Any cook presented with some limes, fish sauce, peanuts and rice noodles could be well on the way to creating a decent Thai meal. But good Thai cooking is complex and not all Thai green curries are created equal, says David Thompson, the Australian chef behind Nahm restaurant in Bangkok and founder of Sailors Thai in Sydney, who calls Thailand home.
The chef says there are five key rules all cooks should know before they get out the wok or a jar of pad thai sauce.
1. Find the right ingredients
"Find good ingredients. Good palm sugar, good tamarind, good fish sauce – whatever you are using make it good quality. That's the case with any type of cuisine but it's crucial with Thai food.”
This means using freshly squeezed lime and proper Thai basil, which is available in good Asian grocers. The chef recommends “the awfully named” brand Megachef for fish sauce. “It's fantastic and I use it all the time in Thailand”.
2. A balanced meal
“Taste, taste, taste, taste, taste,” is Thompson's second piece of advice, aimed at encouraging chefs to find balance in their Thai cooking. This includes choosing a variety of dishes for a meal, which should have a balance of salty, sweet, sour, bitter and hot as well as texture. “Try to see the balance in the food. If there is one word to describe Thai cuisine it is balance.”
But not every dish needs to have each of these elements. One can be sour, another salty or spicy or creamy. “Balance is achieved by seasoning but also the choices of dishes on the table. You would never have repetition in a meal, you would never have five curries for example.
"You might have a stir-fry and grilled fish, and a salad. Noodles are rarely part of a main meal in Thailand. “Noodles are street food and you would have nothing else with it.”
Thai food is bold, he says. “It's about boldness of taste, at least to my understanding. Insipid is the enemy of Thai cooking. If you have something with lots of coconut milk without too much spice, you would have something strong and spicy to go with it.”
Carb haters look away now. Thompson says a proper Thai meal must be eaten with rice. “Thai food doesn't make sense without rice. Use Thai jasmine rice. For dinner, when you're sharing several dishes you have plain rice, simply cooked with no flavouring, not even any seasoning, because the dishes that accompany the rice are highly seasoned.”
Fried rice is never served with a Thai meal. “If you're having something like fried rice you wouldn't share it or have other dishes to go with it. It's lunch food or street food, or dinner food if you're eating it by yourself. If you're having curry or salad, you have plain rice.”
4. Invest in stone
Thompson says any serious cook hoping to crack Thai cuisine needs to invest in a “Jurassic-sized mortar and pestle”. A large, granite mortar and pestle is cheaper than its marble counterpart and is one of the most important items in the Thai kitchen. “They are versatile and can accommodate everything, from making curry pastes and relishes to grinding spices and milling roasted rice. He shuns the food processor for such tasks.
“If you want to have a good Thai stir fry, don't use the food processor to chop the garlic, you will never end up with the right texture, and the taste will be different as well. You need a good mortar and pestle. I prefer them large. You don't want a small one. You need a big, black granite one that will last you a lifetime. The little marble ones are wonderful as ornamentation, or an ashtray.”
Also, he says, if you make a curry paste in a food processor you have to add water for it to bind, which dilutes the flavour and means that when you fry it, you boil the ingredients instead of frying.
5. No cheating
The chef's arguments for a mortar and pestle might suggest he'd be against bought curry pastes, which he is. “No, no, no, no, no, is the most immediate answer.” Although he does understand the need for convenience.
His final advice for aspiring Thai cooks is to make pastes and even coconut cream, from scratch. “But I say that with the luxury of having 20 or 30 chefs working with me, who do that for me.
“It's quite a long process. Really for a curry paste for dinner for four people, that's about two or three tablespoons of curry paste. It takes about five minutes to pound in a mortar and pestle. But it's buying the stuff that is time consuming.”
He says the cook can make a larger batch of paste, chill it down and either suction pack it or store it in an airtight container in the fridge for a few days.
If you're prepared to make your own curry paste, Thompson says, “you're a bit of a Thai food devotee”.
Funnily enough, Thompson hopes to bring out a range of preservative-free curry pastes in the next year, saying he understands the need for convenience.
“The problem when you buy curry paste or coconut cream is that there are so many preservatives and additives in them you may as well be having straight salt. I never use bought coconut milk either.”
He says making your own coconut milk makes a huge difference to the flavour. "It's like comparing a bought stock to homemade stock. It's just so profoundly different. Although it's a pain to do, it tastes so much better. Make your own coconut milk by peeling it, shoving it all into a food processor. The quality will shine through.”
What's your go-to Thai dish? Is there a cooking secret that's essential to a successful dish? Jump on the comments and share your tips.
Pictured at top: the chicken pad Thai at Home Cafe, Sydney