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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Tantalizing Thai flavors

 •  Try your hand at Thai with salads and chili chicken

By Mary Altier
Special to The Advertiser

Green papaya salad begins with bruising ingredients using a mortar and pestle.

Photos by MARY ALTIER | Special to The Advertiser

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All the essential ingredients for Thai cooking are available in the Islands, with O'ahu especially well-supplied. Larger grocery stores generally stock fish sauce, dried shrimp, coconut milk, Thai curry paste, cilantro, green onions and lemongrass. Try farmer's markets for holy basil, chilies, kaffir lime leaves and other Southeast Asian produce. Chinatown shops and such outlets as the Asian Grocery on Beretania Street stock all other ingredients, plus the large stone mortars and pestles that are essential to making Thai seasoning pastes.


Reach the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School at www.thai cookeryschool.com; write to nabnian@loxinfo.co.th.

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Som Tam Thai, Thai-style green papaya salad, is refreshing, spicy, aromatic.

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Clockwise from the top: galangal, kaffir lime leaves, Thai chilies, lemon grass, lime.

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Sompon Nabnian, co-owner of Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School in Thailand, instructs a pair of visiting Australian cooking students.

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One steamy April evening, I was having dinner with friends at a riverside restaurant in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Over lemon fish, fresh asparagus with shrimp in oyster sauce, and Panang curry, I told my American friend Susan and her Thai husband Sayan that I would like to learn to cook good Thai food at home. Sayan, who has been a monk and resort chef, and now fishes off the coast of southern Thailand's Koh Lanta in a traditional long boat, agreed to let me observe him prepare dinner for us at our rented apartment the next evening.

When Sayan arrived, he was loaded down with plastic bags filled with little boxes of fresh coconut milk, cans of Panang curry paste, jasmine rice, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. Once he found a wok and two lidded pans, he began chopping ingredients and cooking on the two-burner hot plate. It seemed remarkable that Sayan could put together several dishes with so little equipment. Not so, said Susan, who had seen many Thai women crank out eight-dish meals with even fewer tools, sometimes on one-burner stoves. After preparing one dish, they set it aside and quickly prepare another. Sayan completed the meal in about an hour. The chicken with vegetables and the stir-fried lotus stems were excellent, but it was the Panang curry that motivated me to reacquaint myself with Thai cooking after I returned home to California.

During my first visit to Thailand 17 years ago, I fell in love with Thai cuisine. At that time, I bought a little book called "Step Into a Culinary World With Thai Cooking" by Jennifer Brennan.

Brennan, an Englishwoman who lived in Bangkok for several years, describes it as "a cuisine that appeals to all of the senses." She says Thai food is a separate cuisine and not merely a regional adaptation of Chinese, though T'ai tribes began their migration south to what is now Thailand from the mountain valleys of southern China about 2,000 years ago. Stir-frying and the dominance of fish and noodles are three of the legacies of China.

In fact, the Chinese were just one of the groups to have affected Thai cuisine.

Muslim influence came with Arab traders who may have brought satay, the little skewers of barbecued meat. Muslim immigrants probably introduced gaeng Mussaman (Muslim curry), and Indian curries diluted with coconut milk most likely are the basis of Thai curries. Brennan says that as early as 1238, when the Thai kingdom of Sukhothai was founded, people were eating fish and rice with sauces of ginger, garlic and peppercorns. Food was prepared as it is today, with mortars and pestles, coconut shredders to make coconut milk, and rice pots. About 300 years later, the chili pepper made its way from the Americas to Thailand, where it had a tremendous impact.

These influences combine to form Thailand's complex cuisine, a tribute to the Thais' ability "to absorb foreign influences and translate them into something uniquely Thai," as Brennan says.

It was this very complexity that had intimidated me in my earlier attempts at Thai cooking. Preparing a multidish Thai meal had seemed difficult, and I was never sure the results were worth the effort.

I wanted Thai food to become part of my repertoire of normal recipes, not just dishes that I labored over for days when I have company coming for dinner.

For expert advice on how to make that happen, I went to talk to Sompon Nabnian of the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School. Sompon, a welcoming and easygoing guy, hosted a BBC series on Thai cooking. Fresh and authentic ingredients are very important, he told me as we sat in his tropical garden. I watched as his class of 12 foreigners, including two Australian teens, whipped up six great-tasting dishes in the course of the afternoon. If they could do it, so could I.

Back in California and anxious to get started, I planned a trip to a nearby Asian market. I soon realized, however, that navigating the store aisles filled with jars and cans of unidentified foods from all over Asia was going to be a daunting experience. Help came in the form of Jeerawan Srisathorn, a vivacious young woman who gives Thai cooking lessons in my area.

She offered to go with me to a specialty grocery store, where we selected the staples of a Thai pantry. The pungent fish sauce, thick and rich coconut milk, palm sugar, and little cans of aromatic curries all came from Thailand. I learned that the chili powder and sticky rice should also be Thai, but dried shrimp and chicken broth cubes can come from anywhere.

Besides these staple ingredients, I bought fresh ones, such as lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and red Thai chilies, which can be used interchangeably with green ones. I selected a green papaya, bunches of holy and sweet basil, limes, coriander root, green onions and cilantro (Chinese parsley, the coriander plant).

That night, I began cooking with Srisathorn's and Nabnian's recipes and their relaxed philosophy as my guide. I used my little blue plastic grater on the green papaya, which I put into my new crude earthenware mortar, then mashed with a thick wooden pestle. The hot, salty, sour blend of flavors in the green papaya salad was so authentic that I was inspired to take Srisathorn's advice on how to enjoy Thai food as the Thais do: Invite friends for dinner and make a party out of it.

Making vegetable soup, spicy beef salad, Panang curry, basil chicken and jasmine rice for my husband and friends turned out to be easier than I thought. When I got frustrated or confused, I remembered my experience in Thailand: how relaxed Sayan and Nabnian were as they had effortlessly put together exquisite meals. And I thought about Srisathorn's final words the day she took me shopping: Cooking and eating should always be fun, or as they say in Thailand, sanuk.

Mary Altier is a California-based freelance writer and photographer.