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Thai cuisine with its amazing diversity and finesse is without doubt one of the best in the world. What makes it so attractive are the subtle and yet clearly distinguishable flavours, theimaginative use of spices, and the artistic presentation of the food.
In Thailand there are various sorts of aubergines: small round ones that look likeoversized peas, but also long ones that resemble bananas. Aubergines are usedin South East Asian cooking in spicy soups and meat dishes. Some sorts are alsoeaten raw.
Chinese aubergines are violet and come in different sizes - from the plump round ones to the small slim ones which are more delicate in flavour.
One cardinal rule for Asian aubergines: do not peel them if possible because the flavour of the aubergine is in its skin. When shopping, look for smooth unblemished skin.
Tip: If using the large aubergines available in the West, slice them and sprinkle with salt for about 20 minutes. This removes the bitter juice. Rinse the slices before cooking with fresh water and dry gently with kitchen paper.
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Bamboo ShootsThe shoots of various types of bamboo are an outstanding vegetable.
Tip 1: Peel fresh bamboo shoots and boil for about 30 minutes
Tip 2: Canned bamboo shoots: pour off juice, boil for 5 minutes in fresh water to remove the taste of the can.
Bean SproutsThere are various sorts of bean sprouts. Those of mung beans are crisp and are suitable for most dishes, but not only do they not have a very discernible flavour, they are also relatively difficult toobtain in Europe. Most local cooks use soybean sprouts that are also very suitable.
Tip 1: Do not use canned sprouts - always use fresh, or better still, plant your own in a pot in the same way as cress.
Tip 2: To keep bean sprouts fresh for a few days, place them in a bowl of water in the fridge, and change the water every day.
Chilli peppers are the dried seed pods of the capsicum plant. They come in many colours, sizes and intensities. Basically the smaller and greener they are, the hotter. Thais differentiate between the large finger-length chillies (Phrik Chee) and the small (Phrik Kee Noo). The latter are used in soups, liquid or curry-type dishes and sauces. The larger chillies are very decorative when cut into diagonal slices. Dried red chillies of this type are also ground into chilli powder.
Tip 1: If you are not used to chillies you would be advised to start with the larger, milder sorts. When using the small spicy chilli peppers, cut them lengthwise and remove the seeds. Rinse the pods incold water - plenty of spicy flavour will remain!
Tip 2: After using chillies, always wash your hands,the knife and the cutting board before working with other ingredients. Never touch your eyes without having washed your hands with soap and water. Thechilli seeds are especially spicy.
Spring OnionsThis vegetable can be used both as a seasoning and a garnish.
This root spice is related to ginger. It is a creamy colour with pink tips. The galangal root has agingery-peppery taste and plays an essential part in creating the distinctive divine flavour of many Thai dishes.
Galangal (Kha) is sliced before cooking, and its full aroma is evident after approximately 30 minutes.
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GingerFresh ginger, not dried or ground, is amongst the most vital ingredients in Thai cooking. Its strong tangy flavour lends soups, meat, vegetables and also fish and seafood dishes a fine, distinctive note.
The ginger root is approximately 7-15 cm long and has a dry, light brown skin that must be removed before using.
Tip: Ginger keeps well for up to 2 weeks in the fridge when wrapped in a damp cloth.
The leaves of the kaffir-lime tree have a slightly bitter taste and are used whole in soups and curry dishes. Finely sliced, they can be added to salads. The citrus fruit of the tree is green and about the size of a mandarin, but contains hardly any juice.
Coriander in its many guises is one of the most popular herbs in Thai cuisine. Its tangy lemony flavour lends Thai dishes their unmistakable character. Fresh coriander is used in countless dishes from soups,hot-pots, and salads, to stir-fry creations. The feathery coriander leaves can also provide a decorative touch.
Tip: Coriander leaves wrapped in kitchen paper can keep fresh up to several days in the vegetable bin of the fridge. Wash the leaves first in cold water and then dry in the salad spinner.
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Coconut milk is extracted from grated coconut flesh and water. In Thai cooking it is used in curry dishes, hot-pots, and sauces; it is also an important ingredient in puddings and sweets.
The fat of coconut milk is more similar to butter fat than it is to vegetable fat. As with cow's milk it must be stirred when heated.
This vegetable looks like golden brown fingers and is crisp and mild in taste.
When cooking spicy dishes, Thais always use sugar. In the right dosage this contributes to the harmonious balance of flavours. Thai palm sugar is obtained from the juice of the coconut palm, and in Asia shops it isavailable in the form of thick golden brown slabs. It is less sweet than cane sugar and has a more delicate taste.
Tip: As a substitute use soft brown sugar or white cane sugar with a little honey or maple syrup added to it.
Pandan LeavesAn aromatic leaf used for wrapping spiced chicken pieces or pork ribs.
Pepper Corns (Phrik Thai)Fresh green pepper corns give Thai dishes that special touch, both in taste and appearance.
Thai cooks use various types of mushrooms, especially straw mushrooms which are marvellous in soups and vegetable dishes, but also the large oyster mushrooms and dried Chinese mushrooms, which must besoaked in hot water before using.
Shiitake mushrooms with their distinctive markings on their caps are also much loved. They have a full-bodied, smoky flavour.
Tip: As a substitute for shiitake mushrooms, small white button mushrooms may be used.
This nutritious vegetable with its smooth round stems and small white flowers is very popular in Thailand. Ithas a slightly bitter, earthy taste. Broccoli is rich in calcium, iron and Vitamins A and D.
Thai broccoli is usually blanched in salted water and served with oyster sauce. It is also very suitable as an addition in stir-fried meat dishes.
Tip: Take the broccoli with firm stems and leaves. It keeps for several days in a plastic zip-lock bag in the fridge. Should you wish to keep it longer, blanche it and freeze it.
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Thai Fragrant RiceThis scented long grain rice with its aromatic nutty flavour is the favourite in Thai cuisine. There are several varieties all available in Asia shops under various names.
TofuAsian cooks have been using tofu for more than 1000 years. It is high in protein, is nutritious but low in calories and can be combined with many other foods.
Tofu is manufactured from yellow soybeans that have been soaked, ground and mixed with water. This mass is then boiled and left to set. In Western countries tofu is usually obtainable fresh in twoforms: as a soft mass or as a firm block. The soft curd-like tofu is used in soups while the firm tofu is used for frying, braising and steaming.
Firm tofu blocks are white and are available in supermarkets, Asia shops and inmost health food stores. They are usually packaged in plastic containers filledwith water; this way tofu can keep for up to several days in the fridge.
Tip: Always use a sharp knife when cutting tofu making sure it does not crumble. Also be very careful when stir-frying that the tofu cubes remain whole.
Lemon grass is a plant that grows in clusters. It lends many Thai dishes, especially Tom Khaa Gai and Tom Yam Gung soups their special aromatic note.
The plant looks like an undersized leek. The stalks can grow up to half a meter; for cooking only the bottom 10-15 cm are used.
Thai food novices must be aware that lemon grass is added to dishes for flavouring, but it is not eaten. The same applies to galangal root.
Tip: Fresh lemon grass is available in Asia shops and there is no substitute for it. Loosely wrapped in paper it can keep fresh in the vegetable bin of the fridge for up to a week.
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Absolutely essential for the authentic flavour of Thai dishes are the various sauces and pastes. They come in bottles, cans or plastic bags - mostly in Asia shops but also increasingly in many supermarkets.
Tip: After opening cans, fill the sauces into glass containers with screw tops and store them in the fridge.
A thick brown sauce made from oysters cooked in soy sauce and salted water. Amazingly, oyster sauce has no fishy taste but a full-bodied flavour. Most products on the market contain monosodium glutamate,a flavour enhancer. Oyster sauce is used as a seasoning for vegetable, chicken and fish dishes - often in conjunction with fish sauce or soy sauce.
Tip: Keep oyster sauce in the fridge.
Thai curry pastes contain a myriad of spices and herbs. Red curry paste is prepared with dried red chilli peppers and green curry paste with fresh green chillies. The preparation of these curry pastes isso intricate and time-consuming that even high-volume users like Thai restaurants use ready-made pastes. These versatile spicy curry pastes are suitable not only for curry dishes but are also splendid in soups and other Thai dishes.
Fish SauceThai cuisine would not be Thai cuisine without this thin golden brown sauce made from salted and fermented fish or prawns. For us Westerners, Naam Plaa has a pungent fish taste and smell! But when mixedwith other ingredients it is much reduced and the resulting sauce lends dishes a characteristic spicy note without being too salty.
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Shrimp PasteThis condiment is produced from shrimps that have been pulverised, salted and then fermented. It is available both as a sauce and a paste in variations from pink to dark brown. The best shrimpproducts come from Thailand where this seasoning is very popular as it gives dishes that unmistakable aromaand flavour.
The thick brown paste made from sesame seeds can be used in both hot and cold dishes. Thai sesame paste is available in glass jars in Asia shops. Peanut butter, which has a similar consistency, could be used as an alternative.
Soy sauces are a standard ingredient in Thai cuisine. They are a product of soy beans, flour and water that is first fermented, then left to mature for several months, and finally distilled. Soy sauces are used especially in dishes of Chinese origin. The light sauce is relatively thin and salty; the darker sauce is somewhat thicker and stronger in taste.
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