Every cuisine has its nuances. I know only the blunt outlines of Thai
cooking, being much more familiar in Japanese
kaiseki and shojin-ryori cuisines, Chinese and French and Italian and Southwestern American cooking styles. In fact, I think that the distinction between Vietnam
ese and Thai cooking stles is blurry for me. So I apologize for any mistakes or misinformation in what follows. Gomen nasai.
Fish sauce is the salt of Thai cuisine. Fish sauce, called "nam pla" in Thai or "nuoc mam" in Vietnamese, is used much like salt or shoyu (soy sauce) as
a flavour enhancer. It serves as a seasoning in cooked dishes as well as a base for dipping sauces. Made from the liquid drained from fermented anchovies, fish sauce is very potent. It's usually combined with other ingredients when used as a dipping sauce. For cooking, you can use it straight, but never add it to a dry pan or the smell will be overpowering. Like olive oil, there are several grades of fish sauce. The best quality fish sauce, which is the first to be drained off the fermented fish, is usually pale amber, like clear brewed tea.
- For heat, try fresh and dried chiles and ground chile pastes. If you like hot food, you can add chiles and chile paste to just about everything, even variant peanut butter sandwiches. Start all Thai(ish) stir-fries by foaming some small fresh bird chiles in hot oil with garlic. If you can't find fresh Thai chiles, use fresh serranos or substitute dried. Chile paste, which is usually a mix of chiles, garlic, salt, and oil, is the base for many Thai soups, salad dressings, dipping sauces, and stir-fries.
- Coconut milk and palm sugar are the most common sweet ingredients. I don't use palm sugar because it is just two sweet. The sweet element found in most Thai dishes shouldn't be cloying. Instead, it balances the heat and counters the sour notes. Coconut milk, often added to curries, stews, and stir-fries, tones down the heat with its creamy sweetness.
- Acidic ingredients add vibrancy. Thai cooks use great amounts of tart ingredients, such as lime juice and tamarind juice (made by soaking tamarind pulp in water).
- Lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves give a dish a refreshing lift. Lemongrass, the most popular herb used in Thailand, is a tall, scallion-like stalk that has a subtle lemony and citrusy flavour and fragrance. Before using, peel away the tough outer layers and crush or chop the stalk to release its flavour. Kaffir lime leaves impart a very intense floral and citrus aroma and flavour and are almost required in Thai curries. Lime zest, while not the same, will give the dish a similar refreshing citrusy flavour.
- Bright, fresh herbs are aromatic finishes. Herbs, such as basil, a range of mint, and cilantro, are added to finished dishes in great quantities, sometimes by handfuls, with leaves often left whole to give a burst of flavour.