So what is Thai Food anyway?
And how is Thai food different from other Asian Food?
Thai food, as you may expect, is the ethnic food of Thailand. Thailand is known for its beautiful open air markets and countless varieties of fruits and vegetables. If you ever get a chance to travel there, it will be an amazing experience.
Although there are many styles all across the country, Thai food is distinctive from other asian food because of the way it balances extreme flavors. The best dishes will have a superb mix of sweet and bitter, salty and sour. Instead of mixing similar or complementary flavors like many other types of food, Thai cuisine takes two seemingly opposite flavors and miraculously combines them into a completely new and delicious experience.
What they are and where to get them
Thai recipes are full of delicious ingredients. Here is a break down of some of the most popular ones:
Rice: A staple in most of Asia, rice is like bread in the west. Most dishes are either served on rice or with it as a side. The best type to use is Basmati rice. This is the kind you will find in most restaurant Thai food and you should consider cooking with it. Although it's a bit more expensive, the flavor and texture is definitely noticeable. If you can't get it, jasmine rice also works well. Steer clear of medium grain and short grain rice. While short grain is good for Japanese food, especially sushi, long grain is what you want for maximum authenticity.
Rice Noodles: These are made from rice flour and similar to pasta, although they are a little chewier and you prepare them differently.
Fish Sauce: Ahhh, the first time I ever cooked with fish sauce it drove everyone else out of the house for hours. Maybe that's because it's made from the drippings of salted, fermented fish. Apparently in the olden days, they would stack salted fish between bamboo planks, put a weight on the top and let the goodness drip out. I'm sure modern techniques are used today, but one whiff of the stuff and you will wonder. (Tip: Cats go crazy for this. It seems like they like it better than tuna.) But don't let the smell turn you away. Fish sauce is absolutely essential to most Thai dishes. And it tastes much better than it smells.
Curry Paste: Don't waste your time with curry powder. It's fine for many americanized dishes or as seasoning, but for authentic Thai food, paste is the only way to go. It comes in several different flavors, each a unique style. Red curry paste is probably the easiest to start with. It's not too hot and doesn't need very many other ingredients to make it taste good. Green is generally spicier, and goes very well with Thai Sweet Basil, an herb that has hints of licorice. Panang is a bit sweeter and often has a peanuty taste. It is also greatly enhanced with Kaffir lime leaves.
Bean Sprouts: A must have for Phad Thai. In fact, it's not hard to sprout your own.
Now where to get all these weird ingredients? Many of these can now be found at major grocery stores, but I always go to my local Asian food store. I'm sure you have one in town. You will probably be overwhelmed with the different varieties and brands, so here are a couple recommendations I have found to be high quality:
Tiparos Fish Sauce: Simply the best fish sauce around. Just be careful not to spill it or your house will smell like a fish market for days.
Mae Ploy Curry Paste: This is the best brand I have found. There are others that come in cans or jars, but Mae Ploy has the best flavor.
Like at any other restaurant, Thai dishes range in quality. In America many Thai Restaurants make their food sweeter than it ought to be. But it's really up to you and your individual tastes.
A note on spice. If you're new to Thai food go easy on the spice. Most menus give you a scale from one to five. It can be confusing to know which to try. Here is a handy table to help you out if you're new.
1 - Not very spicy. Often one means completely non-spicy.
2 - Average spice. Pleasantly balanced. This is the option I choose most often.
3 - Spicy. If you like spicy things, you will want to live around this area. Maybe try a 4 once in a while if you are feeling adventurous.
4 - Very spicy. And I do mean it. At a 4, the spice starts competing with the other flavors. I usually avoid it. This is where the real spice heads will want to be.
5 - So, you want to show off do you? Be warned, this is a different type of spice than you find on wings. This is the level of spice that will come back to haunt you a day later making you wish you were never born.