Sweet And Spicy Flavors Of Northern Thailand

Outside the old city of Chiang Mai, Thailand, the Warorot Market was bustling with activity. It was an orchestra of sizzling satay of pork and chicken livers, the singsong melody of Thai, and steaming bowls of noodle soups. Row upon row of rainbow-colored fruit and vegetable stalls glimmered in the sun. The female vendors fanned themselves and leaned in to one another, gossiping under the brims of their straw-weaved hats. I imagined them discussing their sons and daughters, the amount of food they hoped to sell, or the weather expected that afternoon.

A market in the old city of Chiang Mai, Thailand i i

hide captionA market in the old city of Chiang Mai, Thailand

Eve Turow for NPR
A market in the old city of Chiang Mai, Thailand

A market in the old city of Chiang Mai, Thailand

Eve Turow for NPR

It was my first time at a street market in Thailand. Within minutes I was perspiring, and I could see my fair Chicago winter skin beginning to turn pink. My feet were covered in dirt from the crowded road, but even so, nothing could dampen my excitement. I leaned over each stall inspecting the bounty: speckled round vegetables, a woman taking apart a jackfruit, packaged pomelo and strawberries with chili and salt. I spent the day sampling, drinking, savoring and slurping. Every taste, it seemed, was new: The bananas were heartier, the grapes more sour, and the strawberries revealed new flavors, highlighted by the salt and chili spice.

I was lucky enough to have four weeks to learn and discover the culinary secrets and history of Thai cooking. I learned about kao soi, a noodle curry soup from northern Thailand, and my absolute favorite — spicy papaya salad. Each dish sparkled with the juxtaposition of sweet, salt, spice and acidity. The balance was perfection, each note playing off one another on my tongue, showcasing Thai mastery of the four basic tastes: sweet, salty, bitter and sour. A spicy noodle dish is soothed by the crunch and cool of fresh bean sprouts; a hearty meat soup is lightened by a spritz of lime.

The international influence on Thai cuisine is unmistakable. The integral Chinese techniques of stir-frying and frying are regularly used. The addition of chilies is attributed to trade with the Portuguese, who became devotees of spice while in South America. Curry is adapted from India, and satay from Malaysia and Indonesia. Yet, Thai cuisine maintains a taste of its own by incorporating a bundle of fresh herbs such as tamarind, lemongrass, cilantro and basil.

About The Author

Eve Turow is a native Chicagoan with a passion for cooking, eating and writing about food. You can follow Eve on her current journey through Southeast Asia on her blog.

I practiced Thai cooking during an afternoon course at Thai Kitchen Cookery in Chiang Mai. There, I was able to put a name to the flavors I had been experiencing. I discovered coconut sugar, a sticky beige paste made from the sap of the coconut palm with flavor resembling light brown sugar mixed with caramel. I cooked with galangal (Thai ginger) and tasted its fragrant bite in tom yum kung soup. We shredded green papayas for our papaya salad, using the unripened, bright green and mild-flavored fruit that beautifully absorbs the sugar, acid and spice.

Working my way through each recipe, I found myself adding similar ingredients each time: oyster sauce, fish sauce, chili, coconut sugar and lime. The elements were so basic, allowing the fresh Thai produce to shine. All of the flavors of the market come through in each dish, enhanced by the seasonings. Oyster sauce brings in a slight seafood flavor along with the salty fish sauce, but neither is used in excess.

At home in the United States, I'm often in awe of dishes conceptualized with 30 ingredients, wondering how the cook decided to put those flavors together. In Chiang Mai, though, I learned that the number of ingredients is not the key. Often, simplicity is best with fresh, unmasked ingredients.

Thai food reflects Thai life: vibrant, colorful, yet polite and easygoing. Some of the simplest experiences are best. It takes very little effort here to have a great day, or for that matter, a great meal.

Kao Soi (Noodle Curry)

A traditional northern Thai dish, kao soi became an immediate favorite of mine. Through experimenting at home, my friends and I were able to re-create the dish we fell in love with.

Kao Soi (Noodle Curry) i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Kao Soi (Noodle Curry)
Eve Turow for NPR

Makes 8 to 10 servings

3 to 4 cups oil (any oil but olive oil) for frying, plus 2 tablespoons

2 pounds fresh Chinese egg noodles

4 to 5 tablespoons red curry paste* (more paste for more spice)

2 tablespoons yellow curry powder

2 14-ounce cans coconut milk

2 1/2 pounds boneless chicken, white and dark meat, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

3 to 3 1/2 cups of water or chicken stock

5 shallots, thinly sliced

1 to 1 1/2 cups Chinese pickled mustard green, thinly sliced*

1 1/2 limes, cut into wedges (8 per lime)

1/2 cup cilantro, chopped

4 tablespoons fish sauce

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 to 3 teaspoons coconut, palm or brown sugar

*Available at Asian grocery stores or in the international aisle in supermarkets.

Heat wok on high and add 3 to 4 cups oil, depending on the size of your pan. Cut 1 pound of egg noodles into 2- to 3-inch pieces. Once oil begins to smoke, add noodles in small batches and fry until golden and crispy. Remove with hand strainer or skimmer and drain, then add the next batch. Set aside crispy noodles for garnish and clean wok.

Next, mix together the red curry paste and yellow curry powder until blended. Set aside.

Heat cleaned wok over medium-high heat and add 3/4 cup coconut milk, preferably the thicker cream from the top of the cans. Once reduced and oil begins to separate, add the curry blend and fry 2 to 4 minutes in the coconut milk until it becomes fragrant. Toss in the chicken and fry with coconut milk and curry mixture until the outside of the meat is no longer pink. Add remaining coconut milk and 3 1/2 cups water or chicken stock and bring to a boil. (Note: If you wish to make the dish less rich, swap out some of the coconut milk for water or chicken stock). Reduce heat and boil, partially covered, for about 20 minutes or until chicken is fully cooked.

Place the prepared shallots, mustard greens, limes and cilantro in condiment dishes. Set aside.

Separately, add water to pot and bring to a boil.

When the chicken is tender, add the fish sauce, soy sauce and sugar to wok. Taste, and if out of balance, add more of each ingredient as needed. Turn off heat.

Once water has reached a boil, add the remaining egg noodles and cook until desired consistency. Drain and divide evenly into each serving dish. Spoon chicken and curry over egg noodles and top with a pinch of cilantro and fried noodles. Serve with the dishes of shallots, mustard greens and limes as condiments.

Spicy Papaya Salad

This dish became my go-to dish on a hot day. It is filling and refreshing, and although many of the ingredients are hard to come by in the States, there are easy substitutes. This recipe is an adaption from the Thai Kitchen Cookery cookbook from the class I took.

Spicy Papaya Salad i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Spicy Papaya Salad
Eve Turow for NPR

Makes 1 to 2 servings

2 cups green papaya or an even mix of green apple, cucumber and carrot, peeled and grated

3 cloves garlic, peeled

2 to 4 small chilies, known as "Thai chilies" or "bird chilies"*

1/2 tablespoon coconut, palm or brown sugar

1 cup Chinese long beans or green beans cut into 1/2-inch pieces

2 small tomatoes

1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce*

2 tablespoons lime juice

2 tablespoons dry roasted peanuts, chopped

*Available at Asian grocery stores or in the international aisle in supermarkets.

Peel and grate the green papaya (or green apple, carrot and cucumber, 2/3 cup each) into thin strips. (Use a food processor if necessary.)

Peel garlic and place in mortar. (If you do not have a pestle and mortar, you can create a makeshift pestle and mortar by covering a stone with plastic wrap and using a granite or wood bowl as the mortar. If you cannot find a stone, use the back of a large spoon). Add chilies and pound with pestle, then add the sugar and beans, again pounding with the pestle, careful not to get chilies in your eyes. Add the tomatoes and gently squish to combine. Then, add the papaya or apple-cucumber-carrot mix. Add the fish sauce, lime juice and peanuts, and toss to combine. Serve alone or with sticky rice.

Pad Thai (Thai Fried Noodles)

Ingredients for making Pad Thai (Thai Fried Noodles) include diced tofu and spring onions, crushed garlic, egg and lime. i i

hide captionIngredients for making Pad Thai (Thai Fried Noodles) include diced tofu and spring onions, crushed garlic, egg and lime.

Eve Turow for NPR
Ingredients for making Pad Thai (Thai Fried Noodles) include diced tofu and spring onions, crushed garlic, egg and lime.

Ingredients for making Pad Thai (Thai Fried Noodles) include diced tofu and spring onions, crushed garlic, egg and lime.

Eve Turow for NPR

A common favorite at home and in Thailand, this dish can be made several ways. This recipe is an adaption from the Thai Kitchen Cookery cookbook.

Makes 1 to 2 servings

2 tablespoons soybean oil

4 cloves purple garlic, crushed with skin still on

4 large shrimp, cleaned and peeled

1 1/2 ounces firm tofu, cut in 1/4 inch strips

1 large egg

2 tablespoons fish sauce, plus extra for condiment

1 teaspoon white sugar, plus extra for condiment

Pad Thai (Thai Fried Noodles) i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Pad Thai (Thai Fried Noodles)
Eve Turow for NPR

1 cup warm water

5 ounces rice noodles, pre-soaked in warm water for 2 minutes

2 tablespoons ground peanuts

1 cup bean sprouts

2 spring onions, diced

1/4 lime

1/4 cup lime juice or rice vinegar

1/4 cup dried chili

Heat soybean oil in wok over medium heat. Add garlic and fry until fragrant. (If you cannot find purple garlic, use peeled common garlic). Add shrimp and fry until they turn pink, then add tofu. Crack egg into wok and immediately add fish sauce and sugar. Stir rapidly until scrambled. Once cooked, push ingredients to the side of the wok, holding in place with a spatula.

With your free hand, pour water into the wok and add the noodles, stirring until they become soft. Add the peanuts and bean sprouts, mixing everything together, releasing the mixture held to the side. Fry for another 20 seconds before adding the spring onion. Once the water has evaporated, turn the fire off and squeeze the 1/4 lime over the noodles and transfer to serving dish.

Prepare condiment dishes of fish sauce, sugar, lime juice or rice vinegar and dried chili to serve with the noodles.

Stir-Fried Chicken With Basil Leaves

A simple dish that is easy to whip up and is always a crowd pleaser. It has less intense flavors than other Thai dishes, but still uses the essential Thai basil herb and fish and oyster sauces. This recipe is an adaption from the Thai Kitchen Cookery cookbook.

Stir-Fried Chicken With Basil Leaves i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Stir-Fried Chicken With Basil Leaves
Eve Turow for NPR

Makes 2 servings

1/2 pound boneless chicken, minced into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces

1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce

2 tablespoons oyster sauce

2 teaspoons white sugar

40 leaves Thai basil*

2 tablespoons soybean oil

4 cloves purple garlic, crushed with skin still on

1 to 4 small chilies, known as "Thai chilies" or "bird chilies," minced*

*Available at Asian grocery stores or in the international aisle in supermarkets.

In a small bowl, marinate chicken with the fish sauce, oyster sauce, sugar and 10 basil leaves for at least 20 minutes.

Heat a wok over medium heat and add oil. Once heated, add the garlic (if you cannot find purple garlic, use peeled common garlic). Once the garlic is fragrant, add the marinated chicken and stir-fry until the chicken is no longer pink. Add remaining basil leaves and chilies and cook until chicken is fully cooked, about another 2 minutes. Serve hot.

Massaman Curry

Unbelievably flavorful and rich, this dish will stay in your flavor memory and keep your stomach full all day. This recipe is an adaption from the Thai Kitchen Cookery cookbook.

Massaman Curry i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Massaman Curry
Eve Turow for NPR

Makes 2 servings

1 tablespoon soybean oil

1 heaping tablespoon Massaman curry paste*

1/2 pound boneless chicken, cut into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces

2 small or 1 large potato(es) cut into small cubes

1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced

1/2 cup thick coconut cream*

1 teaspoon salt

1 to 2 cups coconut milk

1 1/2 tablespoons coconut, palm or brown sugar

5 tablespoons dry roasted peanuts, chopped

1 tablespoon fish sauce

2 to 3 tablespoons lime juice

*Available at Asian grocery stores or in the international aisle in supermarkets.

Place 1 tablespoon of oil into the wok and turn the gas to low. Add the curry paste and fry until fragrant. Add the chicken, potatoes and onions, frying for 1 minute. Pour in the coconut cream and salt, stirring for another minute. Add the coconut milk, sugar, peanuts and fish sauce, and bring the fire up to medium. Stir until boiling and let simmer 20 to 30 minutes, until potatoes are cooked. Finish with lime juice. Serve with steamed rice or naan.

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