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The Thai Revolution : Regional Cuisine: Turning Up the Heat

July 22, 1993|NANCIE McDERMOTT | McDermott is a Southern California cooking teacher and author of "Real Thai" (Chronicle Books; $9.95)

I went to Thailand in 1975, one of 30 greenhorn Peace Corps volunteers assigned to teach high school English. During our first three months in Thailand, we underwent an intensive training program devoted primarily to language classes and practice teaching. Learning to love Thai food was not on our schedule, but sooner or later most of us did, since the food is extraordinary and the pleasures of cooking and eating are the heart of Thai life.

Had I set out to learn about Thai cuisine and its regional distinctions, I couldn't have had better luck in terms of the places I stayed in. We spent the first six weeks in the central Thai city of Nakorn Sawan, the next six in the northern Thai provincial capital of Chiang Rai. I was then assigned to teach seventh-grade English in Thatoom, a small town in Surin province, located in the northeastern region known as Pahk Isaan. After two years of country life, I extended my stay for a third year, moving to Bangkok where I shared an apartment with other volunteers and taught English conversation and freshman composition at a university.

I returned to the kingdom in March of 1989 to research regional Thai cooking. It was my dream assignment: eating, talking, visiting, writing, cooking, poking around in kitchens and exploring markets, taking trains and back roads whenever I could.

During my three months of research, I began to see clearly what sets the regions apart and what weaves them together into a whole that is distinctly Thai.

Central Thailand

The kitchens of central Thailand and Bangkok are the culinary source for the majority of Thai restaurants outside Thailand. Not only is the food of the Thai heartland the best-known and broadest in appeal, a majority of the Thai immigrants who open and patronize restaurants abroad come from the prosperous central plains.

This vibrant, evolving cuisine reflects the wealth of the region, blessed as it is with a climate, terrain and infrastructure suited to developing a strong economy. Agriculture and industry thrive there, and the combination of general prosperity and access to new ideas has fueled culinary fires as well. Central Thailand is the source of palace-style cuisine, developed over generations by trained chefs with limitless access to the freshest and finest local ingredients, exotic imported foods and ideas, and plenty of time and helping hands to aid in preparing and presenting exquisite dishes to delight as well as sustain their patrons.

Western cooks draw a firm line between sweet and savory foods, but throughout Asia, sweetness dances right along with salty, sour and chile-hot flavors. In central Thai kitchens, sweetness often moves from the chorus to center stage. Other hallmarks include a lavish use of coconut milk, meats and seafood; variety in texture and cooking method, as well as ingredients of dishes within a given meal, and attention to refined, colorful presentations. The two classic Thai soups, tome kha gai (chicken-coconut soup with galanga root) and tome yum goong (fiery shrimp and lemon grass soup), are central Thai signature dishes.

Classic palace-style dishes in the central Thai repertoire include mee krob, a glorious crispy tangle of thread-thin dried rice noodles, deep-fried until they puff up, tossed in a tangy, sweet-sour-salty sauce and garnished with pickled garlic, lacy egg nets, scallion brushes and red chile flowers; and khanome jeen nahm prik, a mild, sweet shrimp curry served with rice noodle nests, a platter of crudites expertly carved into fanciful shapes, fragrant herbs and purple-tinged banana flowers.

But the quintessential palace-style dish is kao chae (basically cooked rice served in ice water), an antidote to the ferocious temperatures at the height of Thailand's hot season. It originated in the royal palace kitchens more than a century ago, when ice was precious, an exotic import along the lines of today's truffles and caviar. In kao chae , the ice water is scented with rose petals and jasmine, and the dish is accompanied by an elaborate array of condiments providing the traditional contrasting flavors Thais adore: banana peppers and shallots stuffed with seasoned minced pork and wrapped in lacy egg nets; crisp-fried quenelles of grilled salted fish, shrimp paste and toasted coconut; shredded salty-sweet beef jerky and preserved daikon scrambled with egg.

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