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Thai food is an original and rich amalgam of aromas, subtle blends of herbs and spices and contrasting textures and tastes. It contains flavours and techniques that are familiar from Chinese, Indian and Japanese cooking, but they have been so skillfully combined and refined that the resulting dishes have a new and exciting character.

Whether searing hot or subtly mild, the guiding principle in Thai cooking is harmony. Fundamentally an aromatic marriage of centuries – old Eastern and Western influences, the chief characteristics being who cooks it, for whom it is cooked, for what occasion and where it is cooked. In short Thai dishes can be extremely personal to the cook, how they are refined for particular tastes, how they befit a special function or festival and where they originate. The cuisine has its roots in a waterborne lifestyle, with aquatic animals, plants and herbs as major ingredients.

Thai cuisine is inextricably interwoven with culture, a mystical mix of fragrant flavours and intriguing history : given the country’s historical Indian roots - Hindu Buddhism was bought here centuries ago, so many Thai curries are redolent with chillies, garlic, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and onions. 

The dishes are light and fresh. Vegetables are important, and are quickly cooked to retain their crispness, flavour and nutrients. Dairy products are not used and fish and poultry feature more prominently than meat; and where there is used it often constitutes a small portion of the dish.

Thai cuisine can be simply said to be an artistic blend of fresh and dried herbs, with intriguing hints of tangy, the heady and the aromatic. It is an exquisite mix of fragrances of coriander, lemon grass, coconut, tamarind, galangal, chillies, sweet basil, ginger, garlic and shallots. Thai cuisine emerges from the magic of these fresh herbs, usually ground into a paste, cooked in little oil in tandem with coconut milk, tamarind juice and rich, traditional stock.

Rice Bowl of Asia

Northeast Thailand is known as The Rice Bowl of Asia , with some of the richest harvests in the world. Thai fragrant rice, also known as jasmine rice or sticky rice are justly famous the world over. As the country tapers towards the southern isthmus and extending to the nearest southern neighbour of Malaysia, it is flanked on one side by the Gulf of Thailand and on the other by the Indian ocean both brimming with tropical seafood.

The climate and rich soil are most conductive to the nearly year round cultivation of a plethora of tropical fruits and vegetables that today are gracing the tables of the world. Mangoes, mangosteens, durians, limes, rambutans, longans and lychees grow like mushrooms after a summer storm. Despite much urbanization and western influences, the majority of Thai communities are still village bound who live off the land in the real sense of the word.

Villagers still cling to their ancient traditions and are able to resist modern influences as many of their settlements were, and still are, relatively isolated. Because of this, traditional cooking has kept most of its heritage.

The innate Thai passion for intricate detail in the arts and cuisine is immediately apparent in the architecture of temples and palaces and the carved fruits and vegetables that dress up even the most ordinary dishes. The Grand Palace, within the grounds of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, is a glittering example; it is a gorgeous architectural mosaic of brilliantly coloured glass and porcelain. Graceful eaves and lashings of gold leaf glint in the brilliant sunshine speaking of centuries of prosperity and passionate art. This is eloquently translated in the art of vegetable and fruit carving; give a Thai chef a melon or carrot and within a short time will emerge the most splendid sculpture of a blooming lotus flower…

Enter a Thai Kitchen

In traditional Thai homes, whether rich or poor, the kitchen was almost always a separate part of the main house for a very food reason. Wood was always the main fuel and kitchens were smoky and stifling in the tropical heat and humidity. Many rural areas of Thailand still cook as they did centuries ago with wood and charcoal, though portable gas burners are making heated inroads.

One of the earliest Thai stoves was an earthenware tray with one side raised to hold the bottom of a cooking pot; charcoal or wood embers placed under the pot. Today more commonly used are built-in ranges made of tiled cement or terracotta. The more urban homes would have portable gas rings, hobs or electric stoves much like those used in the West.

Equipment is minimal and simple, and the basic preparation of the food and its cooking is straightforward. Thai dishes are cooked quickly, with many taking only a few minutes, and the majority no more than 8-12 minutes. This factor, coupled with the informal way in which the dishes can be served and eaten, everyone helping themselves, makes a Thai meal ideal for today’s style of casual entertaining.

Like we said, as for implements and tools, a Thai kitchen does not feature a whole host of implements and tools. What constitutes an adequate kitchen would be a wok, a few metal or earthenware pots, steamers either of aluminum or woven bamboo, granite or terracotta pestle and mortar, various tools for scraping and processing such as coconuts and roots vegetables, various baskets of woven pandanus for storage and service, a cleaver, a sharp paring knife and a chopping block. Of course in affluent homes today, there would be a range of implements like grinders, processors and such to make short work of food processing. 

Although some of the foods, principally vegetables that are available in Thailand cannot be found in the West, a sufficiently wide range of ingredients can be obtained to produce authentic Thai dishes. All of the ingredients used in Thai cooking , can be found without difficulty in specialty stores, and are becoming increasingly available in good food shops and supermarkets.

* Banana leaves * Basil leaves * Chillies * Chinese black mushrooms * Coconut cream * Coconut milk * Coriander leaves * Coriander roots * Fish sauce (nam pla) * Galangal * Ginger * Kaffir limes * Kaffir lime leaves * Lemon grass * Long beans * Mint * Noodles * Palm sugar * Pandanus (screw pine) * Pea aubergine (eggplant) * Rice * Shallots * Shrimps (dried) * Shrimp paste * Tamarind 

Cooking and equipment

The majority of Thai cooking is done in one piece of cooking equipment, the wok, by either of two very straightforward cooking methods, steaming or stir frying. Stir frying is a very rapid process as the ingredients are cut into small, even pieces. For successful stir frying, heat the wok before adding the oil to help prevent food from sticking, then heat the oil until it is almost smoking before adding the ingredients. Toss the food during cooking, and keep it moving from the centre of the wok to the sides. Because of its curved shape, the wok allows the food to be quickly tossed without spilling. As the food is kept moving during stir frying, very little oil is needed.

Wok: used for frying, stir frying, deep frying and steaming. A useful size to buy is about 30-35 cm in diameter across the top. Choose one that has good deep sides and some weight. Carbon steel is preferable to light stainless steel or aluminum as these tend to develop hot spots which cause sticking and do not withstand intense heat so well. Non stick woks and electrical ones do not reach sufficiently high temperatures. A frying pan could be used for frying and stir frying, a deep – fat frying pan for deep frying and a saucepan for steaming.

Wok stand: metal ring or stand to hold wok steady over the heat.

Rack: for using in a wok when steaming to support the steaming basket or container of food above the level of the water.

Steamer: Chinese style bamboo steamers are used in Thailand, but Western metal ones will do just as well.

Rice cooker: because of the amount of rice Thais eat and the number of people cooked for, many households now use an electric rice cooker. A heavy sauce pan with a tight – fitting lid will be adequate for Western needs.

Pestle and mortar: used during the preparation of the majority of savoury dishes. A small blender or a coffee grinder kept specifically for the purpose will take away the effort but will not produce quite the same results. When used for fibrous ingredients such as galangal and lemon grass, the pestle and mortar crushes the fibre rather than cuts them and so releases the flavouring juices and oils more successfully.

Spatula: a long handled spatula that is curved and shaped like a shovel for scooping and tossing food in the wok.

Knives: Thais use cleavers, but a selection of sizes of good quality sharp knives will suffice.

Almost without exceptions, Thai kitchens have a set of bamboo – handled wire baskets so theycan quickly and easily plunge noodles into boiling water for the requisite short cooking time, and then speedily lift them out; different baskets are used for different types of noodles.

Spend the day in Thailand

Thais eat about 450 grams of rice a day. They might start with a rice soup, perhaps spooned over an egg, or simple fried rice. Lunch will be composite rice or noodle soup, followed by crisp fried noodles tossed with a little fish or meat., vegetables or flavourings. The main meal is eaten in the evening, preferably in the company of extended family and several friends. Traditionally, Thais will eat sitting on a plump cushions set around a low table. All dishes are served simultaneously rather than a separate course, and everyone shares them.

Surrounding the large central bowl of rice there will be several dishes giving a balanced selection of flavours and textures. Usually they will consist of soft steamed dish contrasted by a crisp fried one that is strongly flavoured (usually fried by chillies), matched by a bland one. There are cool, crunchy salads, bowls of sauces, plus a small bowl of clear soup for each diner.

There is no structure to the meal. Every diner dips into any dish they choose, putting a portion on their plate to mix with rice. The helpings are always small, but several helpings may be taken from each dish. An ordinary family meal ends with an array of fresh tropical fruits all neatly sliced and arranged for everyone to share. Desserts only appear on special occasions or formal banquets.

It is often assumed that the Thais use chopsticks as often as Chinese. In truth, the Thai dining table rarely features them and a typical place setting would be a large dinner plate, fork and spoon and perhaps the side bowl and porcelain spoon for soup. Chopsticks are employed only when soupy noodles are served. Every meal is communal wherein all the dishes are served at the same time and the diners help themselves from each plate or bowl of curries, stir fried dishes or side dips. In many rural pockets, Thais still eat with the fingers, using various leaves and rice crackers as makeshift spoons.

Although traditionally all the dishes are served at once, Thai food is so adaptable that there is no problem in dividing it into Western style courses. Many of the dishes can also be served as snacks or simple one-dish meals. Thais like to eat little and often so throughout the day they will buy readymade sweets, cakes and savoury snacks from the numerous street vendors. Some of these savoury snacks such as noodle parcels and stuffed eggs could be served as a western style first course.

Garnishes commonly used in Thai cuisine

How to make Spring Onion Brushes? Trim away some of green part of spring onion (scallion). Cut off white bulb where it starts to turn green. Using small pair of kitchen scissors, make a cut from greenest end of spring onion, about halfway along the length. Continue to cut onion into fine stripes. Place spring onion into a bowl of chilled water. Leave for a few seconds for stripes to curl; lift from water several times to ensure they do not curl too tightly. Repeat with remaining spring onions. Place on absorbent kitchen paper to dry before using.

How to make Chilli Flowers? Cut off top of chilli. Insert scissors in hole and cut through chilli flesh amount to stalk end. Give chilli a quarter turn , make another similar cut then repeat twice more. Remove and discard seeds. Cut through each petal once or twice more to make finer petals. Place in a bowl of chilled water. Leave for 5-10 minutes for the petals to open into a flower shape. Repeat with remaining chillies. Place on absorbent kitchen paper to dry before using.

How to make Banana Leaf Cups? Place 2 pieces of banana leaf with dull sides facing each other. Invert a 10 cm diameter bowl on top of leaves. Cut around bowl. Form a 1 cm pleat about 4 cm deep in the edge of banana leaf circle. Staple together. Make an identical pleat in the opposite side of circle, then repeat twice more at points equidistant between 2 pleats, to make a slightly opened , squared off cup. Repeat with remaining pieces of banana leaf.

How to make Carrot Flowers? Hold the carrot pointed end down. Using a small sharp knife , make a cut towards the point to form petal shape. Take care not to slice all the way through. Repeat cuts around the carrot to make a flower with four petals. Angle knife slightly, then apply light pressure to separate carrot flowers from carrot. For first few flowers, it may be necessary to ease every petal in this way, but with a little practice, flowers will come away easily with a twist of knife. Repeat along the length of the carrot. Arrange flowers singly or group them into clusters. 

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MasterChef Sanjeev Kapoor

Chef Sanjeev Kapoor is the most celebrated face of Indian cuisine. He is Chef extraordinaire, runs a successful TV Channel FoodFood, hosted Khana Khazana cookery show on television for more than 17 years, author of 150+ best selling cookbooks, restaurateur and winner of several culinary awards. He is living his dream of making Indian cuisine the number one in the world and empowering women through power of cooking to become self sufficient. His recipe portal is a complete cookery manual with a compendium of more than 10,000 tried & tested recipes, videos, articles, tips & trivia and a wealth of information on the art and craft of cooking in both English and Hindi.