When cool fall weather comes, I begin longing for a steaming bowl of red curry, loaded with vegetables and flavored with chile peppers, lemongrass, and basil, all from my garden. If the weather’s hot, I think more along the lines of a salad of vegetables and herbs, spiked with chiles and fresh cilantro.
In the world of Thai cuisine, everything is light and fresh, with vibrant colors and tastes that grab your attention at the first bite. What I like about Thai cuisine is not only its flavors and aromas, but also the almost unlimited variety of dishes I can prepare with Thai tastes and colors.
Although the flavors of my cooking are definitely from another world, I use vegetables common to most American gardens. Special Asian varieties aren’t necessary; in fact, I prefer good old green beans to the more authentic yard-long beans.
Vegetables take center stage
Thai cuisine, like most Far Eastern cooking, uses meat and fish. The stars of the show, however, are the vegetables, herbs, and spices. I use everything I grow in my garden in Thai recipes—asparagus, potatoes, eggplant, garlic, shallots, peppers, zucchini, carrots. In red or yellow curries I often use potatoes, sweet potatoes, string beans, and carrots. Swiss chard, broccoli, zucchini, and asparagus are good in green curry. And in stir-fries I’ll use any vegetables that are available.
If you get very involved in this style of cooking, you might want to grow a few Asian vegetables. Thai eggplants can be as small as a pea or as large as a grapefruit, depending on the variety. I prefer the long, slender Japanese eggplants, which are good grilled, in stir-fries, or in curries.
Winged bean, sometimes called asparagus pea, has an exotic appearance and a delicate flavor. It grows from a climbing plant that has four frilly-edged wings. The bean can be eaten raw or cooked.
The yard-long bean is a popular choice in Asian communities for Thai curries, stews, and braised side dishes. Yard-long beans take about twice as long to cook as regular string beans. They have a nutty flavor, stronger than that of green beans. Yard-long beans are easy to grow, but they need more heat than I can give them in coastal Maine. Seed is widely available.
The right herbs lend authentic flavors
The realm of herbs always offers something new and exciting. It’s magic when chile peppers meet garlic and lemongrass. And with a touch of fish sauce and herbs the dish is made as complete as a chocolate sundae topped with a cherry. If you are unfamiliar with Thai ingredients, practice with the herbs until you can use one without overpowering the other.
There is a misconception that Thai foods are very hot and spicy and contain too many complicated ingredients. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Thai food can be made mild or hot, simple or complex. The decision is up to you.
To give your dishes that authentic Thai style you will want to use a blend of herbs like cilantro, basil, kaffir lime, and lemongrass, plus chiles for heat.
Lemongrass is one of the most frequently used herbs in Thai cuisine. It has a lemony scent but no acidity. In warm regions, this herb grows year-round; here in Maine, I plant it as an annual. The white stalk is the most valuable part, but the leaves can also be used, especially to infuse vegetable broth.
Kaffir lime (Citrus hystrix) leaves have an intense citrus scent that is used in soups and in curry paste. I keep the leaves in the freezer, cleaned and deveined, ready to use. A kaffir lime plant can be grown in the warmth of a sunny window. The leaves grow in two lobes, end to end. If a recipe calls for one leaf, use one lobe.
For me, Thai basil is essential to Thai cuisine; its flavor is slightly different from Italian basil’s. It is used in salads, curries, and stir-fries. ‘Siam Queen’ has a pleasant, sweet, anise taste, and is my preference. Thai lemon basil, such as ‘Sweet Dani’, has a flavor similar to mint’s, with a hint of citrus. Both ‘Siam Queen’ and ‘Sweet Dani’ are recent introductions. They are easy to grow as annuals and widely available.
You’ll need to buy a few special ingredients
There are a few ingredients, which have no substitutes, that make a dish truly Thai. If you can’t find what you need locally, all of these ingredients can be ordered from templeofthai.com.
Fish sauce is the backbone seasoning in not only Thai cuisine, but also Vietnamese, Philippine, and Cambodian. It is made from salt-packed, fermented fish. It is pale amber and has a strong, unmistakable odor. Don’t be scared off by its aroma. Fish sauce mellows after cooking and will blend well with the herbs and spices of the dish. I recommend buying a premium grade fish sauce, which will have a richer taste and be less salty.
Coconut milk is an essential ingredient in Thai cooking for adding flavor and thickness to many dishes, especially curries. You can make it from fresh or unsweetened, dried, grated coconut, but that’s a time-consuming job, so I recommend you buy it in a can. When you first open the can, the thick “cream” will be floating on top.
Shrimp paste, made from salted, fermented shrimp, is crucial to curries and stews. It has an intense flavor, so a little goes a long way. Shrimp paste keeps indefinitely in the refrigerator.
Tamarind pods are exotic, sweet-tart fruits from small trees that grow only in tropical climates. Tamarind is sold as a dryish paste in blocks or as a prepared liquid. It can be used instead of vinegar in stir-fries and sauces.
Practicing and sampling are the key to success in all types of cooking. That’s how you’ll become familiar with the chemistry of the ingredients and how they mix. A single spice or herb may not have the desired taste effect, especially in Thai cuisine, which depends on a balanced blend of flavors. Once you discover the pleasure of cooking with these old and new friends, you won’t feel intimidated, and the mysteries surrounding Thai cooking will dissolve into your own delicious creations.
—Bich Nga Burrill was born in Vietnam, but she draws on many Asian cuisines for her catering business in Winterport, Maine.
Photos: Kim Jaeckel.
From Kitchen Gardening #29