Cooking a new cuisine at home can be really tricky, especially when you're doing it on your own! Below are some tips to help you get the possible final product!
1. Scrutinize the author of your recipe! This one is probably the most important in the list and is something I feel very strongly about. Without going into too much of a rant, there are a lot of low quality recipes online for Thai food. Unfortunately, the large American food magazines and websites have done a poor job over the years of contracting experts in Thai cuisine to write and test their Thai recipes. For those of us who have studied Thai cuisine or know it well, it is quite clear with a quick view of the ingredients list that the people writing these recipes know virtually nothing about the cuisine. This is why I wrote my posts on The Best Thai Food Blogs & Youtube Channels to Follow and the Best Thai Cookbooks to Buy. There is a lot of really great content available, but it can be outweighed by the big food websites. Just take a few minutes to look into the relationship the recipe developer has to Thai cuisine. How did they cultivate enough knowledge to actually write a recipe worth sharing...? Are they Thai, or did they study in Thailand or apprentice at a Thai restaurant? If not, maybe move along to someone who really knows what they're talking about about and how to advise you in your culinary journey!
2. Don't make a lot of substitutions in a recipe. This sounds obvious, but it's very common that as home cooks, we will naturally substitute ingredients when we can't find everything we need at one store. I've received photos from readers showing me their shopping hauls for my recipes, and I quickly realize that over 50% of the ingredients they've bought are substitutes from what my recipe calls for. When you're making a lot of substitutes for the ingredients in a recipe, you're actually creating your own recipe. If you want your end product to match what you're seeing online or in a cookbook, you have to stick to the recipe and only substitute ingredients when the recipe developer suggests them.
3. Get the proper Thai herbs and sauces. There are many types of soy sauce and each have their intended purpose. Thai recipes call for Thai soy sauce and a Chinese soy sauce will not work for a Thai preparation. My advice here is to take your time to collect your ingredients. Get the correct Thai soy sauce and the good coconut milk, find fresh galangal, get real sticky rice and really fresh beautiful cilantro. A lot of things in Thai cuisine can be hard to track down, so when you find the fresh galangal, makrut lime leaves and lemongrass in an Asian market, buy them when they look fresh and freeze them. That way they will be ready when you've collected everything you need for your recipe! For more info in Thai ingredients, including links to Thai sauces on Amazon, see this post!
4. If in doubt, leave it out! This is in reference to the above section on substitutions. Often it's better to just leave out an ingredient rather than substituting, especially when there isn't a good substitute available. Ingredients like galangal, lemongrass, makrut lime leaves are all very unique herbs without any good substitutes. Leave them out of the dish if you can't find them. If it's just one ingredient in a small quantity, your end product might still be ok when you omit something. If the ingredient is the star of the show, or called for in a substantial amount, then you should wait to make the dish until you can find that ingredient. In this case, look for another dish with the ingredients you do have, so you and make something you will enjoy!
5. Get familiar with the ingredients, with how they look and smell. Oftentimes the really hard to find herbs will have traveled a long time to get to us in the West and they can arrive old, sad and oxidized. I find this to often be true with lemongrass and galangal. But if you've never used them before you wouldn't know what a good lemongrass looks like vs. a bad one. So pay attention when you're watching your Thai cooking youtube videos and researching ingredients. Try doing a google image search of the ingredients to see what they look like at their best. And when you find lemongrass, galangal or makrut lime leaves in a really good state, buy them and freeze them! For galangal, slice them into discs and freeze them in a sturdy plastic bag, so you can easily use them for your next recipe. Lime leaves only need a wash before freezing. Lemongrass can be trimmed from the top to fit in the bag, but can be frozen whole. Remember to label and date your bag! They should be OK frozen for a few months.
6. Boil your basil. This goes for other ingredients as well. There are some vegetables that are prone to losing the vibrancy of their color when cooked. Purple and green eggplants turn brown, basil turns gray. Cooking these ingredients quickly under high heat is the best way to keep them at their most vibrant! So when adding eggplant or basil to Thai curry, do it at a full boil and keep them completely submerged in the boiling liquid until they're fully cooked. This will take a few minutes for eggplant, and about 30 seconds for basil. You'll know you've been unsuccessful if your veg turns gray, that will mean you didn't submerge them in the boiling liquid for long enough - but it's ok because they're still edible, try again next time! For basil specifically, boiling it will 1) retain it's green color and 2) infuse the entire dish with it's lovely aromatic goodness. Green and red curries are a completely different experience when the basil is left out. Take a little taste before and after you add your basil the next time you make a Thai curry and you'll see what I mean!
7. Be brave and thoughtful when you taste and adjust seasonings at the end. If you taste your curry and it is falling flat and tastes muted or dull in flavor, that's when you season. Taste it and ask yourself, how is the salt level here? If it's ok, then you may want to add some sweetener. Taste it again and see how you feel. Keep tasting and adjusting until it really makes you go - wow! You can usually get there by just adding more seasoning bit by bit. However, if you taste the curry and it is coming off overpowering, bitter, sharp, metallic, and just overall too intense, you've lost too much water to evaporation (as you boiled the curry) and you need to re-balance it. Do this by adding a splash or two of coconut milk to taste. It should bring you back to a really great place. If you've used all your coconut milk, you can add water. Also, if you've added more and more seasoning to your curry and you're still not happy with it, adding a bit of coconut milk can help you here as well. As maybe you've over seasoned an already intense curry that needed re-balancing to begin with.
8. Understand your seasoning. The nice thing about Thai curries is that they can be tweaked and adjusted along the way using seasoning. The most common seasonings are palm sugar and fish sauce. These two ingredients need to be cooked to be incorporated into the dish. The palm sugar needs heat for it melt and marry into the liquid, and the fish sauce should be added to a boiling curry to mellow out its fishiness. So remember that when you add these seasonings; they both require a bit of time. It will take a minute or two for the palm sugar to actually sweeten your dish, don't drop in a clump and expect to taste the sweetness right away! With this added cooking time in mind, palm sugar and fish sauce might not always be the best options for your final seasoning adjustments. Maybe your pumpkin or protein or eggplant are on the verge of over cooking and you don't want to boil them for any longer. In these cases, you can add salt or sugar to replace the fish sauce or palm sugar. They will do the job of adding that bit of sweetness or salt that you need, and will melt and incorporate right away to season your dish, even off the heat.