It’s hard to believe that this time last year, I was still fresh off the plane from Thailand. For weeks, I still dreamed of stone temples and skyscrapers, street markets and tuk-tuks, elephants and endless green plains.
Even now, so many months removed, the taste of numbing chilies lingers on my lips, a haunting memory that teases at the tip of my tongue. Northern California is not lacking in exceptional eateries, yet none can quite match the full experience. Actually being in Thailand to enjoy the native cuisine probably has a lot to do with the flavor, more so than the mere ingredients.
Taking into account that one can never quite match the full bouquet of flavors, complemented by the nuances that each cook uses to season their dish, as passed down by generations of chefs and mothers and eaters alike, I was able to take away quite a few lessons on Thai cookery that have served me very well since then. It’s truly selfishness, and laziness, that has kept me from sharing the secrets abroad. Well, the time has come to divulge at least a taster of those truths! It all comes down to the expertise from May Kaidee‘s legendary cooking school.
Alongside about a half-dozen other hungry students, we learned straight from the source how to make the best Thai food anywhere in the world. It all comes down to balance, like everything else in life, and quality ingredients. That should come as no surprise, but it was the tiniest little things that shook me to the core, completely changing the character of a dish in unexpected ways. Whereas I had always thought that the delicate perfume of lemongrass, that fibrous stalky aromatic, was the key to essential “Thai” taste, it turned out that makrut lime leaves were actually the silent source. Otherwise known as kaffir lime, the zest and juice add their own piquancy of course, but those tender green leaves, difficult to source fresh overseas, held the key. Grassy yet mild, sweet but subdued, they’re the vanilla extract to every savory success; adored yet rarely identified and properly celebrated.
Furthermore, tom kha paste, a shortcut ingredient I would have looked down my nose at on grocery store shelves, comes to life in a completely new palate when made from scratch. Every home cook has their own blend, just like a curry paste of any color, but May Kaidee’s stands alone as more than mere soup stock.
We smeared it atop sliced seedless cucumbers piled high with sticky rice and pumpkin hummus, lending a gentle burn, a comforting warmth, to the whole assembly.
Then there was the pad Thai, one of the last dishes I would ever order at a restaurant. Nothing against the noodles, but most renditions I’ve twisted around my fork have been gluey, sugary lumps of starch, with vegetables being few and far between. No, this isn’t how it should be! Replacing the egg with an startling splash of coconut milk, of all things, we were taught that this keeps the strands of rice vermicelli lubricated while enriching the light coating of sauce. Never would I have dreamed of trying such an incongruous addition, but there it was, advised by the experts and working its magic in real time.
Som tum is a light starter salad that I have certainly dabbled with in the past, but never put the proper muscle into. Lazily mixing raw vegetables in a bowl, it turns out that technique is everything in this application. Do not give in to the food processor and think you can just blend the base for an equivalent outcome. It takes just as much time, if a bit more elbow grease, to bust out that mortar and pestle to do a proper pounding.
At first, I was aghast at the inclusion of exotics such as pineapple, corn, and the suggestion of apples, even grapes! Previously these items would have struck me as “inauthentic” interlopers that had no place on this plate, but it goes back to balance. Yes, while green papaya salad should be primarily sour, bitter, and spicy, it still needs a dose of sweetness to balance everything out. Don’t forget the peanuts for a satisfyingly crisp crunch. That’s not just the western love of the legume speaking; Thais truly love the goober, too.
Hungry for more than the basic sustenance of these staple foods, we devoured platters of spring rolls, vats of curries and stews, steamer baskets heaping with rice, trying to take in the knowledge as if it could be directly consumed. From start to finish, the revelations arrived with a smile, a spoonful, a laugh and a dance. If there’s one thing you do in Thailand, let it be a lesson on how to bring this cuisine back home in its full-flavored, unabridged glory. If that’s still a venture too far to consider, I’ve heard May Kaidee has setup shop state-side in New York City, too…
Better study up to keep the ball rolling, along with your tender wheat wrappers or softened rice papers, to get a taste of Thailand in any kitchen.
Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand