Pad Kra Prao Thalay, stir-fried seafood and basil - Prae Songprasit, Flickr
Thai cuisine has become such a huge part of Australian food culture in recent years that it’s hard to imagine walking down a street without seeing at least one Thai restaurant.
Once you’ve gone Thai-hopping and tried a few different places, you’ll likely have realised that no two Thai restaurants carry the same recipe. One restaurant might make their Pad Thai sweeter, another might have a saltier flavour. They might even have different ingredients.
The reason for this is very simple. Cooking Thai cuisine is heavily dependent on personal taste, and on the chef’s palate. Unlike Western cooking, Thai food is traditionally learned through observing, experience, and trial-and-error, rather than by recipes and exact measurements.
Tom Yum Goong - Matt_Weibo, Flickr
It is very much a personal learning process, the opposite of the formal education preferred by Western cultures. As such, no two recipes are the same — chefs will frequently add new ingredients to give their dish a unique edge, or prepare them differently to suit their own needs.
But at the heart of Thai cuisine lies five fundamental tastes: bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and spicy.
Cooking Thai food is a game of balance. You can create unique and exciting flavours by combining a number of the five fundamentals; the trick is to find the perfect balance between them. This is where experience and personal taste plays the biggest part. What may seem perfect to one chef, may not to another, and each one will adjust and readjust until they strike optimal balance.
Condiments to accompany Thai food - Sheri Wetherell, Flickr
Kasma Loha-unchit, author of Best International Cookbook of 1995, It Rains Fishes, discusses the importance of personal taste and experience in Thai cooking on her blog:
“In my book as well as my classes, I caution people against blindly following recipes, simply because depending on where you are cooking Thai food (in Thailand or a western country), you may need to make variations and substitutions in order to duplicate true Thai flavors,” she says.
“The same ingredients grown in different locales around the world can vary quite a bit, such that if you follow even a very authentic recipe verbatim, you may end up with a result that is way off. It is better that you rely on your intuition and senses (taste, smell, sight, etc.) to guide you.”
Bangkok street food - mattmangum, Flickr
No matter how subtle or obvious the difference in taste, the flavours of Thai cuisine are distinct and unmistakable. It emphasises the importance of fresh herbs and spices, including garlic, lemon grass, kaffir lime, chilli, and peppers; and often features seafood as a central ingredient. If you ever get a chance to wander the streets of Bangkok, be sure to explore the renowned street food capital of the world.
But for something a little closer to home in the meantime, the annual Thai Culture and Food Festival returns to Melbourne on Sunday, 15 March 2015. There will be performances, a special Buddhist ceremony, cooking demonstrations, and most importantly, food stalls, where you can get a true Thai experience right here in Australia.