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Thai Me Up
by Debbie Elkind
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 5.4

I can't hold Thai food entirely responsible for making me uproot my life and move halfway around the world to Sydney, Australia. But it did play a role.

In Sydney, incredible Thai restaurants are as ubiquitous (and about as affordable) as burrito joints in San Francisco. But no matter how authentic the cooking, it's hard to beat paying 20 baht (about 50 cents) at a bustling Bangkok market for curry that's bursting with tangy lime; tempered by the salt of fish sauce and the caramel of palm sugar; and followed, ideally, by a bold aftershock of chili. I decided a long time ago that if I couldn't eat out that way every day, the next best thing was knowing how to make it.

Having cooked up many a dish of Tom Khai Kai, Mee Khrob, and Massaman Curry, I thought I was pretty well versed in the cuisine for a Western chef. But it wasn't until a culinary tour of Thailand, including an amazing cooking course in Chiang Mai, that I really felt like I "got it."

Whether fiery hot or comparatively mild, when it comes to Thai, harmony's the guiding principle. Overpowering spices are toned down by pungent fresh herbs, like lemongrass and galangal. Salty sauces are tempered with sugars and offset by acids, such as lime. Moreover, rather than being served in courses, a Thai meal is presented all at once, so diners can enjoy the juxtaposition of contrasting flavors.

Yet despite the apparent complexity of Thai food, many dishes are surprisingly easy to concoct. Much of the art lies more in the prep work than in employing tricky techniques. In fact, you'll often find that having the ingredients lined up and ready to go is half the battle.

Of course you can just go to a restaurant or buy ready-made curry pastes and sauces, but trust me, Thai is almost certainly easier to master than you realize. And if you can't afford to travel, cooking this marvelous cuisine is the next best thing to a trip to Thailand. Or Sydney.

Wine & Thai Food

When choosing a wine to accompany a Thai meal, the same thought should be given to equilibrium as it is in cooking Thai. Riesling and pinot noir are probably your two best bets for spicy hot dishes: a good rule of thumb being that the spicier the food, the sweeter the wine. For example, pair a slightly dry number with a tangy but mild lemongrass and coconut chicken soup. But use a more sugary vintage to tone down the fire of a curry.

The German Auslese style rieslings are excellent and reasonably priced. Two U.S. producers, Bonny Doon (whose Pacific Rim is marketed to serve with Asian cuisine) and Hogue, both make good, affordable rieslings. As for pinots, their delicate flavors, which can be smothered by heavy steak or barbecue, are enhanced by hot and spicy food.

Remember that spicy food exaggerates the tannin and natural bitterness in wine. The addition of salt and sour flavors will help counteract this effect, as they make the wine milder, fruitier and less bitter.

Thus, if you're drinking a merlot or cabernet sauvignon with duck in red curry, the addition of fish sauce to the curry - or salt to the duck - will help counteract the chilies. Similarly, the addition of lime juice to a green mango salad will offset the spiciness and pair nicely with a sauvignon blanc/semillon blend. For a moderately spicy, ginger-rich dish, a good gewurztraminer makes an excellent contrast.

Another thing to consider is the method of food preparation. Generally speaking, grilled or pan-roasted foods will be better matches with your wines than those that are deep-fried. For example, Kai Yang (chicken marinated in garlic, pepper and lemongrass, and then grilled) is delicious with a crisp white wine or a fruity red.

Tips and Tricks

  • Never cut kaffir lime leaves, as too much oil will come off on the knife and diminish the strength of the flavor. Tear them gently instead.
  • When kaffir zest is unavailable, substitute lemon peel rather than lime, as the latter is too bitter.
  • Ginger, in smaller quantities, can be used as a substitute for galangal (also known as ginza or laos powder).
  • When making large quantities of curry paste to store in the fridge or freezer, it's best to fry it first in oil, and then store both the oil and the paste. This helps retain better color and flavor. Dried chilies provide a better color in paste than fresh ones.
  • Always add lime juice after the heat has been turned off.
  • Mung beans should be stored in salt, not water, to keep them crunchy.
  • Don't fry garlic and shallots together, as the garlic will cook quicker and turn brown. Shallots soaked in water for 10 minutes won't make you cry when cutting them.
  • Use a tablespoon of coconut milk as a garnish for curries to provide an attractive color contrast.
  • To separate coconut cream from milk, refrigerate it for 10 minutes, then skim off the top.
  • Milk, cucumber or tomato will stop the burning sensation from chilies; water will amplify it.
  • When stir-frying, always preheat your wok at least five minutes, until it's smoking hot. Add your oil and wait 10 seconds before beginning to add meat and vegetables.

  • SEE KRONG TORD GRATIUM
    (Fried Spare Ribs with Garlic)
    (serves 4)

    Although Thai people eschew appetizers in favor of eating a variety of dishes all at once (proving yet again that it's the harmony of opposing forces that define this cuisine), for us Western cheats, this makes a great appetizer that can serve as a prelude to a wide range of main courses.

    4 cups pork spareribs cut into 1-inch pieces
    Enough oil to deep fry
    3 cups chicken stock or water
    1/2 cup oil
    1/2 cup chopped garlic with skin on

    SAUCE
    1/2 cup chopped garlic
    1/4 cup roughly chopped coriander root and stem
    1 t crushed white peppercorns
    2 T oyster sauce
    1 T light soy sauce*
    1 T soy sauce
    1/4 t sweet soy sauce

    *You can easily cheat and just use 2 tablespoons of regular soy sauce. But try to get the sweet soy. In a pinch, just add a little palm or brown sugar instead.

    Mix the spareribs together with all sauce ingredients, then put them in a pan along with the stock. Simmer 20 minutes. Drain the stock, and set the ribs aside.

    Put 1/2 cup oil into a wok. When it's hot, add the unpeeled garlic, and cook on high heat until the garlic starts to turn brown. Lower the heat, and keep stirring until the garlic is crispy (about 2-3 minutes). Drain the oil, and put the garlic on some kitchen paper.

    Put the oil for deep frying into a wok. When it's hot, fry the spareribs until golden brown (4-5 minutes), then drain.

    To serve, put the ribs on a plate, and sprinkle with garlic.

    GAI HOR BAI TOEY
    (Chicken in Pandanus Leaves)
    (serves 4)

    If you can't get pandanus leaves or don't want to fry the chicken, this dish is also excellent when the marinated chicken is baked, covered, for about 30 minutes. If you do use leaves, be sure to remove them before serving, as they aren't edible.

    1 cup chicken breast cut into 20 equal-sized pieces
    20 pandanus leaves
    4 T roasted sesame seeds
    1 t ground black pepper
    1 cup of oil

    SAUCE
    1 T light soy sauce
    1 T tapioca flour
    1 T sesame oil

    Put chicken in a bowl, add sauce ingredients and mix well. Marinate at least 10 minutes. Then add the sesame seeds and pepper, and mix well.

    Wrap each piece of chicken in a pandanus leaf, cutting off the ends if too long. The chicken can be stored in the refrigerator until ready to fry.

    Put oil into pre-heated wok, and turn to medium heat. When oil is hot, add chicken pieces, frying until cooked through - about five minutes. Drain on kitchen paper and serve immediately (ideally with a sweet chili dipping sauce).

    NAM JIM GAI
    (Sweet Chili Dipping Sauce)
    (serves 4)

    This sauce makes a fantastic accompaniment to most Thai dishes and is added like salt and pepper. Once cooked this can be stored in a bottle for about one month at room temperature.

    3/4 cup finely chopped coriander root
    5 cups chopped pickled garlic
    7 finely chopped big, red chilies
    3 1/2 cups sugar
    2 cups white radish, cut into thin strips
    1 1/2 cups vinegar
    1/4 t salt

    Put all ingredients into a pan, and simmer on low heat about 20 minutes, until sauce is thick. Stir occasionally.

    Recipes adapted from A Passion For Thai Cooking by Sompon and Elizabeth Nabnian.

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