Thai it up in style for your next party

January 09, 1994|By Kathleen Purvis | Kathleen Purvis,Knight-Ridder News Service

You may think the hot season for parties has just concluded, but it's really only just beginning. Run over to your globe, start at home and head east. Farther. Now turn right at Mongolia. Past China. Past Laos. That's the place: Thailand.

Thai food is shaping up as one of the hottest party themes for the new year, and it's spicy. If you decide to give it a try for your next soiree, keep in mind that you'll chop more chili peppers than a salsa factory.

And listen to these other ingredients: peanuts, coconut and limes for fun. Lemon grass and fish sauce for a taste of the exotic. It's a good time just waiting to happen.

When you wade into Thai food, remember that appearance counts. The Thai people treat food as art. No platter of pad Thai noodles should arrive at the table without a garnish. It can be as simple as a chili pepper sliced open into a flower, or as elaborate as a turnip dyed pink and carved into a blooming rose.

Where Americans simply would slice up a neat platter of mushrooms and celery for crudites, Thai cooks take another moment and carve cucumber slices into leaves and slice green onions into curly brushes. Why decorate the table when you can decorate the food?

When we opened our Thai cookbooks with the word "party" in mind, we also were thinking convenience. You can stuff dumplings the night before and steam them quickly just before the doorbell rings. While you're at it, slice up the vegetables for salad with nam prik the night before.

Pad Thai noodles take about 30 minutes to cook, but part of that time is simmering, and as long as you have the ingredients out, you can make two batches to keep your buffet table refilled.

A few Thai staples, such as canned coconut milk, are starting to arrive in well-stocked supermarkets. And many cities' growing communities of Asian stores mean that most of the essentials, such as kaffir lime leaves and lemon grass, are easy to find. They're pretty cheap, too: A large bottle of the best-quality fish sauce is about $3.50, and many brands are cheaper than that.

Have we convinced you yet? How about this: Satays. Cracker balls with chili sauce. Steamed pork dumplings. As the Thai say, "Kin-khoa": Eat rice. And you're invited.

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Some things you can substitute, some things you can't. Expect to find these ingredients and this equipment in Thai recipes:

* Mortar and pestle: You often can use a blender instead, but for some things, such as the nam prik dressing, the ancient mortar and pestle gives the best texture.

* Steamer: A bamboo steamer is best, as you can stack up two or three baskets at one time. However, if necessary, you can fashion a steamer by placing a plate on a rack in a wok or large pot.

* Kaffir lime leaves: Kaffir lime leaves are essential to Thai cooking. The fresh leaves often are not available in this country. Most Asian groceries carry the leaves frozen (the best) or dried (cheap and perfectly acceptable). The leaves grow in a figure-eight shape, so when using dried leaves, make sure you get enough pieces to make a whole leaf, usually two round sections.

* Lemon grass: Another Asian essential, this is becoming easy to find in Asian markets. It is a fibrous stalk. To use, cut off the bottom 2 inches or so, then peel off the outer layers. Look for stalks with large bulbous bottoms. It will keep in the refrigerator a week or so.

* Coconut milk: This is not the clear or milky juice from the inside of a coconut. Real coconut milk is made by grating fresh coconut, then covering it with hot water, kneading and draining the resulting liquid. Canned versions are easy to find in Asian markets and are even showing up in some supermarkets. When the recipe calls for "coconut milk," mix equal parts of canned coconut milk and water; for coconut cream or thick coconut milk, use the product straight from the can. Freeze or refrigerate after opening.

* Chili peppers: The hotter the better. Many Asian markets carry bags of tiny red peppers that are perfect for Thai cooking, but any hot peppers will do. Make sure you wear gloves while seeding and chopping chilies, and don't touch your mouth or your eyes.

* Fish sauce: The name doesn't sound too appetizing, and we were a little squeamish about it at first. But it tastes a lot better than it smells, and it puts such an extraordinary flavor in dishes that you can't substitute for it or leave it out. Just try not to smell it while you're cooking. Look for it in Asian markets. A large bottle of the good stuff sells for about $3, so it's worth it to splurge and get the best.

* Cilantro: Called coriander in many Asian cookbooks, it has a soapy flavor that is an acquired taste, but it's an essential in many dishes. Many Thai recipes call for using the whole plant, including the roots, but most supermarkets cut the roots off before selling it. If you have a source of fresh cilantro, count yourself lucky.

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