how to cook Thai like a native

thai beef salad-2
The first time I ever left Australia was a trip to Thailand, many moons ago. My feet had been itchy for pretty much all my life. I can’t begin to describe how excited I was to emerge from the flight into a wall of humid Bangkok air. I was in the Northern Hemisphere. In Asia. Wow.

It was only 7 o’clock in the morning when we left our newly found hotel and headed towards the Royal Palace. I couldn’t believe how few people there were. I was expecting a bustling city with food hawkers everywhere. Instead I got a serene calm – not a food seller to be found.

Eventually we came across a lone vendor peddling some sort of noodle soup from his cart. Without really thinking we ordered and stood near the palace, slurping hot noodles for breakfast in the early morning calm. Welcome to Thailand.

Over the years I’ve returned to Thailand many a time – as much for the food as for the people and the beaches but it wasn’t until I started working at Arnotts that I got to make friends with a real Thai native.

Working with Jan is always a joy. Her big smile and passion for food are as infectious as her famous chocolate cake. So it made sense that when I wanted to perfect my version of Thai Beef Salad, that I’d persuade Jan to share her Thai cooking tips. And here they are.

5 tips to cooking Thai like a native.

i. Smile
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my time in Thailand and from working with Jan – Thai people have to be up there as the most smiley in the world. I secretly think that even when Jan is on her own she is smiling – and I have to say she is one of the calmest cooks I know. So before you start cooking make sure you smile and again before you serve your guests – you’ll be amazed what a difference it makes.

ii. Learn to cook by taste
Thai people are brilliant adapters and rarely follow recipes. Fish sauces vary in saltiness and chillies are notoriously unpredictable so have the courage to trust your instincts, use the recipe as a guideline but not a bible and taste as you go.

iii. Practice the art of balancing
This follows on from point ii. If something tastes too salty, add a little sugar. Or if it is too sweet, add a little more saltiness with fish sauce or some soy. Use lime juice to balance if the dish tastes a little flat and needs some zing.

The other thing to consider is heat – sugar can mask a little if the chilli is too intense but only a little – so it’s always wise to add your chilli gradually. If you’re serving people who have a variety of chilli sensitivities it’s best to err on the mild side and serve some fresh or dried chilli at the table to allow your guests to balance the heat to their individual taste.

iv. Remove time pressures
There’s no real reason to eat at a certain time. The meal is ready when it’s done. Take the Thai approach and you’ll find you enjoy the cooking process a lot more.

v. Eat with a fork and spoon
For newcomers to Asian food, Thai is a great place to start for it’s fresh fragrant flavour and the fact that they don’t use chopsticks. That’s right – the traditional way to eat Thai is with a fork and a spoon.

thai beef salad-3

thai beef salad

serves 2
Inspired by Jan Kyokajee & David Thompson

This is one of those perfect midweek summer meals. Of course if you really were Thai you would halve the quantities here and serve it with a few other dishes – maybe a curry and a noodle dish – whatever took your fancy. But trust me – it makes a lovely meal on its own.

Both David & Jan use some red shallot or red onion for textural contrast but I’ve kept things minimalist and left it out. David only uses herbs but I prefer Jan’s idea of including some salad leaves to make it more leafy. David also uses toasted rice which Jan tells me is lovely but more common in Laos.

If you are cooking for someone who isn’t a coriander fan – just substitute in some flat leaf parsley or increase the amount of salad leaves. Although I love it, I can see why some people find the fragrant pungency a little too much.

300g (10oz) steak, I used New York cut.
2T fish sauce
bunch coriander, leaves picked
bunch mint, leaves picked
3 handfuls mixed salad leaves
for the dressing:
5T fish sauce
6T lime juice
1T sugar
pinch chilli flakes, optional

Trim steak and place in a bowl with the 2T fish sauce. Cover and refrigerate overnight. If you don’t have time just marinate at room temperature for a few minutes.

Allow your meat to come to room temperature. Preheat a BBQ, grill or frying pan over high heat. Wash herbs and salad leaves and spin dry.

Sear steak on both sides until cooked to your liking. I prefer very rare so only take a few minutes each side. Remove steak to a clean plate and allow to rest while you mix up your dressing.

Combine dressing ingredients in a small bowl. Stir then taste. Adjust with more fish sauce, sugar, lime or chilli as you see fit (see the art of balacing above).

Thinly slice your rested beef and toss through the dressing. Arrange on two dinner plates. Top with leaves and drizzle with a little more dressing then serve with remaining dressing and possibly a little extra chillli.


front cover of my very first cookbook

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  • Great post! I love Thai food and have finally mastered a good pad thai at home. One thing to note though…although Thailand is the Land of Smiles, smiling in Thailand has deep and varying cultural significance. Thais will smile when they are uncomfortable, nervous, even when they are sad….for a great many reasons other than being happy!

  • Wow (like you said for the first time).

    Your post it’s like a time machine….
    I feel like I’m in Bangkok…now…mmm…those flavours…

    I’ve been in Malaysia, (in the same trip that bring me to Australia).
    One interesting week tasting (lot of) local cuisine. Delicious.
    Definitevely, asian food is my favourite, specially japanese, chinese and region of Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Laos.
    Plenty of asians restaurants in Barcelona with excellent thai food.

    One of best world thai chefs of the world opened and advice MURMURI: the best thai “luxury” restaurant in Spain.

    A couple of good thai (cheaper) restaurants, here in Barcelona.

    Kind regards, Jules.

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