By Marcia Pilgeram
Reader Food Columnist
By plane, Tuk-Tuk (auto rickshaw) and longtail boats, I just spent 10 sun-filled days exploring Thailand and indulging in regional Thai foods with my friend and like-minded companion, Yannette (travel expert, cooking instructor and cook book author).
There are four characteristic flavors that make the cuisine both distinctive and delicious: sour, sweet, salty and bitter. To say I ate my way through Thailand may be an understatement. And while man does not live by bread alone, this woman was able to exist on a mainstay of curry. Yes, even for breakfast.
The contrasting flavors of many Thai dishes come from a variety of sources, including pungent spices, herbs and vegetables. We visited local markets in Bangkok, Amphawa, Chiang Rai, Phuket and Burma, Myanmar. These are not tourist markets but markets where the locals do their daily shopping. Even our local, educated tour guides did not own refrigerators, so daily shopping is a requirement to purchase their perishable proteins, such as fish, frog, pork, chicken and beef.
Likewise, the markets do not have refrigerator cases, so perishable leftovers are smoked for preservation. In addition to the market foods to nourish theirs bodies, spiritual food offerings for Buddha (90 percent of Thailand’s residents practice Buddhism) were available for purchase in all the markets we visited.
While all the markets were similar, there were notable differences between the ones in the north (Chang Rai and Burma) and the south (Phuket). Along with fresh fish, meat proteins and larvae (seasonal ant larvae was available and expensive), dishes from the north use many jungle herbs and vegetables for their unique flavors. The foods in the south are influenced by bordering Malaysia – lots and lots of extreme spice and an abundance of fresh seafood (my daily indulgence, even for breakfast).
Besides bowl after bowl of spicy curries (green, red and Penang), we ate lots of Phad Thai (Goong Sod). Phad Thai has been around Thailand for hundreds of years, but it was Luang Phibunsongkhran, the prime minister in the late 1930s and early 1940s, who was responsible for the popularity of this noodle dish. To discourage rice dishes that cut into the commodities availability for export, Luang encouraged his people to eat more Phad Thai and less rice. It’s been a popular staple there ever since.
I was spellbound by the beauty of Thailand and her kind and gentle people. I visited dozens of gold gilded temples, including the magnificent Grand Palace of Bangkok, but not surprisingly, my trip highlights revolved around the food, filling not only my belly but my memory. Besides a market trip and cooking class in Chang Rai, we received a spontaneous and gracious invitation into the kitchen of the restaurant where we dined on the last night of our trip. Some of the wait staff spoke broken English, but not so for the kitchen staff. Armed with nothing more than nods, swift hand motions and many smiles, we learned to make the dish that had both pleased and intrigued us: Goong Sarong, prawns wrapped in Phuket noodles and deep fried. Served with sweet chili sauce, it was a delicious and dramatic presentation that I attempted to recreate my first night home (practice makes perfect, and it remains a work in progress).
Though I traveled nearly 20,000 miles for my bucket list elephant ride at a rescue sanctuary, at least I don’t have to travel all the way back to Thailand for curry or Phad Thai. Thai dishes are abundant and well-loved around the world. Here in Sandpoint, we’re fortunate we can eat authentic and delicious Thai food at Thai Nigiri or Secret Thai Garden (and at Ohn’s seasonal, Oak Street location).
But, if you’re like me, and looking for curry for breakfast, you may have to make your own. This recipe for Green Curry makes a quick and delicious meal for two.
Recipe: Thai Green Curry (serves 2)
This recipe can be made with shrimp or chicken or tofu. Green curry sauce should have a delicious balance of spicy, rich and creamy. You can adjust the ingredients to find your own level of spiciness (and/or sweetness). This recipe calls for prepared curry paste – several choices are available in local grocery stores-Asian food section. Kaffir lime and Thai basil are available at Asian food markets in Spokane (or use substitutes listed-still delicious)!
• 1 1/2 tablespoons oil
• 2 tablespoons green curry paste
• 8 oz chicken breast, cut into bite-sized
pieces or peeled and deveined
shrimp (or tofu, cubed).
• 1 cup coconut milk
• ¾ cup water (or stock)
• 5 kaffir lime leaves, lightly bruised
(available at Spokane Asian food
market-or substitute 3 bay leaves
and 1 tsp fresh lime zest)
• 2 red chilies, cut into thick strips
• 2 oz bamboo shoots
• 2-3 thin slices fresh ginger
• 2 cups fresh chopped vegetables
(onion, carrot slices, mushrooms,
tomato, bok choy)
• 1 tablespoon fish sauce
• 1 tablespoon sugar or (preferred)
• 1/4 cup Thai basil leaves, chopped
(or chopped cilantro leaves)
Heat a sauce pan over medium heat and add the oil. Add the green curry paste, whisk until aromatic, add the chicken and stir to combine well with the curry paste. Add the coconut milk and water and bring it to a quick boil (if using shrimp or tofu, don’t add yet).
Add the bamboo shoots, kaffir lime leaves, ginger, red chilies and chopped vegetables, bring back to boil (add shrimp or tofu).
Lower the heat to simmer, cover the pot and let simmer for 10 minutes or until the curry slightly thickens.
Add the fish sauce, sugar, and basil leaves. Stir to mix well. Turn off the heat and serve over steamed rice (follow directions on rice package).