Fire meets flavor in Thai food

Thai is among the hottest of cuisines. And unbelievably spicy. From New York to San Francisco, a proliferation of Thai restaurants in recent years has been igniting the American palate.

Little known a generation ago, this hitherto "exotic" food from Southeast Asia has enjoyed enormous gains in popularity in the 1990s. Going out for Thai is becoming as common as going out for Chinese.

But how authentic is the fare served in most Thai restaurants in America? Transplanted cuisines often take on characteristics of the host country, and Thai food in is no exception.

Broccoli and carrots don't easily mix with the more expected noodles and egg of pad thai, the popular fried noodle dish. And Thais and Americans being at opposite ends of the spice tolerance spectrum, American Thai often necessitates certain modifications. Small but powerful chilies give many Thai dishes their legendary fire.

A traditional Thai meal consists of several soup-like dishes served all at once, portioned onto individual plates of white rice, and eaten with a spoon and fork, the latter being used as a pusher to corral food onto the former. Only noodles are eaten with chopsticks.

One such popular soup dish is dtom yam goong, a spicy-sour mix of sharp flavors such as the aromatic, woody lemon grass, kafir leaf, and gingerish galangal. These ingredients are added primarily for flavor, and must be navigated through to find and extract the edible ingredients: shrimp and vegetables.

Another favorite is gaeng keeo wan, "sweet green curry," which blends the smooth sweetness of coconut milk with spicy curry paste. It is this delightful synthesis of flavors that is perhaps the defining taste of Thai cuisine.

These fiery soups and curries - which I regularly enjoyed during a three-year stint in Thailand - were eagerly devoured at the recent New York area's 14th Annual Thai Fair, hosted by the Vajiradhammapadip Temple of Mt. Vernon.

Sorawat Ruangporn found the food at the fair spicier than at the Thai restaurant where he works in the New York area. "The food here is more like it is in Thailand because people make it at home."

This emphasis on authenticity has drawn life-long New York resident Sammantha George to the event for the last four years. The Thai food afficionado says it is the fresh spices - notably the distinct anise flavor of Thai basil - that keeps her coming back. She feels that Thai restaurants in Manhattan largely offer the same, standardized Americanized menu. She says those who seek hotter, more authentic Thai tastes must venture out into the surrounding boroughs, where the newer restaurants there tend to specialize in regional cuisines.

Ms. George attributes her interest in Thai food to friends, who discovered the cuisine as part of a "natural progression" from years of experience eating and cooking Chinese food.

Fare from northeast Thailand was one of the many regional specialties represented at the fair. This area, known as Isan, is predominately populated by ethnic Lao, whose food is hot even by Thai standards.

The quintessential Lao dish som dtam, a spicy salad of papaya, cherry tomatoes, peanuts, chilies, and spices. is a full-out attack on the senses. Green papaya clashes with red chilies and cherry tomatoes, portending the intensity to follow. The relatively nonabsorbent papaya leaves the chile juices free to rain unrestrained havoc on the taste buds, triggering the eyes and nose to run. The effect is neutralized by eating hand-wadded balls of kao niao "sticky rice."

Northern Thai native Kanchana Tangsuan contributed kanom jeen nam niao to the fair, which she described as a kind of Thai spaghetti. This regional speciality is heavily influenced by Burmese cooking styles and ingredients. The flavor of the sauce accompanying the noodles comes from tomatoes, onions, and garlic, not the richer taste of curry and coconut milk more common outside the north.

If you're interested in authentic Thai food at its fiery finest, contact the Vajiradhammapadip Temple at (914) 699-5778. The Thai Fair held in late October in the New York area.


1/3 cup peanut or vegetable oil

3 to 4 tablespoons - or more if you're brave - of red or yellow curry paste (available at larger supermarkets and Asian markets)

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 14-ounce cans coconut milk

1 cup chicken broth or stock

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast or thigh meat cut into bite-sized pieces

1 inch-long piece of fresh ginger cut in thick slices

1 large onion, coarsely chopped

1 red bell pepper, seeded, and cut in strips

1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut in strips

1 large mango, peeled, pitted, cut in strips

1 14-ounce can of straw mushrooms, drained

6 tablespoons fish sauce (nam-pla) available at many supermarkets, and Chinese and Asian stores

3 tablespoons brown sugar

1/4 cup chopped cilantro (optional)

4 to 6 cups cooked white rice

In a deep frying pan or wok heat oil over medium heat until hot. Add curry paste and garlic and cook, stirring, for about 30 seconds.

Slowly stir in coconut milk and chicken broth.

Reduce heat to simmer; add chicken and cook for 10 to 15 minutes.

Remove and discard garlic.

Add ginger, onion, and peppers; cook until tender, about 7 minutes. Add mango, straw mushrooms, fish sauce, and sugar.

When heated through, serve over individual plates of hot rice. Garnish with cilantro.

Serves 4 to 6.

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