It came as no surprise to be dazzled by the sights on my first trip to Thailand years ago: the splendid golden-spired temples, flocks of saffron-robed monks, exquisite young dancers wrapped in brilliant silk costumes, water buffaloes plodding through rice paddies. The images are indelible.
But what I couldn't catch on Kodak were the pungent smells and tastes. Especially memorable were the street vendors who set up their stalls on every corner luring passersby with chicken and shrimp satay bathed in peanut sauce, small packets of sweet mango and sticky rice wrapped in leaves, crab-and-pork meatballs dripping with chili sauce, and an endless variety of nameless tidbits cloaked in fiery-hot sauces and spices.
The greatest surprise I discovered when I returned home was that those wonderfully pungent and exotic flavors were not just available in small Asian markets, but were as close as my local supermarket.
Thai food, for the most part, is a simple, easily prepared cuisine that balances the five basic flavors of spicy, salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. That's quite a bit to juggle. It's a cuisine that can caress your taste buds or make them throw up their arms in surrender.
Initially, like most Westerners, I proceeded gingerly, but became more daring. If you're already a fan of hot, spicy food, add another pinch of red pepper flakes or leave the seeds in the fresh hot peppers. Otherwise, be warned.
I asked the owner of a local Thai restaurant if there was a secret to cooking Thai food. "Trial and error," she advised.
FISH CURRY IN COCONUT MILK
4 tablespoons fish sauce (available in supermarkets)
4 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 fresh red chili, seeded and finely chopped
1-1/4 pounds fresh fish – cod, snapper, tilapia, haddock, or sea bass
1 can coconut milk (14-16 ounces)
1 tablespoon commercial red curry paste
1 stalk lemon grass, white part only, finely diced
2 cups cooked white rice (preferably jasmine)
Chopped fresh cilantro for garnish
In a nonmetallic bowl, mix fish sauce, lime juice, soy sauce, chili, and fish. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate several hours.
Combine coconut milk, curry paste, and lemon grass in a large pan; simmer gently for 10 minutes.
Add fish and marinade; simmer until cooked, about 4 to 5 minutes.
Serve with boiled rice. Garnish with cilantro.
SHRIMP, PAPAYA, AND MANGO SALAD
3/4 pound cooked and shelled large shrimp
1 small papaya, peeled and seeded
2 mangoes, peeled and seeded
4 scallions (green onions) sliced
2 fresh red chilies, seeded and finely chopped
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
Juice of 1 lime
1 teaspoon light brown sugar
Small head of Boston lettuce, chopped
Place shrimp in a large bowl. Cut papaya and mangoes into bite-size chunks and add to shrimp. In a small bowl, combine remaining ingredients, except lettuce; stir until sugar is dissolved.
Pour dressing over shrimp and fruit; gently toss; serve over lettuce.
There are many variations. You may use any meat you prefer, or a combination of shrimp and pork.
8-ounce package Thai rice noodles
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 fresh red chilies, seeded and chopped
12 ounces cooked and shredded chicken or pork
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
4 scallions (green onions) chopped
3 tablespoons fish sauce
2 to 3 teaspoons light brown sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup fresh bean sprouts
1/3 to 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 cup chopped unsalted peanuts
1/2 cup canned fried onions
Soak noodles in warm water for 10 to 15 minutes; drain and set aside.
Heat oil in a wok or large frying pan until hot. Reduce heat to medium; add garlic, chilies, and chicken or pork. Stir-fry for 2 to 3 minutes.
Turn heat to low, stir in noodles, and cover for 2 minutes. Add lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, and eggs. Cook, while stirring, for 2 minutes, until eggs are firm.
Stir in bean sprouts and cilantro. Top with peanuts and fried onion.
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