Several decades ago, I was introduced to Thai cuisine by a work associate whose family lived there for a period of time during her childhood. She invited me for a meal at her home where she prepared dishes like chicken satay, laab, and aromatic soup graced with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. I had eaten a lot of good food but never had my palate been so surprised and excited. It was that day that I knew I had to add foods of Southeast Asia to my repertoire. I began to read everything I could get my hands on that referenced the cuisine of this region and began my search for restaurants where I could taste as many dishes as possible from this exotic and very foreign (to me) area of the world. I had a huge hunger for knowledge that needed to be fed. Back then the availability of such eating establishments and cookbooks was minimal and remember, this was pre-internet or the dark ages as some of my younger readers may think.
Every type of food be it Italian, Indian, Thai or any other, has a palate of herbs and spices that create the distinct flavors present in their cuisine. With this in mind, I began querying restaurant staff about the new tastes I was experiencing on my quest and what in particular was added to achieve this flavor. Given we were often confronting language barriers this method of research did not prove all that helpful. So after much eating and reading and questioning anyone who might know, I began to understand the components that go into the flavor profile of Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet. To keep it simple and brief, I will say this: Hot=chilies, Sour=citrus (in the form of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and limes), Salty=fish sauce (we will talk more about that in a minute), Sweet=palm sugar. Yes, I am oversimplifying but these are basic components and if you stock your pantry with these items you too will be able to produce dishes from this region. If you check out recipes you will see these essential ingredients repeatedly.
OK, that said, I must just touch on the subject of fish sauce. As I talk to my students during class this seems to be the most intimidating ingredient of all. What is it? Well let me say this is not particularly sexy, but it is fermented anchovies. What? You heard me right. Do not be afraid. You can substitute lemon for lemongrass or lime for Kaffir lime leaves but, if you want authentic tasting dishes, you must use fish sauce. If you have eaten Thai or Vietnamese foods, you have already consumed it so move on. It is readily available in Asian Markets or in most local grocery stores in the ethnic section. Do not leave it out!
Recently, one of my fellow bloggers, Chef Sally Jane, gave a shout out for a Thai inspired recipe that was shared by Bon Appetit that has become one of her favorite quick go-to meals. I tried it and know it will become one of my go-to’s as well. If you have never cooked Thai before, this would be a good recipe to start you on your way.
Here’s the deal.
THAI BEEF w/ BASIL Serves 4
Recipe by Dawn Perry, courtesy of Bon Appetit
Basil is wilted like a leafy green in this stir-fry, then added raw at the end for a double dose of its aromatic flavor.
2 T vegetable oil, divided (I use grape seed oil)
6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 red chilies, thinly sliced, seeded for less heat is desired, divided
1 lb. ground beef
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper (I use sea salt)
½ c low sodium chicken stock
3c fresh basil, divided
2 medium carrots, julienned or coarsely grated
2 scallions, thinly sliced
2T reduced sodium soy sauce (I use Tamari)
1T fish sauce (such as, nam pla or nuoc nam)
Steamed rice and lime wedges for serving (I use Jasmine rice)
- Heat 1T of the oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add the garlic and 1 chile and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
- Add the beef, season with salt and pepper, breaking up with a spoon and pressing down firmly to help brown, until cooked through and nicely crisped in spots, 8-10 minutes.
- Add stock and 2c basil and cook, stirring, until basil is wilted, about 2 minutes.
- Make a slaw by tossing the carrots, scallions, 1T of lime juice, remaining chile, 1c basil leaves and 1T of oil in a bowl. Set aside.
- Make a dressing by mixing soy sauce, fish sauce, sugar and remaining 3T of lime juice in a small bowl and whisk until sugar is dissolved. Set aside.
- To serve, top rice with beef and then slaw. Drizzle with the dressing. Serve with lime wedges to squeeze over top.
This is an adaptation of a beef stir-fry most likely found in Northern Thailand as that cuisine relies heavily on beef, water buffalo and pork and flavors tend to the hot and sour far from the sweet coconut-milk richness of Bangkok. Thai cooking is a balancing act juggling the flavor profile listed above. You can adjust the heat, saltiness, sweetness or sourness by adding more or less of those ingredients. Fresh raw vegetables and herbs are used in abundance as well for balance. They are used not only for their taste which is alive and vibrant but also for their texture and color. It is all about balance, friends. You can do it!
I want to thank Chef Sally Jane for sharing this delicious recipe that is spicy, bright, tart, colorful and full of exciting textures and layers of flavor. Sharing recipes gives them a long life with years of satisfaction for anyone lucky enough to try them. So I will leave on this note. If you have a favorite recipe (even a so-called secret family one) do not keep it to yourself. Let it live a full life! Share it today and spread the love, one dish at a time.