Although you can learn a lot by eating authentic Thai food and from books (and websites!), I found that attending a Thai cookery school was a great benefit. The Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School was excellent.
The classes were small, about six people, of various nationalities. The group I was in included Japanese and Israeli as well as those with English as a mother tongue. Unusually for a Brit-Thai couple, the school owners were a Thai man and a British woman. Somphon, the husband, taught the cooking and he was a superb teacher, with a great sense of sanuk (fun).
Each day, the class started with a visit to a local market. Somphon had an arrangement with the stall holders where we were invited to sample things as well as having ingredients described to us. This was a useful familiarisation exercise. Next we returned to the demonstration kitchen where we all mucked in to make some wonderful food. Before going on to some recipes, let’s have a look at the main ingredients first.
There are a variety of types of chillies used in Thai cooking. A couple of hints are that green ones are unripe and spicier than the ripe red ones, and usually the smaller chillies are the hottest. The unflatteringly nicknamed “mouse-shit” chillies pack quite a punch. Chillies are used in the preparation of curry paste (as you can see in my recipe for how to make Thai green curry paste); to add flavour; and to garnish dishes. For those who insist on removing some of the heat, you can discard the seeds and even soak the chillies in cold water for a while. But if you’re going to do that, why bother with chillies in the first place?
Coriander (phak chee)
This herb, which is similar in appearance to flat-leaved parsley, is also known as cilantro. The root stem and seeds are used for making curry pastes (Thai is the only cuisine I know of which uses coriander roots, which have a stronger flavour than the rest of the plant.) The leaves and seeds are used for flavouring dishes, and the leaves are also attractive enough to be used for garnishing. Before using the seeds, you need to roast them in a wok over a low heat before crushing into a powder for use in curry paste. Some recipes suggest using parsley as a substitute for coriander, or even using dried instead of fresh coriander. You can do this but it just won’t taste the same. In my opinion, there is no suitable substitute for fresh coriander.
Kaffir lime (magrood)
A kaffir lime is a dark green knobbly lime. The skin is used in making curry pastes, the juice is sometimes used in soups and the leaves are used in curries and soups. The leaves should be torn into pieces, discarding the stem, and are often added at the end of cooking for their aroma. Leaves used in this way are inedible; however, if you chop them into very fine slivers they can then be eaten. One or two leaves should be sufficient without overpowering any dish.
Lemon grass (takrite)
Lemon grass, or citronella, is a straw-like grass which has a distinctive, lemony flavour. The outer layer is discarded along with the straw-like top. Only the bottom third is used and can be sliced or chopped. It is used in soups and curry pastes. Like lime leaf, large slices are not eaten.
Fish sauce (nam pla)
Fish sauce is a thin, brown, salty liquid which is made from fermented fish. It is used instead of salt in most Thai dishes. The darker the colour of the fish sauce, the higher the quality – and therefore the smellier. Fish sauce is essential for most Thai dishes.
Coconut milk (grati)
In Thailand, fresh coconut milk is generally used – you can watch them prepare it in the markets. Elsewhere, tins or powdered versions are available and quite acceptable. If you buy the tinned version, make sure that it is coconut “milk” as tinned coconut “cream” is sweet and entirely different.
Shrimp paste (kapi)
Shrimp paste is made from dried shrimps and is a dark coloured paste with a strong smell. Personally, I’d call it a pong. It’s used in curry pastes and to add flavour to some dips – fortunately you only need to add a small amount.
There are many, many more ingredients: bai horapa – a kind of Thai basil; aubergines in all sizes from pea to golf ball; galangal – like ginger but milder; but we have covered the main ones above. Did you notice which extremely important ingredient is missing? Yes, it’s rice. Rice is so important to Thai cuisine that it is a topic on its own.