Thai Cooking Techniques
Thai food that is cooked is usually cooked one of three Thai cooking techniques. The first is by one of several frying methods, the second method is by barbequing and the third is by baking. Although the methods are different, the resulting tastes are excellent. One thing that I have found over the years is that these techniques all seem to keep the meats moist and lock in the flavors.
There are various heat sources used to cook Thai food including electric, gas, charcoal and wood burning fires. The type of heat source depends on a variety of factors including the economic condition of the person cooking. Electric and gas are the most popular heat sources used for cooking. Electric is used to power electric “hobs” or cook tops. Gas is typically LPG in gas bottles of various sizes used to fire a portable two-burner “hob” or cook top. Many prefer to use charcoal as the heat source for cooking. This method is particularly popular among the various street vendors and small restaurants. Here in Thailand, especially in the rural areas of northeast Thailand or “Issan”, fire is still used as a primary heat source for cooking.
In my experience in Thailand, the most popular method of cooking is by frying the food using one of several techniques. The first technique is by deep-frying, while the second technique is using a deep “wok” type pan where the food is cooked in what most people would recognize as “stir-fried”. One of the interesting things about Thai food that is fried is that it is not greasy.
It is interesting to watch food being deep-fried here in Thailand especially street food such as fried chicken. While in the west, restaurants use commercial fryers, here in Thailand the fryer is often a wide an deep bowl approximately 24” deep and 48 “ in diameter. It is filled with oil, which is then brought to a boil using a propane fired stove. The food is then placed in the oil and cooked until done. It is a scary thing to see as often the pots of boiling oil are on the sidewalks and can be touched by anyone including children. Although I have never seen one tip over, often they appear to be in a precarious position and the results of an accident would be significant. In the typical residential kitchen, the deep-frying is usually done on an electric “hob” or cook top. In both methods there is the typical splattering of grease as the oil boils, so it is best to stay covered up and be safe. After the food is cooked, it is allowed to dry and the excess oil is absorbed on paper towels. The results are excellent and I find the food not to be greasy. The food that is deep-fried is typically meat.
The “stir-fry” method of cooking is used to prepare a great deal of Thai food. In most applications the food is cooked in a deep and wide “wok” type of pan. The heat source is usually an electric “hob” or cook top that is either built into the countertop or a portable appliance that is placed n a table or top.. The cook will usually use a small amount of oil or water to keep the food from sticking to the pan, as it is cooked. The key to this method is to keep the heat high and to keep the food moving in the pan so that it does not burn. The results of cooking using this technique are wonderful and the food is very healthy as well.
Barbequing food is also a very popular method of cooking Thai food here in Thailand. Barbequing in Thailand is a great deal different than in the United States and other western countries. These differences range from the actual grill to the fuel to the actual act of grilling. Although you will find gas and charcoal grills here in Thailand, they are typically marketed towards the foreign expats. A typical Thai grill is mostly charcoal fired and the actual grill can range from a simple bucket with a grill on top to a large barrel with a grill on it. Often you will see these as a part of motorbike driven food cart as well as push style food carts. Just about everything here in Thailand are barbequed including shellfish, fish, chicken, every pork product imaginable and beef. In seaside communities it is common to see vendors walking down the beach with a small barbeque setup where they are offering fresh shrimp and squid.
Many westerns get concerned about the cleanliness of the grill surface, as sometimes they can look pretty nasty. Sometimes the cleaning brush looks nastier than the grill surface! As with many things here in Thailand as far as food is concerned, follow the lead of the local Thai people and eat where they eat, because they seem to know where the food and clean food is.
One of my favorite eating experiences here in Thailand is to go to one of the local “barbeques”. These are usually small restaurants found off of the beaten track of the typical areas frequented by tourists. Often they are open-air establishments with a roof overhead and basic tables, chairs and benches. Cool air is provided by a breeze, as well as ceiling fans. Anyway, you sit at a table and a clay pot full of hot charcoal is placed at the center of your table. A two-piece metal pan is then placed over the clay pot. The pan has a deep area that holds water and the center section has a surface that is relatively flat. There is also a hole in the center to allow heat to escape. The first time I saw this pot, I immediately thought the pan looked like a modified bundt cake pan.
Water is placed in the pan and while you are waiting for it to boil, you go to the buffet table and pick out the ingredients that you want to have in your “barbeque”. These items include seafood (provided you are near the coast), chicken, pork, liver and various vegetables. The plates are then brought back to the table and you basically grill he meats and make a soup as well. Of course various types of sauces, spices, and “nam km” are available as well. Fruits and deserts, including soft serve ice cream, are available as well various beverages, including numerous beers, which are best when served over ice. The service staff handles the charcoal, beverages and cleanup, while you do the rest.
The barbeque experience is not to be missed if you ever visit Thailand and is most fun when you go in a group. In addition to being healthy, it is also cheap! Often I will take my family to the barbeque and we will eat an insane amount of food and drink several local beers and the total cost will be about 450 Thai baht or $15.00 including the tip. Not bad for 3 people!
Baking is another cooking technique used here in Thailand to cook food. Although it used, is not as popular as the other cooking techniques. The big differences between baking food in the United States and here in Thailand is the “appliance” used to bake the food, as well as the foods cooked.
Electric ovens are extremely rare in Thailand and are most often found in homes and condominiums owned by foreigners. The typical Thai home does not have an oven. The way that the Thais bake food is to use a heat source, which is usually fire and a very large clay pot that is approximately 36 inches in diameter and 54 inches tall. It has a small opening on top to allow heat to escape and to put in and take out food. I think that the amount of work involved to get thee clay pot ovens ready is significant and that this is a major reason that baking is not popular here in Thailand. Food, such as whole chickens, is usually hung on a wire and placed in the pot to bake. The heat source is just big enough to heat up and maintain the temperature of the pot. It is important to note that there are no thermometers involved and that the baking times and temperatures appear to be done by feel and experience.
The types of foods cooked are different than those we see in the west. The main items being baked are meats such as chicken and pork. There are no cakes, breads or pasta dishes requiring baking in traditional Thai food. Meats baked in the clay pot ovens tend to be very moist although by hanging the meat, the meat does not cook in its own juices. Whatever the reason it sure is good!
The Thai cooking techniques of frying by various methods, barbequing and baking and the heat source, are just one component of what makes Thai food unique. I find that a key part of what makes the food special is the relative simplicity of the cooking methods and appliances used to create the food.