FOOD It’s the tiny details and the right balance of ingredients that make Thai cuisine tasty and easy to make says Chef Yingyod Raktham of the Park Hyatt, Dubai
In retrospect I was ridiculously overambitious. But then Thailand has that effect. All those sophisticated dishes, created by the side of the road with nothing more than a laughably small stove, a beat-up tray of cheap ingredients and barely enough space to stir. Just seeing food so memorable being dished out in minutes by a street-side vendor makes you believe this cuisine is accessible. Unlike exotic Italian, complicated French and elaborate Indian cooking, Thai food seems seductively easy.
Well, as with most things in life, it’s a matter of perspective. Admittedly, my methods weren’t ideal. I began my Thai food journey by downloading a Pad Thai game on my iPad, where a vendor shouted angrily every time I made a wrong move. It was unexpectedly stressful. So stressful I can’t make Pad Thai even today without looking over my shoulder nervously, expecting to see an old lady shaking her bad-tempered ladle at me.
Next, I went online and started researching Thai green curry. In a fit of enthusiasm — I resolved to start from scratch. Nigel Slater’s Thai green vegetable curry seemed like a good place to start. The recipe was encouragingly practical, offering precise measures and clear instructions. So I peeled ginger, squeezed lime, chopped chillies, bruised lemon grass, minced coriander, and then lay down for half an hour with tea bags over my eyes. (Which as a beauty fix is annoyingly ineffective. Especially if you forget to squeeze them properly, resulting in a steady stream of Earl Grey running down your cheeks.) Then came the slicing and dicing: pumpkin, aubergine, mushroom. Add handfuls of coriander and throw it all into the blender for a gratifyingly green, satisfyingly fragrant, slushy sauce. An entire evening’s work. It’s tasty, but not quite street Thai.
Then, I meet gifted Chef Yingyod Raktham, who runs award-winning restaurant, The Thai Kitchen at Park Hyatt, Dubai.
He’s teaching a group of people how to make authentic Thai food at the Park Hyatt Chennai’s Flying Elephant restaurant, as part of a ‘Masters of Food and Wine’ promotion — so I settle down with a notebook determined to ace Thai curry. He holds up a packet of green curry paste. Yes. Curry paste. I’m convinced it’s a red herring. I’ve cooked with curry paste, and it tastes nothing like the Thai curries. Then comes the epiphany: It’s not the ingredients; it’s how you use them. (Yes. I admit. That’s pretty hackneyed as far as epiphanies go. But you’ll be surprised at what a difference tiny details make.)
As Chef Yingyod heats oil, and begins sautéing the paste, he explains the basic Thai curries. Red and green, to start with, as most people know. Made with the same ingredients — galangal, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves etc — the key difference between the two is in the chillies used: red and green respectively. Then there’s yellow curry, with turmeric and fenugreek. Malaysian influenced Massman curry with star anise. Panang, with spices from Malaysia, India, and Burma. And relatively mild orange curry, bright with fresh finely chopped turmeric.
Using the pastes immediately expands your repertoire. And reduces your entire cooking process to 15 minutes. When the oil begins to ooze out of the green curry paste, Chef Yingyod stops sautéing for a minute and adds a spoon of sugar to add gloss. Then come the keffir lime leaves, Thai eggplant, a can of coconut milk and the main ingredient — chicken (with the fat removed, so the dish doesn’t get overwhelmingly oily), strips of tenderloin or tofu. If it’s red curry, you can use bamboo shoots. If it’s Massman, you add potatoes and roasted peanuts. Once you get the basics right, it is easy to play around with ingredients.
The final touch: fish sauce and palm sugar. Or light soy sauce for vegetarians. (The darker version ruins the colour of the dish.) He finishes with a handful of tender Thai basil, scenting the curry with distinct sweet anise-flavoured notes. Since Thai ingredients can be a challenge to source, sometimes you have to make substitutions. The trick is to find a balance of spicy-salty-sweet-sour.
This logic works with desserts too. After powering through a green papaya salad, creamy Tom Kha (basically Tom Yum paste, with coconut milk), Chef Yingyod demonstrates the Saku Nam Ka-ti, a surprisingly easy dessert, given how complex it tastes.
He boils sago in one pan. Heats milk, coconut milk (in a 1:2 ratio) with sugar and salt in another. When the milk mixture cools, it’s mixed with sago and topped with fruit. (In this case pomelo, but melons, grapefruit and mango work as well.) Our eyes widen with surprise when we taste the refreshing result: sweet, and salty in almost equal measure. Balance. That’s all there is to it.