Ingredients and Formulation: Incorporating Thai into Your Cuisine

The learning curve may be longer for Thai than for Italian or Mexican, but if the popularity of pad thai is any indication, this cuisine is fit to be Thai-d.

By Jill Melton, Contributing Editor

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Any night of the week in Des Moines, Iowa, you can stroll down to the strip mall and order a bowl of tom ka kai, the fragrant coconut milk-laced chicken soup found at Cool Basil, one of the seven Thai restaurants in this medium-sized, conservative Midwestern town.

In Birmingham, Ala., a similarly sized city with more barbecue joints than McDonald's, there are eight Thai restaurants. According to the website Thai, where you can look for a Thai restaurant anywhere in the U.S., there are over 4,000 restaurants listed.

Today, Pad Thai - the quintessential noodle dish of Thailand - is about as prevalent as fettuccine Alfredo was two decades ago. A lot of this interest can be attributed to the mom and pop Thai restaurants that sprung up in strip centers all across the country. In most of these eateries, the tables are Formica, the service brisk, and the prices cheap. But the humble decor belies the alluring food.

At Surin of Thailand in Birmingham, what emerges from the kitchen are intoxicating dishes such as spicy nam sod, ground pork, chili peppers and fresh mint piled in crisp cabbage leaves and accented with a squeeze of fresh lime juice. Most dishes are preceded by a heady, lime- and lemongrass-infused coconut soup.

Something happens when you watch someone eat Thai food for the first time. Looks of wonder, pleasure and fascination compete in their expression until superseded by delight. The flavors of Thai food are transcendental as with few other cuisines.

Seth Jacobson, founder of Thai Kitchen, Union City, Calif., was mesmerized with the country and the cooking. He recognized Americans were ready for new flavors and foods that were simultaneously exciting and healthy. He started selling curry pastes and fish sauce out of the trunk of his car. The company then debuted its first in-store Thai products - traditional curry paste, sauces and coconut milk - in 1989. Today Thai Kitchen offers a line of over 50 products, including sauces and prepared foods, sold in the U.S., Canada and Japan.

Thai-dal Wave

In the last decade Thai dishes broke the bonds of ethnic restaurants and began appearing on menus alongside Chinese, Vietnamese and other Far East cuisines in a restaurant phenomenon tagged "pan-Asian." Big Bowl Asian Kitchen, Chicago, was one restaurant company to get in on the action early.

In the mid-1990s Big Bowl offered just about anything that came in a bowl, from Chinese noodles to hummus. But according to Matt McMillin, vice president of Big Bowl, in 1994, they decided to limit "the bowl" to strictly Asian flavors, due to the popularity of their Asian offerings. McMillin and partner Bruce Cost grew the chain to the five national locations it has now.

Today you can find Thai basil chicken and Thai herb calamari sandwiched between the pot stickers and the kung pao chicken. Other pan-Asian concept restaurants, such as Wow Bao and Vong's Thai Kitchen (both Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Chicago) also integrate Thai flavors into their menus. Sesame peanut noodles and homemade curries occupy Vong's menu, while Wow Bao features Chinese-style bao - steamed buns - filled with Thai curry chicken.

"There's a mass-market consciousness of Thai food that wasn't there 10 years ago," says Ernest Wong, senior product development manager for Thai Kitchen. Wong believes Thai food is so popular because it's so different. "In contrast to Chinese cuisine, which is primarily soy sauce and vinegars, Thai food is an explosion of flavors."

Why Thai

Thai food is based on a delicate and harmonious balance of flavor sensations. It's at once, clean, big, mysterious and familiar. Zesty fresh lime juice, salty fish sauce, molasses-tinged brown sugar, garlic, cilantro - all come together for a symphony of clean, fresh flavors that are undisputedly not American, even if the ingredients are. And of course hot peppers. A number of Thai dishes are traditionally fiery hot.

Thai food is an amalgam of ingredients and techniques - some its own, some borrowed from its neighbors: noodles and noodle dishes from China, ground spices from India as well as fresh herbs and spices from its own vast agricultural basin. Splash in fish sauce, coconut milk, and curry paste and you have the singular food that is the Thai experience.

Possibly Thai's biggest attraction is that it assimilates well. Its key ingredients can be parlayed into other cuisines and dishes adding bright notes here and there. California Pizza Kitchen, Los Angeles, has featured a Thai chicken pizza on its menu since it opened its doors.

Frank Lee, executive chef and owner of Slightly North of Broad, in Charleston, S.C., has an arsenal of Thai ingredients ready to mix with his Low country specialties for what he calls his "maverick Southern cooking." Thai curry paste goes into the shrimp bisque, and lemongrass helps marinate pork and chicken for the grill. Lee discovered Thai food while living on a shoestring budget in Chicago and Washington D.C. Which is another benefit to Thai food: While its taste is big, its price tag isn't.

Thai cuisine caught on because it is at once exotic, yet accessible. In large part, it relies on items that are pantry staples in most restaurant kitchens: garlic, lime, shallots, chilies and sugar. But it also employs fish sauce, curry paste, galangal and lemongrass - items that require more effort to hunt down (see, "Thai Up Loose Ingredient Ends," below).

Making the Mainstream Break

So, the same reasons we love Thai flavors may be the very ones holding it back from being more mainstream. Fish sauce is admittedly an acquired taste. Lemongrass, curry paste, even coconut milk require a paradigm shift of the taste buds. This may be the reason concept (chain) restaurants are slow to embrace Thai dishes. A survey of most chain restaurants shows nothing more adventurous from the Far East than Asian chicken salad, pot stickers and egg rolls, and not a drop of coconut milk can be found.

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