As I had mentioned, one of my New Year's resolutions is to experiment and cook more non-Korean Asian foods. I'm beginning with Thai cuisine, and the first dish that comes to mind is Pad Thai. I'm almost embarrassed to admit it (since I've publicly professed my love for Thai food), but Pad Thai and Pad See Ew are the only 2 dishes that I've ever ordered at restaurants. However, my curiosity and fascination with Thai cuisine have been unleashed thanks to the cooking class that I attended (several months ago when I could still wear sleeveless shirts) at Thai Fresh. Apparently my tastebuds love the well-balanced flavors of sour, sweet, creamy, salty and the heat that are the quintessentials of Thai cooking.
Located in the hip Boldin Creek neighborhood of South Austin, Thai Fresh is...what's the word? Eccentric? Eclectic?? It's a coffee shop, bar, live music venue, grocery store, restaurant...heck, there's even a play area for the kiddos! It's the perfect example of what makes Austin so special. On some nights it even doubles as a cooking school and in my class, there were 8 of us eager students + Tim who just lurked in the back somewhere.
We started off with coconut soup. Jam introduced us to a variety of common Thai ingredients, including lemongrass, kefir lime, and galangal. All three can either be used for flavoring purposes only or for consumption as well. Since we were making a soup, they served as taste enhancers to be discarded before eating. For lemongrass, bruising it is most ideal as it releases the essential oil. I came across this video on how to prepare lemongrass for cooking and found it to be extremely helpful. The bruised lemongrass was simply thrown into the boiling soup. Its slight citrusy scent and tangy, bright contribution to the dish was remarkable.
Sniffing the kefir lime leaves (pictured in the above top left corner) was a powerful sensory experience. Jam told us that they are rather easy to grow, and she has a bunch thriving in the backyard of the restaurant. She joked about how we could come by the restaurant any time after midnight and pick some for ourselves. I'm not sure if she was being serious, but I may just have to take her up on the "offer" one of these days ;).
Next we moved on to red curry. The biggest takeaway for me here was to never shake the can of coconut milk when making curry. In an undisturbed can, the coconut oil rises to the top, and you want to use that creamy part to essentially fry the red curry paste at the very beginning of the cooking process. This was actually my favorite dish of the night which even surprised me.
Next up - Pad Thai. The major ingredient in this dish is tamarind. Jam showed us a block of shelled tamarind that's easily found in Asian supermarkets. It is incredibly sour by itself (a little goes a long way), and therefore the flavor needs to be balanced by adding sugar (or sweetener of choice) to whatever recipe you're making. This recipe calls for tamarind water or juice, and here's how you prepare it.
Take about a golf ball size of tamarind and put it in 1 cup of boiling water. Let it sit for about 10 minutes. Immediately it will start to expand. To extract the juice, use your fingers to mash the tamarind into the water until it is well dissolved. Strain the extracted water into another bowl and repeat the process until most of the juice has been isolated. The tamarind water will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week.
The recipe makes 2 servings. Before you start pouting about the lack of leftovers (you wouldn't want them anyway as this dish does not reheat well in my opinion), if you prepare all the ingredients ahead of time, this satisfying noodle dish will come together in under 10 minutes. I believe Tim and I enjoyed it about three times during the week, and I didn't even break a sweat.
Now that I know how to make Pad Thai at home, it shall no longer be my meal of choice at Thai restaurants. And I'm ok with that. My pantry is well-stocked with common ingredients in Thai cooking, and I'm moving onto the next dish to master!
What is your favorite Thai dish? Do you do any Thai cooking at home? If so, what do you like to make?
- 2 handfuls of dried thin rice stick soaked in !cold water! for an hour
- 2 small bunches green onions roughly chopped
- 2 teaspoon canola oil
- 1 shallot minced
- 2 eggs
- 4 oz. extra firm tofu cut into small cubes, pan-fried
- 8-10 shrimp
- ½ teaspoon roasted Thai chili flakes can substitute with red pepper flakes + more as desired
- 2 handfuls of bean sprouts
- 2 Tbs crushed roasted peanuts
- 2 Tbs fish sauce
- 2 Tbs palm sugar
- 1 Tbs white sugar
- 2 Tbs tamarind water*
- *Place a golf ball sized clump of tamarind paste in 1 cup boiling water for about 10 minutes. Mash lightly using fingers and then strain. Repeat process to get tamarind out. The resulting tamarind water sometimes referred to as juice will keep in the refrigerator for up to a month or it can be frozen.
- Drain the noodles. For the sauce: mix all the ingredients in a small saucepan over med-high heat and simmer until sugar has dissolved.
- Heat oil in a wok or big pot over medium heat and fry shallots until softened. Crack in egg and stir. Mix in tofu, shrimp, and chili flakes. Stir fry until tofu is thoroughly heated through and then add noodles. Turn up heat and stir fry until noodles get softer, translucent, and brown in color. Add the prepared sauce and a pinch of chili flakes. Stir for just a few moments. Do not overcook. Finally, add most of the bean sprouts and chives and cook for another 30 seconds.
- Top the noodles with crushed peanuts, green onion, bean sprouts, cilantro, lime juice, and chili flakes.