Cuisine Sprint #1: Thai Food

I get a lot of emails that go something like this: “How do I get better at cooking in different styles, with unfamiliar flavors, or new ingredients?” Or like this: “Bored! Help!!” Or, “In a rut. What should I do?”

These are all various expressions of a feeling that you may know well: We have comfort zones in the kitchen, cooking grooves (right: ruts) that are easy to slide into and harder to get out of. (You know also that this is not just about cooking. Think about the ruts in your way of thinking and acting. And let’s not go there!)

We have go-to dishes that we fall back on, especially when time is short, and before we know it we realize we’ve eaten slightly modified versions of the same five things for months—or years! To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with this. Cooking regularly is an achievement, even if it’s not as varied as we’d like it to be. But sometimes all you want is a little shock to the system.

There’s a careful, kind of intellectual approach to expanding your culinary horizons: read about a new cuisine, study it a bit, dip your toes in slowly, buy a strange ingredient or two, try a recipe, reflect, repeat. Then there is reckless abandon: Pick a kind of food you’ve never cooked, or that you’d like to cook more of, and make a handful of those dishes over the course of a few days or weeks. The latter approach, my personal preference, is what I’m calling a “cuisine sprint.” (I coined that phrase yesterday. It’s a working title. Taking suggestions.) What tends to happen when you immerse yourself in a single cuisine for a small stretch is that you poke beneath the surface of the most obvious, iconic dishes, your pantry and fridge fill up with all sorts of ingredients that weren’t there before, and you blast yourself out of that rut. That’s the hope, at least.

So, consider this the first installment of the “cuisine sprint” series, occasional newsletters devoted entirely to the recipes of a particular type of cuisine. First up: Thai food. Why? Three reasons: 1) I remembered this Minimalist piece I wrote (20 years ago, yikes) called The Essence of Thai Cooking, which I thought would be fun to unearth. 2) Winter cooking can be lacking in bright, pungent flavors (especially around the holidays), and Thai food has those in spades (lemongrass, galangal, lime leaves, fish sauce—and those are just the beginning). 3) It’s incredible.

There are a handful of recipes here to explore, including four in that article (click here): Lemongrass-Ginger Soup with Mushrooms, Stewed Spicy Chicken with Lemongrass and Lime, Rice Noodles with Basil, and Shrimp in Yellow Curry. Some are ubiquitous (like Pad Thai), some are staples (like Sticky Rice), and some are downright exotic (like the world’s greatest Chile Jam). Of course, you don’t have to cook six Thai dishes over the weekend to make this project worthwhile (the “sprint” thing just fits my semi-obsessive personality). Go fast, go slow, whatever works. Mess around with some new ingredients, combinations, and techniques and see what you like—who knows, maybe you’ll even find a dish to slot into your weekly repertoire. Whatever happens, have a wonderful weekend.

— Mark


Ian Allen for the New York Times

This is not your grandmother’s jam. Unless, that is, your grandmother is from Thailand. I learned this recipe from Bangkok-born food-blogger/jam-maker/restaurateur Pim Techamuanvivit, and have been making it at home ever since. I’m not kidding when I say this is unlike any other jam you’ve ever had (even other chile versions that tend to use fresh peppers and too much sugar). This one hits on all cylinders: it’s spicy (dried chiles), salty (fish sauce), sour (tamarind paste), and sweet (palm sugar), and deep with the flavor of golden-fried garlic and shallots.

NAM PRIK PAO


This fiery, strong northern Thai specialty (if it’s made correctly, you will really reek after eating it, but it’s so worth it) has become one of the most popular dishes in Thailand and at Thai restaurants in the States. When I was in Bangkok, I could not walk down the streets or through the markets without at least a dozen offers of Som Tum from the vendors, and it was hard not to stop for a little dish with some grilled meat and sticky rice. You can usually find green, or unripe, papayas and yard-long beans (and the Thai fish sauce called nam pla) at Asian or Latin groceries, but you can also substitute Granny Smith apples for the papaya and Napa cabbage for the beans.

SOM TUM


Evan Sung for the New York Times

Totally ubiquitous (and often underwhelming) in Thai restaurants, Pad Thai is a near universal crowd-pleaser that most of us don’t bother to make at home. The biggest hurdle (and it’s really just a matter of going shopping) is collecting the ingredients that you probably don’t have on hand, like rice stick noodles and tamarind paste. Beyond that, it’s just a simple stir-fry that requires little more than chopping and stirring (and you don’t even have to boil the noodles; you just soak them in hot water). (Here's a video of how it's made.)

PAD THAI



Served throughout China and Southeast Asia, sticky rice has become associated most closely with Thailand, where it is the equivalent of France’s bread, eaten at almost every meal. It’s addictive and easily made at home, as long as you plan ahead a bit. Sticky rice is one of the few grains—indeed, foods—that can be prepared without salt and still taste great.

PAD THAI


Please excuse the overly artistic photo.

This barely counts as a recipe: fish sauce, lime, and sugar mixed together into a concoction that you could serve with almost anything (as a sauce for cooked meats, poultry and fish, tossed with roasted vegetables, as a salad dressing—the list is basically endless). Add some grated garlic and minced chile if you want to ratchet up the flavor a bit.

SWEET NAM PLA DIPPING SAUCE


Talk To Me, Goose!

Questions, comments, brilliant suggestions? Just want to share the recipe for your grandma's potato salad, or your mom's meatloaf, or your uncle Drew's three-day 100-percent rye loaf (yes, please)? Don't hesitate to reach out anytime.