resembles a grass with a strong lemon aroma. To use the lemongrass, cut off the grassy top and root end. Peel and remove the large, tough outer leaves of the stalk until you reach a light purple color. Chop it very fine to use in salads and grind into curry pastes if eating them directly. Or, cut into 2-inch portions and bruise them before boiling with soup broth to extract the flavor. Lemongrass can be found fresh in most grocery stores because it has a very long shelf life. Dry and frozen form is also available in most Asian stores.
Galangal: Kha (Alpinia officinarum) or Siamese Ginger is a perennial rhizome plant similar to ginger but has a larger and brighter colored root. The root tips are pink and have a strong medicinal taste and so can't be eaten directly like ginger. Galangal is used as a pungent ingredient in ground curry pastes by chopping it very fine before grinding with a mortar and pestle. Or it can be used as a main herb for its unique and exotic aroma in popular sweet and sour Tom Yum and coconut galangal soup. Slice galangal into thin slices and cook with soup broth to extract the essence. Galangal can be found in fresh root, frozen, dry, and powder form in most Asian grocery stores. If using dried slices of galangal, soak them in warm water for at least 30 minutes or until you can bend the piece before putting them in a blender. Substitute the fresh galangal with half the amount of dry galangal in the recipe.
Kaffir Lime: Magrood (citrushysterix) has a thick, dark, wrinkled skin. Its shiny, rush-green leaves, Bai Magrood, and rinds, Pew Magrood, are used for a strong citrus flavor in curry pastes, soups, and salads. They need to be sliced very thin if eating directly. Or, they can be used whole by cooking whole leaves or whole limes in soup broth or curries for the kaffir essence. They are available in Asian grocery stores in fresh, dry, and frozen form.
Meet the Chef
A distinguished master of the culinary arts, Chat Mingkwan is not only a Bay Area instructor, but a professional consultant for the food and restaurant industry, a travel guide, and published author as well. While his expertise and skill reach across the spectrum, Chat's passion for Asian cooking is unmistakable; this may, of course, be attributed to his interesting childhood spent in Thailand.
As the youngest boy in an urban family from Bangkok, Thailand, Chat Mingkwan was often left behind to help his aunt prepare the family dinner while his older brothers and sisters ran off to play. At first, he despised the cooking task but later learned to enjoy the knowledge and skills, including discovering the sweet revenge of spiking and spicing his brothers' and sisters' meals. Chat often intentionally prepared their meals wtih almost unbearable spiciness but would get away with it. While the food was so spicy, it was also delicious--his siblings were unsure whether to punish or praise him. It was then that cooking became his passion. Chat gradually fine-tuned his skills and continued cooking, as commendation and praise became his rewards and encouragement.
Chat then came to the U.S. to pursue a higher education, particularly in the design field. While studying, he also began training and cooking at a French restaurant, part-time and as a hobby; this would also prove to be his first big step in the culinary profession. With his degree from California State University, Chat worked for several years in the hospitality design business, specializing in kitchen and restaurant design.
Later, he followed his yearning, culinary passion by apprenticing at La Cagouille in Rayon, France, specializing in provincial French cuisine. After returning to the U.S., he began to offer his French cooking always with a twist of Thai, or perfect his Thai cooking with a hint of French techniques, all to fit the Western kitchen.
Additionally, Chat traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia, as he continues to do today, gaining a wealth of culinary knowledge from the region's many countries and unique cuisine. Becoming an apprentice once more, this time of Southeast Asian cuisine, he easily mastered the new skills with his Thai cooking background. His skills were then put to test in the culinary metropolis of San Francisco, at a restaurant specializing in Southeast Asian grill. It was here that Chat spent several years before realizing his call to share the knowledge he had acquired.
Chat is now doing what he likes most--cooking, teaching, traveling, writing, and making sure that people who come in contact with him have a full stomach and a good time. Chat's many accomplishments and successes may be explained by his overall philosophy which is similar to his cooking simplicity: “Untie the knot, either the one in your stomach or the unclear one in the recipe. Make it simple, straight and true to yourself. Let's walk this path together.”
To extend his love for culinary, Chat has written his first cookbook which explores the specialities of each region of Thailand. He takes the reader-chef on a culinary tour of his home country, offering favorites from each of Thailand's four regions. Enjoy and Bon Appetit!
OUR 2002 NEWSLETTERS
December Celebrations in Asia
The Principles of Japanese Tableware
The Art of Eglomise
The Three Most Popular Thai Herbs
JADE: The Stone of Immortality and Beauty
The Legend of Daruma
The Lucky Cat
The Art of Beautiful Writing
All Steamed Up: Springtime Mushimono
Chinese ID: The Chop/Seal
Cast Away Illness with Cast Iron