The first overseas trip I ever took was a 3 week holiday to Bangkok and the beaches of Thailand. I was instantly captivated by the warm, smiling people but the thing that really won my heart, of course, was the food.
I had eaten plenty of Thai in Australia and was already a fan of the cuisine. But eating Thai in Thailand gave me a much deeper appreciation.
Over the years I’ve gone through many Thai cooking phases but it’s been a while since I really got into cooking Thai. Which is a shame.
So when my students voted for the May class at the Stonesoup Virtual Cookery School to focus on Healthy Thai Cooking, I was super excited for an excuse to get back into Thai.
So what is the most common Thai cooking mistake?
In my house at least, the biggest mistake is thinking that Thai cooking is going to take a lot of effort and time. And not cooking it often enough!
For some reason, I guess its the fact that when I go to a Thai restaurant there is always a huge selection of shared dishes to nibble from. So when I think of cooking Thai at home my brain starts thinking there has to be multiple dishes.
But the thing is, there are plenty of Thai dishes that can be served as a meal on their own, with a little steamed rice or cauliflower ‘rice’.
Things like stir fries, or fragrant curries loaded up with veg and a little meat or seafood. Or hearty soups, like the one below.
And none of them need take very long. Or involve lengthy complicated ingredients lists.
6 common ingredients to ‘Thai up‘ your meals
1. fresh herbs.
One of the things that really makes Thai food stand apart is the freshness and lightness that comes from using loads of fresh herbs. Coriander (cilantro), mint and basil are all used generously either in combination or alone.
They’re also used more as a main ingredient, than a little flavour highlight. Try serving a soft herb salad using herbs instead of salad leaves for an instant hit of Thai freshness and fragrance.
Every time I use lemongrass, I can help but think how well named it is. Lemongrass stalks can be woody so either smash it in a mortar and pestle or finely chop before using. Or bash the stalks and then add whole to soups or sauces to infuse and fish out before serving.
Works well pretty much anywhere you’d think of using lemon juice or zest.
3. birds eye chilli.
Thai food can be eye-wateringly hot. The most common chillies used in Thailand are the tiny, potent birds eye variety, among the hottest chillies in the world. I find it’s best to serve a little finely sliced chilli on the side so everyone can adjust the heat level to suit their taste. If you can’t get birds eye chillies, substitute in the hottest chillies you can find.
4. Thai curry pastes.
While it can be nice to take a few hours to make an authentic Thai curry paste, don’t feel pressured into doing it every time. Commercial jars of red and green curry are readily available and generally pretty tasty. They should be included as essentials in your pantry.
The obvious choice is to use them for making curry, but they can also be used to add warmth and depth of flavour to many different dishes. I love them in soups like the sweet potato & red curry below or my broccoli & green curry soup. Or try an easy satay sauce by stirring a little red curry paste into crunchy peanut butter.
5. kaffir lime leaves.
If you find a source of fresh kaffir lime leaves, they can be kept in the freezer for months and used as needed. The trees are beautiful and can be grown in pots in warmer climates like Sydney. I was a bit sad when I moved to the mountains and had to leave my kaffir lime tree with my sister Sas.
Kaffir lime leaves are similar to lime zest but with added fragrance as a bonus, similar to the relationship between lemongrass and lemon zest. So think about using the leaves anywhere you’d normally use lime zest.
6. fish sauce
In Thailand the go-to condiment for adding saltiness and savouriness is smelly fish sauce. Just as soy sauce can be added in a whole manner of dishes, you can use fish sauce to add a different dimension of seasoning to both Thai and more European based dishes.
sweet potato & red curry soup
This is a simplified and healthier version of a soup I used to cook all the time when I was first getting into cooking Thai. Still one of my favourites after many many years. I asked my Irishman what he thought we should call the soup and his response was ‘A, B, C, Delicious!’
Different curry pastes vary in their intensity so feel free to adjust according to your tastes.
1kg (2lb) sweet potato
1 can coconut cream or milk (400mL / 14oz)
4 tablespoons red curry paste
2 tablespoons fish sauce
mint or coriander (cilantro) leaves, to serve, optional
1. Preheat your oven to 200C (400F).
2. Scrub the sweet potato. Chop in half lengthwise then slice into half moons, about 1cm (1/2in) thick.
3. Combine coconut cream or milk, curry paste, fish sauce and 4 cups water in a large oven proof pot. Add sweet potato and bake for 30 minutes.
4. Stir and continue to bake for another 30 minutes or until sweet potato is tender. Puree with a stick blender.
5. Taste, season with more fish sauce or salt as needed and serve with herbs, if using, sprinkled on top.
pumpkin – swap the sweet potato for pumpkin.
richer – serve with a generous dollop of sour cream or coconut yoghurt.
chunky soup – chop the sweet potato into bite sized cubes and skip the pureeing step.
different curry pastes – feel free to use green thai curry paste, or yellow or massaman curry pastes. Indian curry pastes can also be used to give a different vibe.
vegetarian / vegan / can’t find fish sauce? – replace the fish sauce with soy sauce or just season with salt.
can’t find thai curry pastes? – In Australia they’re available in most supermarkets but you may need to track down an Asian grocery store. They can be found online as well and keep for ages so you could order and stock up. Or signup for the Healthy Thai Cooking Class at the Stonesoup Virtual Cookery School to learn how to make your own using commonly found ingredients.
short on time? – just simmer on the stove top until sweet potato is tender. Remember to stir every now and then.
video version of the recipe