Updated: Sep 6, 2021
Bangkok has recently lifted it's shelter in place order and within a few weeks my Intermediate Thai Cuisine course started back up. So I jumped right back into a busy schedule of early morning classes and hectic afternoons in the practical kitchen. The intermediate course introduces regional cuisine, so I've been introduced to a lot of new (to me) ingredients and dishes. Some dishes have really struck me as very flexible and adaptable and especially fun to riff on or cook at home. Below are some of my favorites!
Thus far in the tern, I think the recipes that got me the most excited are two sauces from the North East of Thailand, the Isan region. The first is a spicy dipping sauce intended for BBQ meat, called Nam Chim Chaew. It is sour and spicy and beautifully aromatic from a very uniquely Isan ingredient: roasted rice. The roasted rice acts a bit like toasted sesame seeds, it provides a mild roasted aroma and a bit of crunch and body to the sauce. This dipping sauce would be an incredible addition to any BBQ and it's really easy to throw together.
Nam Chim Chaew
(Grams are exact and teaspoon measurements are educated estimations)
20g (2.5T) palm sugar (or honey)
45g (3T) fish sauce
50g (3.5T) tamarind juice
30g (2T) water
10g (4T) ground roasted rice
30g (about 1/2 shallot) shallot, thinly sliced
5g (about 1 onion) spring onion, thinly sliced
5g (about 4 leaves) sawtooth coriander or (small palm full) cilantro, thinly sliced
10g (2 T) lime juice
3g chili flakes, about 2 large pinches (adjust to your taste)
Method: Combine the palm sugar, fish sauce, tamarind juice and water in a small sauce pan and heat up on Low just until the palm sugar is dissolved. Take it off heat to cool.
To make the roasted rice, just toast some sticky rice in a dry pan over medium heat, stirring continuously on Medium heat until you reach a golden color and can smell it's toasty aroma. Transfer to a bowl to cool. Once cool, grind it in a mortar and pastel or a spice grinder. It should be a rough sandy texture.
Just before serving, add the roast rice to the pan of melted palm sugar mixture. Add in the lime juice, chili flakes and the sliced fresh herbs and shallots. Taste to adjust salt, sour and spice to your preference. This sauce should be sour first, and then salty on your palate. Serve as a dipping sauce to accompany any type of roasted or BBQ meat or vegetable. I am certain this will be a crowd pleaser!
Seafood Dipping Sauce
The next sauce is intended for seafood, but it could be amazing on tacos, dumplings or BBQs as well. It's one of my favorite fresh dipping sauces, and has become a staple in my rotation. It is really bright from the lime juice and aromatic from the coriander and chilies - it adds a vibrancy to any dish. Adjust the quantity of chili to your desired spice level and remove the seeds from the chilies if you want to reduce their heat. I suggest using gloves to remove chili seeds as their capsasin can get irritate your skin for a few days. If you want this to be totally mild, substitute the chilies for bell pepper. You can use either green or red chilies for this sauce, but green is often preferred.
Seafood Dipping Sauce Recipe
10g (1T) Bird's eye chili, fresh
5g (1/2 t) small bird's eye chili, fresh
20g (2T) coriander root (or stems)
30g (3.5T) garlic
50g (3.5T) lime juice
50g (3.5T) fish sauce
40g (2T) palm sugar (or honey)
2g salt, large pinch
Method: Put all of the ingredients into a blender and blend until smooth! Serve as a dipping sauce or fried, grilled or steamed fish OR spoon over tacos, burritos, rice bowls, BBQ, eggs, dumplings or whatever savory dish you're eating at the moment!
Lab Moo (Pork Salad)
The Isan version of lab is nice and sour and aromatic from the toasted rice. ( On US menus it's written as larb, which doesn't really work phonetically due to our tendency for a hard R in American English. So I think lab is a better transliteration, with a soft A that almost sounds like an O.
Linguistics aside, it's a delicious bright dish that is somewhat easy to find on Thai menus abroad. I had never ordered it at a restaurant before, because a meat heavy salad doesn't really call my name. However, now that I've tried it I can see that there is good stuff here! It features lime juice, fish sauce, roasted rice and a lot of fresh herbs. Vegetarian versions usually feature mushrooms, but I'm interested in trying it with grilled eggplant. Recipe forthcoming!
Gaeng Hung Lay (Hung Lay Curry)
This is a really delicious curry from the North of Thailand; it is so special that it has earned a spot in my top 5 favorite Thai curries. It beautifully showcases the Burmese and Indian influence on Northern Thai cuisine. We see the neighboring counties' influence on Northern Thai curry through ingredients like fresh ginger and the Hung Lay spice mix which contains cinnamon, cardamom and clove (to name a few). These additions make it quite different from the green and red curries we're used to having at Thai restaurants in the West. You might liken it to a marriage of red Thai curry and tika masala sauce. If you see this curry on a restaurant menu, definitely order it! However, it's uncommon to find at restaurants abroad so I'll be making it at home. The Hot Thai Kitchen recipe is great, as are all Pailin's recipes. She even recommends a shortcut of using a store bought red curry paste and just stirring in the hung lay spice powder mix, which I agree makes complete sense because the recipe is essentially a simple red curry paste with hang lay spice mix added.
In terms of difficulty level, this is an easier curry to master, making it a great option for anyone's first at home attempt at a Thai curry. Why is it easier? Because it uses a slow braise method to cook the meat and develop flavor in the curry. The longer cooking time makes it more forgiving, meaning you can keep it going on low for quite some time and not worry about over cooking anything. One of the trickiest things about red and green curries is timing out the cooking times for all the different vegetables as you add them to the pot; each vegetable has a different cooking time and they will overcook if you step away for more than a minute or two. The common protein for this curry is pork belly, though I would be interested to see how it works with a leaner cut of meat or a vegetable like eggplant. There are lots of possibilities for changing this one up!
When my class reached Central Thailand in our overview of regional cuisine, we started steaming fish in a big way. This section was our time to learn fish - how to descale, clean and trim a fish to prepare it for steaming or deep frying. I love steamed fish, it a seriously underrated method for cooking fish. It's really easy to do at home, provided you a large enough steamer and a steamed fish will cost you at least $30 in a restaurant, so this is a method I think home cooks should not overlook!
The beauty of a steamed fish is that the cooking method is fast and hands off, so you can take the 20 minutes that the fish is cooking to make a really delicious sauce. You make the seafood dipping sauce with lime juice and chilies (recipe above) or you can get fancier and do something with peanuts. In one steamed fish recipe from Central Thailand we made a marinade with lime juice and chilies and poured that over the steamed fish, for the last 3 minutes of cooking. The flavors of the marinade completely permeated the fish, it was a beautifully simple preparation.
Steamed Sea Bass with Spicy Lime Juice Sauce Recipe
1 whole sea bass (or fish of your choice)
1-2 lemongrass stocks
3 kaffir lime leaves (optional, if you can find them)
Spicy Lime Juice Sauce
20g (2T) coriander root, minced
15g (1t) bird's eye chili, minced
50g (3T) garlic, minced
75g (1/3 cup) lime juice
100g (1/4 cup + 1T) fish sauce
50g (3T) sugar
100g (1/4 cup + 1T) water
Method: When you buy your fish, have your fish monger prepare your fish for steaming - remove scales and fins and clean out the cavity. Gently pound your lemongrass stocks with your pestle (or a heavy object) and scrunch up the lime leaves in your hands to bruise them and release their aromas. Stuff the fish cavity with your bruised herbs. Place your fish on a plate, and then into your steamer. Steam for 15 minutes.
Dissolve the sugar into the water and fish sauce. Add the lime juice and the minced aromatics. Set aside. Check your fish for doneness at 15 minutes. If the meat is opaque and easily pulled away from the bone, it's ready. Pour your lime juice sauce over the fish and steam for 3 more minutes. Serve immediately with steamed rice and fresh crunchy vegetables.