Our Thai Honeymoon: The Best of Thailand’s Cuisine

Okay, okay. I very sheepishly admit that I am WAY behind on blog posts…

The last few months have been monopolized by wedding planning.  However, with our nuptials behind us and a recent return from our incredible Thailand honeymoon, I am once again free to write… and what better subject than Thai food, which we got to know that much more intimately during our two weeks in the land of lemongrass, coconut, Thai basil, slow-heat chilis, and seafood?

While we stayed exclusively in Phuket, we did our best to lemon squeeze or time there, seeing and doing as much as possible in this tourist paradise.  We committed ourselves to eating Thai food almost exclusively, even though the island’s cosmopolitan malls served everything from Russian food to pizza.  My next few blog posts will highlight our experience of Thai cuisine, which we found a little different than American-Thai cuisine.

Today, I’ll focus on some common dishes and ingredients.

1) Tom Ka Gai (Coconut Chicken Soup)

If there’s one thing Thai cooks do exceedingly well, it’s soup.  The Thai folks we met seemed gracefully impervious to the country’s heat and humidity, and -to our incredulity- soups are quite popular even in the hottest weather.

Tom ka gai is a deliciously creamy and complex soup.  Being lactose intolerant, I’ve never been a big fan of creamy soups.  Coconut milk, however, allows even the lact-imally challenged to enjoy cream without the bloating and sharp stomach pain.  In addition to coconut milk, tom ka gai is made with chicken stock, fish sauce (an ingredient omnipresent in Thailand), minced chicken (Americans are a little prissy about which parts of a chicken we’ll use, but we found that authentic Thai cooking uses way more of the chicken than we’re used to, resulting in a deeper, more intense flavor), galangal (or white ginger, see Herbs & Spices section below), bruised kaffir lime leaves, bruised lemongrass, Thai chilis, tomato, mushrooms, and cilantro.  One of our favorite versions of this soup was served at our resort in a hollowed-out young coconut.  It is all things at once: hot, creamy, spicy, and a piquant, lemony clean-taste from the kaffir lime and lemongrass.

Tom Ka Gai served at our resort in hollowed out young coconuts

Creamy, delicious Tom Ka Gai


2) Tom Yam (Hot and Sour Soup)

Bar none, this soup is my favorite culinary takeaway from our trip.  It reminded me —in its variety of forms— of the Thai version of minestrone because no two places make it quite the same way.  The flavor starts with citrus, rounds out with the “meatiness” of different seafood elements, and ends with the heat of Thai chilis.

The first version we tried at our resort used nam prik pao (red chili paste) and was way too spicy for me.  (On this trip, I learned a theory that the development of spice on the palate is actually an allergic reaction.  Some have stronger reactions than others because we have different levels of allergic reaction.  Interesting idea…)  The chili paste added an intense red-orange color and some major heat.  There’s pleasant heat, and then there’s burned-mouth heat that makes everything you eat afterward taste smoky and bad.  I probably wouldn’t recreate this version in my own cooking unless I were looking to get rid of a stuffy nose during cold season.  (Let me tell ya, it would clear you out in seconds.)

Tom Yum with enough chilis floating at the top to make my mouth hurt even before tasting it

The tom yum I liked best was a much milder version we had in on Phi Phi Island.  Made without the red chili paste, it looked like a brownish clear broth.  It is made by boiling water then briefly introducing seafood long enough to cook it through (squid, white fish, prawns, etc).  The seafood is scooped out to prevent it from getting tough and chewy and then adding lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves (see Herbs & Spices section below), the juice of small limes, galangal (mild white ginger), and tomato wedges with just enough ripeness to hold their shape in cooking.  At the very end, the seafood is added back in.  The best way I can think to describe it is “hot and sour.”  The citrus part is the hardest to share. It is soothing and incredibly flavorful… like Thai comfort food.  I fell madly in love with this soup and am going to do my best to recreate and perfect it.

Mild, delicious Tom Yum on Phi Phi Island


3) Kow Neuw Moon (Coconut Milk Sticky Rice with Mango)

Oh my word.

If you haven’t tried this simple but delectable dessert, you have not lived.  I think it’s about as close to manna as mere mortals can possibly imagine.  Traditionally, the rice is soaked overnight in water and steamed on a stovetop with the rice suspended in cheesceloth over (but not in) the water.  The coconut milk is simmered separately with sugar and a pinch of salt, briefly cooled, and then spooned onto the rice.  Finally, fresh, ripe mango slices are spooned on top.

The final result is grainy, creamy, and sweet with the unique tang of mango, which is just sweet enough to make this dish perfect.  Frankly, there are a hundred other fruits I’d choose as a snack before grabbing a mango, but with the sticky rice it is a small taste of heaven.

The first sticky rice we had was at the Boathouse (separate post on this landmark Phuket restaurant to follow).  The rice was colored green, sprinkled with sesame seeds (“yum” for both flavor and added texture), and served with coconut ice cream (unnecessary).  It was molded like a cake, felt a bit like a pudding, and -although tasty- the green was a little off-putting.

Green sticky rice with coconut ice cream and fresh mango at The Boathouse

We tried the dish a second time at our resort.  It was beyond fabulous.

Coconut sticky rice with fresh mango at our resort

My plate of coconut sticky rice with mango

4) Common Herbs and Spices used in Thai Cooking

  • Sweet (Thai) Basil- has a licorice/anise taste
  • Holy Basil (Tulsi)- peppery, hot, spicy with a flavor a bit like cloves
  • Parsley
  • Kaffir Lime Leaf- This interesting fruit isn’t used in the same way as its cousin, the standard lime.  The flesh and juice of the kaffir lime are strongly acidic and not really used for cooking.  The fruit’s dark, glossy leaves have a unique, aromatic lemony flavor that seems a bit less astringent than regular lime; they are commonly used to make stocks and combine well with coconut cream.  Sometimes the rind zest is used (sparingly because of its intensity) in curries.
  • Ginger
  • Galanga- has a flavor very different from (much milder than) regular ginger
  • Turmeric– used often to give foods its yellow-orange color, has  a bitter/pungent flavor, is related to ginger
  • Garlic
  • Chili
  • Pandanus Leaf– have a flowery taste and are often used as a garnish (we got several folded into tents that housed cone-shaped portions of rice)
  • Tamarind– sweet fruit that grows in pods and tastes similar to dates
  • Bay Leaf
  • Cinnamon
  • Nutmeg
  • Cumin- aromatic and nutty, related to parsley
  • Clove
  • Lemongrass– looks like a scallion, has a sour, lemony taste
  • Fingerroot (Krachai or Chinese ginger)- a mild ginger, sometimes served pickled, has medicinal properties, used in curries and soups often with kaffir lime leaves
  • Coriander- related to parsley, the leaves of the coriander plant are cilantro, which tastes nothing like the seeds (which are fragrant with caraway/lemon/sage flavors)

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