Love Thai food but not sure where to start when it comes to cooking it at home? Take control over pepping up your palate and discover the effortless balance of punchy, sweet and sour flavours found in Thai cooking with the help of Saiphin, head chef and founder of Rosa’s Thai Cafe.
All of Thai cooking is based around four flavours: salty, spicy, sour and sweet. Every dish in Thai cuisine incorporates at least two of them, and sometimes all four. The art lies in striking the perfect balance. This skill is key in mastering Thai cooking. One flavour may be dominant, but the others will be there too, like notes in a chord. A dish may be sweet, but it will still have the essence of at least one other flavour. No single flavour is ever allowed completely to overpower the others. You must always be able to taste all the flavours, singly and in unison.
Many of the dishes in my cookbook are cooked in a wok over high heat and come together very quickly – it might take you longer to chop and prepare the ingredients than to cook the actual dish! For best results, it’s important not to over-fill your wok – your ingredients will get steamed and soggy rather than stir-fried and crispy. Many of my recipes and dishes we serve at Rosa’s Thai Cafe are designed to serve only two people, but if you are cooking for more, I suggest you scale up the ingredients as necessary, get everything ready, and then cook your chosen dish in two or three batches. It won’t take long, and every serving will be just as delicious.
Knowing Thai ingredients
In Thai cooking there are many different ingredients that you may not have come across before, from galangal to holy basil. The best place to find these is in Asian speciality stores. Alternatively, you can buy many of these ingredients online. See the following list for the some of the more exotic ingredients you will commonly encounter in Thai cooking. If you can’t find some of the more unusual ones, don’t worry as you can easily substitute many of them with more common items.
There are two main kinds of basil used throughout Thai cooking: Thai basil and Holy basil, both cultivars of sweet (Mediterranean) basil. Thai basil (Bai-Gra-Prow) has purple stems with smaller and darker green leaves than its parent plant, but is similar at first glance, so is sometimes called Thai sweet basil, even though it has a liquorice-like flavour. It is used extensively in Thai cuisine, in salads, soups and stir-fries, or sprinkled raw over salads or cold noodle dishes; the most famous is definitely the Chilli & Basil Stir Fry (Pad-Gra-Prow).
Holy basil (Bai-Ho-Ra-Pa) has a much sharper, more peppery taste than Thai basil, and is therefore often called ‘hot basil’. Leaves of holy basil are used to add a fiery depth and clove-like flavour to stir-fries and other Thai dishes. At Rosa’s, we use it on our Sizzling Seafood Hot Plate (Pad-Cha).
It’s impossible to imagine Thai food without chillies of all sizes and colours used – fresh, dried or roasted. Commonly used types include Long or Spur chillies (Prik-Chi-Faa), and the much smaller, but spicier, Bird’s Eye Chillies (Prik-Kii-Nuu). Dried chillies are usually soaked in water before use to soften them. In Thai cooking, we use chillies plus the seeds for that extra kick. If you aren’t such a fan of spicy food, reduce the amount of chilli in the recipe and remember to de-seed the pods when you’re chopping them up.
In Thai cooking every part of the coriander plant is used, including the root, which is one of the base ingredients of many Thai curry pastes. The roots, which are milder in flavour than the leafy tops, can also be chopped finely and used to season broths, sauces and rice, or pounded into a paste that can be used as a marinade. If you can’t find coriander root at your Asian speciality stores, use the stalks instead – try using 5 stalks for every root, as their flavour is milder.
Fish Sauce (Nam-Pla)
The idea of fermenting small fish with salt may not sound very appealing, but fish sauce is the condiment that makes so many Thai dishes come to life. The fermentation process creates a unique umami flavour that adds depth and complexity to a dish that you cannot find in any other cuisines.
Although this knobbly root comes from the ginger family, it is lighter in colour and tastes far more peppery than ginger. There are two types of galangal: Greater Galangal (Kha) (usually known simply as galangal and looks quite similar to ginger) and Lesser Galangal (Kra-Chai). Confusingly, lesser galangal has the more pungent peppery flavour of the two. Before using fresh galangal, you will need to peel it and take off the top layer. It is then prepared either by crushing it after slicing it or by cutting it into matchstick-thin strips.
Keffir Limes (Makrut)
These dark green limes have a bumpy, knobbly skin and smell absolutely wonderful. In Thai cooking, we only use the zest, not the juice. You can find these in Asian speciality stores.
Keffir Lime Leaves (Bai-Makrut)
These leaves originate from the wild lime tree and are used to add a distinctive citrus scent to soups and curries. Used in much the same way as bay leaves, they are widely available, and you can buy them fresh or dried. I often buy a bag of fresh ones, and freeze them. Before use, allow to defrost and gently massage between your fingers to release the essential oils.
Kitchen equipment and gadgets I can’t live without
If you equip yourself with these gadgets, you can make a Thai dish very quickly and easily:
Pestle and Mortar
A great pestle and mortar doesn’t have to be the most expensive, as long as it is granite. It’s sturdy, easy to clean, and lasts forever. I often use it really quickly to mince garlic and chilies, which are the base to many of my stir fry dishes. Crushing keffir lime leaves in the pestle and mortar also brings out the essential oil, which adds to the depth and flavour to the Thai curries.
Contrary to a popular belief, I don’t make my curry pastes with pestle and mortar, as it takes ages! I used to when I was younger as it was the only kitchen equipment we could afford. But now, I use mini stainless-steel food processor religiously, from blending the pastes to whipping up a quick seafood dipping sauce.
Jeremy Pang’s Round Bottom Wok is an essential piece of kit for any stir-fry and is great at conducting heat from a gas hob. The most important thing is to select a wok that’s suitable for your type of hob, and durable with non-stick surface. If it comes with a lid, that’s even better.
I invest a lot of money on a good cleaver. Gou Umanosuke Yoshihiro Chinese Cleaver is handcrafted and is guaranteed to last you a lifetime. All you need to do is keep it clean, dry, sharpen it once in a while, and you’re set.
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A bit about Saiphin aka Rosa: The story of Rosa’s Thai Café really began in a very small town called Khao Khor (it has grown a bit since I lived there) in Phetchabun province, northern Thailand. This is where I was born into a loving, simple family – I have two sisters and one brother – and where my ancestors have been farmers for generations. I believe this set the foundation for my culinary ambitions. I was surrounded by fresh, locally grown produce that I used to cook and eat from a very young age. Fast forward 30 years, and I’ve now settled down in London. One day in 2008 I was walking up Brick Lane with my husband and we stumbled across a disused old English caff in Spitalfields called Rosa’s. We fell in love with it, as it seemed like the perfect location in which to sell my food: it was a fusion of cool, authentic London and modern Bangkok. It was to be the place where Rosa’s Thai Café was born.