Since you’re reading this article, I’ll assume you’re a fan of Thai food and, chances are, you either don’t cook it enough or you want to know how to improve.
And there’s always room for improvement.
Think back to the last time you had Thai food that blew your mind. You could probably make something just as good if you thought hard about the flavors that made it tasty in the first place.
At its core, Thai food is fusion cooking that uses techniques and flavors from several of its bordering nations. Although it’s ridiculously diverse and complex, that doesn’t mean it has to be complicated or intimidating.
In its simplest form, the success of a Thai dish rests upon its balance of flavors — no more complicated than understanding the Thai flavor profile and adapting to your taste.
Understanding the flavor profile
There are five fundamental flavors in Thai cooking: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and spicy — sitting on top to bring it all together.
- Sweet from sugar, most commonly palm sugar.
- Salty from fish sauce and soy sauce.
- Sour from tamarind, lime juice, or bitter orange juice.
- Bitter from roasted rice grains, bile, and vegetables like Thai eggplant.
- And spicy from just about any chile.
All of these components are important in their own right, but when they’re married together they create a big, bold flavor.
You’ll notice that a spicy dish will normally have a strong backbone of sweet and/or sour to balance it out. A Thai dish is never just spicy as fuck with no balance.
It’s worth noting that not all Thai dishes highlight all of the flavors. Some may feature just two or three, and you shouldn’t challenge yourself to try to incorporate all five in every dish. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about dishes being well-rounded, and sometimes you only need two or three to achieve that.
Not to mention that kids gotta eat, too. For that reason, there’s an entire repertoire of dishes that don’t have any spice factor.
Interestingly, the bitter flavor is less common; you’ll encounter it more in northern Thai food. In fact, northern Thais are quite fond of eating a raw meat salad, laab, and seasoning it with pia — cow’s bile with partially digested rice stalks.
Two dishes that exemplify the harmony of Thai flavors are the ubiquitous pad Thai and Massaman curry.
According to the Khaaek tradition, a good Massaman curry hits you with a sour-leading sweetness first, which mellows out into well-rounded spiciness and a somewhat cooling sensation in your throat. Massaman curry may be one of the best examples of balanced flavors in Thai cooking as it features 20-plus ingredients — most of which make up the curry paste and masala.
Each flavor adds an important level of complexity to the dish and they balance each other out.
I’m going to assume you’ve eaten pad Thai before and that you enjoyed it. Think back to the last one that blew your mind. Really think about it.
What was so good about it?…
You’ll probably find the answers to that question are more obvious than you thought.
A good pad Thai hits three flavors in a very obvious fashion — sweet, salty, and sour.
- Sweet from palm sugar.
- Salty from fish sauce.
- Sour from tamarind.
It’s usually balanced out with a little spice, but not too much. Bitterness doesn’t make an appearance here, yet Pad Thai remains a deliciously well-rounded dish.
Taste, taste, taste
When cooking Thai food, you cook by taste. You taste everything and then you taste it again. You just added a tablespoon of fish sauce? Good, now taste it again.
Are you catching my drift?
Your food isn’t going to magically taste great at the table. Don’t wait until you sit down to realize that your sour curry isn’t all that sour. You have time to taste and correct flavors as you cook.
The more you taste, the more you’ll know and understand the flavors of good Thai food that makes you question your existence.
Building a better habit of tasting as you cook will also help you improvise on the fly and cook dishes around your palate. Because at the end of the day, it’s your call what goes into your food.
Not only has cooking Thai food opened my eyes to different flavors and ingredients, but it’s also taught me to slow down for a moment, taste, and appreciate my food.
But more importantly, cooking Thai food has taught me how to be more confident in myself when I’m cooking.
You’ll always cook better food when you feel confident and that confidence comes with tasting everything.
Before you cook your next Thai dish, take a second to think about what flavors are in the dish, what flavors you want, and then…
Taste, taste, taste.