ThaiDay: Chili me softly

Chili me softly (ThaiDay, 23/03/06)
Discovering the delights of Thai cuisine need not be a spicy, complicated experience.

Since the Thai food craze of the1990’s, Thai food has remained popular in the west, but much of this fame has been relegated to restaurants. For many home chefs in the US and Canada, Thai cuisine still carries an intimidating air of the exotic, and most people would rather not make something that can simply be bought at the Thai takeaway around the corner. Additionally, many of the ingredients essential to Thai cooking are misunderstood, or simply not available abroad, as well as the fact that Thai food has the reputation for being extremely spicy—something that intimidates many westerners. In short, there still is a lot to be done to promote Thai cooking internationally, and in an effort to do this, a food journalists’ tour of Bangkok was recently organized by Epicurean International, a US-based company that sells Thai cooking ingredients. During a week in Bangkok, myself and 11 other food writers and editors from North America took part in a Thai cooking school, visited various factories, and tasted Thai food at some of Bangkok’s best Thai restaurants. For many of the participants, this was their first experience with authentic Thai food, and was an introduction to the cuisine’s cooking and flavors. For me, the experience allowed me to see Thai cuisine for the first time once again, and also highlighted some of the trials of introducing an authentic Asian cuisine to North America.

Our crash course in Thai cuisine began with two days at the new Epicurean Kitchen Cooking School. As an introduction, we were given an explanation of the various Thai ingredients by the host of a Thai cooking show in the US. As we learned about the various uses of galingale, lemongrass, chilies and coriander, the actual herbs were passed around the table for each of us to touch, smell and taste. When kaffir lime leaf was brought up, Fraya Berg, a food editor at Parents magazine, mentioned the current trend of using the Thai word makrut to describe the leaf, as kaffir is a derogatory term in some countries. Others had questions about the use of frozen or dried herbs as opposed to fresh, as well as questions about the acceptable substitutes for the more obscure Thai ingredients. I felt that many of these concerns were good examples of the issues that Thai food has never been faced with domestically, and that it will have to overcome in order to become popular abroad.

During our two days at the cooking school, we learned to prepared more than 10 dishes, and most were surprised to learn that the actual cooking processes involved in making Thai food are often quite simple. “I enjoyed learning that the blending of Thai flavors is fairly straightforward and based upon a group of basic flavors: galangal, lemongrass, chilies, coconut milk and fish sauce,” explained Julie Miltenberger, a food editor at Family Circle Magazine. When asked what she sees as potential roadblocks to making Thai commonplace in the west, Miltenberger suggested that, “The greatest obstacle I foresee […] is the lack of fresh Thai ingredients in the marketplace. If ingredients are readily available, the food is very easy to assemble.” Gwynneth Galvin, a frequent contributor of food-related articles to Woman’s World magazine, thought that nomenclature might be a potential problem. “I’ll take these recipes back to the US, but I’ll have to rename them, as most people in the US aren’t familiar with the Thai names,” she explained.

Despite the fact that Thai ingredients are as simple as the cooking processes used to cook them, many suffer from the misconception that they are unhealthy (coconut milk) or just plain odd (fish sauce, shrimp paste). A visit to two factories where both of these staples are produced helped to clarify some of the misunderstandings surrounding Thai food. At Rungroj Fish Sauce Factory in Rayong, we learned that fish sauce is a pure product, comprised only of anchovies and salt, and that the highest quality fish sauce is the result of the first “pressing”, as one writer referred to it. At Merit Food Products in Cholburi, we saw that coconut milk is not the sweet juice that is found in young coconuts, but rather the liquid that is extracted from mature coconut meat. After visiting these factories, I felt that if people in the west were aware of the processes that go into making these ingredients, they would be more apt to use them.

Another factor that has slowed the progression of Thai food abroad is its reputation for being spicy. However, based on the comments of the journalists, this impression may not always be true. “I thought [Thai food] would be too hot for me, but I don't think I had one unmanageable dish,” commented Susan Katzman, a freelance food and travel writer, after several Thai meals. “The heat in all we tried enhanced flavor—not overpowered it.” Janice Cole, a food editor at Cooking Pleasures magazine added, “Thai food has developed a reputation for being very spicy in [the US]. While that appeals to many people, it also deters many people. What I found out on the trip is that Thai food can easily be made in a variety of heat levels and people can season their own food to their taste with chili sauce on the side.”

Along with Thai food, the popularity of Thai beer is also growing abroad, and I was able to learn more about this facet of Thai cuisine when I visited the Boon Rawd brewery with well-known Canadian beer writer, Stephen Beaumont. Normally the factory is not open to the public, but through a previous arrangement we were given a private tour by the brewery’s German-educated brewmaster, Tavesak Sujjayan. After our tour we were able to sit down and taste some of the brewery’s beers, including Thai, Leo, Kloster, Asahi, and Singha. After tasting the beers and discussing the flavors, Beaumont concluded that, “…variety is not the greatest strength of Thailand's breweries. Most every beer brewed in the country is a variation on the pale lager theme, with flavors ranging from borderline non-existent to sweetish and straw-like…” Beaumont described Singha as his favorite among the beers, which he described as “well developed and moderately full-bodied.” Although after seeing the factory I did gain a new appreciation for Singha, it’s clear that domestic Thai beer still has a long way to go before it will be well regarded outside of Thailand.

At the end of a week, Thai food appeared to win over this food-savvy crowd in a number of ways. Susan Katzman suggested that, “Thai cooking would translate well here in America for those on ‘health’ quests, being low calorie, high color, low fat, [and] full of flavor…” Janice Cole added, “I think one area Americans know little about are Thai salads and I think Americans will be very receptive to learning more about [them].” As an afterthought, Katzman added, “I came home totally addicted to sugar. Who would have thought I could crave those strange looking desserts, but yes, give me mango and sticky rice, or gnocchi-type dumpling in coconut milk over chocolate cake and I'll be happy.” Each of us took something different away from this experience, but hopefully it will lead to a greater understanding of this exotic cuisine, encourage people in the west to cook Thai food, and hopefully, add a bit of spice—but not too much—to the western palate.