Have you ever noticed how certain cuisines, in their philosophies and primary components, are innately healthier than others? This is especially true of the classic cuisine of Thailand. The pursuit of harmony and balance, the preponderance of grains, vegetables, and herbs over smaller portions of meats and fish, and the emphasis on fresh ingredients all contribute to a remarkably healthy and immensely flavorful mealtime.
The flavors of Thai food are complex, and deliberately so. Every dish should have three or more of the five fundamental tastes: sour, sweet, salty, bitter, and spicy. These might be provided, for example, by kaffir lime (sour), palm sugar (sweet), nam pla fish sauce (salty), holy basil (bitter), and bird's eye chilies (spicy). The goal is to create sensations that play against each other to allow a harmonious whole.
The ingredients common to Thai cooking provide an additional benefit-they're often blessed with medicinal properties. Ginger, for instance, has long been proven to provide multiple gastric benefits; hot chili peppers contain capsaicin, which has significant anti-inflammatory properties; and lemon grass is used in Ayurvedic medicine for nasal congestion.
The heart of any Thai meal is the grain, specifically rice. It might be jasmine, white and sweet, or red rice, which is rich in anthocyanins. Or it could be black rice, sticky and blessed with antioxidants. Whatever the choice, it usually accompanies numerous dishes, most of which emphasize vegetables, with small portions of fish, chicken, or beef being the most common protein sources. Fresh herbs are liberally scattered throughout, and embellishments include sauces, sambals, and condiments that contribute to the harmonious interplay of the five fundamental tastes.
And here's the thing: you don't have to school yourself in traditional Thai dishes in order to enjoy the pleasures and benefits of this cuisine. Use the basic tenets and many of the readily available ingredients to create your own culinary riffs. Try different types of rice, or branch out into other grains such as quinoa and freekeh. Surround your grains with small amounts of quickly cooked protein and generous helpings of vegetables. Use fresh ginger, lemon grass, and kaffir lime to brighten a soup or punch up a stir-fry.
An especially easy and delicious notion is adding small sides to complement your primary dishes. Chop some cucumbers with mint leaves, minced hot chili, a dribble of honey, and a splash of vinegar; or stir together a little coconut milk and nam pla with minced lemon grass, ginger, and garlic. These accents lend depth to your meal, and contribute to providing the harmony and balance of the five fundamental tastes.
Simple in its emphasis on fresh and healthy ingredients, and complex in its interweaving of tastes and textures, Thai cuisine is a perfect place to begin exploring the ethnic kitchen.
Young Ginger: A Culinary Delight
That slightly dry, brown-skinned ginger at your local supermarket is all well and good, but if you can find fresh young ginger-so much the better! Try your local farmers' market or health food store. It will often come with the stalk and leaves still attached; use the stalk as you would lemon grass, and the leaves for a marvelous ginger tea.