Thai Food On The Table

SUNDAY GOURMET

May 29, 1994|By GAIL FORMAN

Spicy foods make you warm when it's cold outside, cool when it's hot. Hot spices awaken the appetite while stimulating the release of endorphins that make you feel relaxed and satisfied. So no wonder Thai cooking, which uses hot spices to perfection, is one of America's most popular ethnic cuisines.

In classical Thai cooking a typical daily meal is not divided into courses. Soup, such as the celebrated shrimp with lemon-grass broth, is a beverage eaten throughout the meal. And all dishes are served at once -- perhaps a raw vegetable salad, stir-fried vegetables, spicy curried meat, grilled seafood and steamed rice, or khow.

Khow is a staple of Thai cuisine. In fact, the word is a synonym for food, and the invitation to begin a meal is "kin khow" or "eat rice."

Thai cooking, I discovered 10 years ago when I visited Bangkok, is distinctive as an amalgam of ethnic foodstuffs. About 85 percent of Thailand's population is ethnic Thai, but ethnic diversity is also a feature of Thai life. Chinese are the largest minority group, followed by Cambodians, Malaysians, Vietnamese, Burmese and others. Thai cooking shares the use of fish sauce and peanuts with Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian cuisines, while stir-fried dishes show the Chinese influence, curries the Indian input, and egg custards the Portuguese taste.

But it's the particular combinations of ingredients that make Thai food taste like no other: fiery chilies, nam pla (fermented fish sauce), soy sauce, black bean sauce, lemon grass, tamarind, galangal root, lime leaves, curry powder, five-spice powder, holy basil, coriander, coconut milk and peanuts. And the cuisine characteristically fuses sour, sweet, salty and spicy flavors in the same dish.

Noodles, which came from China, show up in soups and luncheon dishes. Pad Thai, rice vermicelli stir-fried with shrimp and vegetables, is sometimes called the national dish and is the quintessential example of how the Thais make foreign foods their own.

Dessert tends to be the fresh fruit of Thailand's cornucopia -- mangosteens, pomelos, jackfruit, rambutans, durian, mangoes, pineapples, bananas, oranges, litchis, tamarinds and guavas. But Thai cooks also serve custards and sweets made of coconut, pearl tapioca, grains, glutinous rice flour, mung bean flour and rice noodles -- all revealing European influence, except

for the topping of tiny dried fish.

GRILLED SEAFOOD WITH CHILI SAUCE

1/3 cup fish sauce (or soy sauce)

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chili

1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic

4 pounds fresh seafood, such as 2 pounds shrimp in shell and 1 pound each small clams and mussels, or any combination

small bunch fresh coriander leaves

Combine fish sauce and lime juice. Add sugar and dissolve. Add chili and garlic. The taste should be strong and sharp. Adjust to your liking and set aside as a dipping sauce.

Wash seafood and place on a rack in a shallow pan. Broil until shrimp turn pink and clams and mussels open, turning often. Transfer to a platter, garnish with coriander and serve with dipping sauce. Serves 4-6.

Adapted from "Real Thai" by Nancie McDermott (Chronicle, 1992).

BANANA WITH COCONUT CREAM

2 14-ounce cans coconut milk

4 ounces sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 bananas, sliced

In a saucepan, bring coconut milk to a boil. Stir in sugar and salt. Add bananas and boil 5 minutes without stirring. Serve hot or cold. Serves 6.

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