Last Updated on April 21, 2018 by
Oh, Thai cuisine: complexity in flavor, simplicity in process. The flavors are so vast and so varied that the thought of cooking something so rich, so in-the-mouth dazzling is daunting, to some insurmountable.
It doesn't need to be.
To help us get over this hump, beyond this seeming contradiction, a video. The main character in today's episode of “you can do it, too,” is Dao. She runs a humble little kitchen on the island of Koh Pha Ngan in the Gulf of Thailand and she cooks up a storm — a storm so perfect that we asked her if she would be kind enough to let us film her working her kitchen magic. She agreed.
As you watch the video, you may also recognize Dao as the savior from a recent post about people — some sour, some sweet. She was the sweet one — and, Like Water for Chocolate, her sweetness continually found its way into her cooking.
Together with Dao, you'll learn how to make two of our favorite Thai dishes: Panang Seafood Curry, and Pla Muk Gra Pow (chili-basil squid stir-fry). Before we roll the video, a little secret: if you can get your hands on a few of the key ingredients (becoming more accessible by the day), the rest of this Thai cooking thing becomes easy. Sense the flow and surrender your need for kitchen precision and you will begin to unlock the beauty that is Thai cuisine.
Watch the Video: Into the Kitchen with Dao
Recipes for Two Thai Classic Dishes
Forgive us for the imprecision in the recipes below, but we drafted these from watching Dao at work. As you see in the video, she doesn't measure anything. The idea is to experiment with small amounts until you arrive at the perfect combination.
Dao's Panang Curry
- Heat a bit of vegetable oil in a frying pan or wok.
- When the oil is hot, add a spoonful of panang curry paste and a smaller dab of shrimp paste (you can find each of these in little tubs in Asian food stores in the U.S.)
- Heat the pastes for a minute or so until their essence is released. (Mind it so it doesn't burn.)
- Add the coconut milk. Start with a small portion, you can add more later to taste and thickness. Stir. Let the mixture simmer and bubble for a few minutes.
- Add your meat (in this case seafood — or you can use chicken, pork, beef etc.) and stir evenly for a few minutes until the meat is cooked through.
- Add a teaspoon of palm sugar (substitute brown/raw sugar) and a dash of salt (we tend to use fish sauce instead of salt).
- If you'd like more sauce, add a bit more coconut milk.
- Add vegetables (baby corn, non-spicy red pepper) and thinly scissor-sliced kaffir lime leaves (the magic ingredient!).
- Add a little water if mixture is too thick, or if the pan is too dry.
- Cook and turn for a few more minutes until everything is cooked through.
Dao's Chili Basil Squid Stir-Fry
- Heat a bit of vegetable oil in a frying pan or wok.
- When hot, add finely chopped garlic and hot chili peppers (the small, deadly kind). Note: if small and deadly isn't your thing, cut the amount of peppers back, remove the seeds, or skip the peppers altogether (no fun!).
- Add the chopped squid (or chicken, fish, shrimp, or pork if you like) and stir fry for several minutes until the meat is cooked through.
- Add a few dashes of soy sauce and a small sweet onion and pepper cut into thin strips.
- Add a teaspoon of palm sugar (again, substitute a little brown/raw sugar) and a dash of salt.
- Sprinkle a little oyster sauce (teaspoon or two) into the mixture.
- Stir well and let cook for a few minutes.
- Add a bunch of Thai basil (or holy basil). This stuff is truly amazing.
- If necessary, add a bit of water during the cooking process to prevent sticking and to thin the sauce.
Serve both dishes over your favorite plain white rice (we recommend jasmine rice) and enjoy.
A Note on Eating Well in Tourist Areas
Late last year when we retreated to Haad Yao beach on the northern side of Koh Pha Ngan in the Gulf of Thailand for a return visit, we noticed that the area had seen even more development since our previous visit in 2007. At first we were disappointed by the Thai food options. Many restaurants muted their dishes in spice and flavor in favor of what they believe foreigners prefer. Then we found Dao at her little road-side restaurant with a simple chalkboard menu of classic Thai dishes. We chatted, asked questions. She was up for making just about anything.
This was easily some of the best, high-value Thai food around. Each dish cost 60 BHT ($2).
We ate at Dao's almost every day (we don't even know the name of her restaurant, if it even has one) and never tired of her cooking. If you visit and show some interest, she'll even make off-menu dishes from Isan, the area in northern Thailand where she comes from originally. Her fish larb with sticky rice was fabulous.
Next Thai Cooking Challenge
We're on Koh Samui (the island next door to Koh Pha Ngan) for a few more days and one of our friends has offered to take us into her kitchen to learn how to cook some more Thai food.
Which Thai dishes would you like to learn how to make?
26 thoughts on “Two Thai Classics, Six Minutes: A Video Recipe from an Island Kitchen”
Oh how you make my mouth water!! And what a lovely woman to welcome you into her kitchen! A truly great experience!
YUM!! We’re having our first solo attempt at cooking Pad Thai tonight, in Italy, where it is NOT easy to find ANY of the ingredients! If it goes over well, we’ll add these recipes for our next adventure!!
Love, love, love to cook and eat thai food and always looking for new recipes to try. These look delicious!
Panang curry is one of the few dishes that both Jack and I agree we can both live on for the rest of our lives 🙂 It’s soooo good. All of the coconut milk. Yum.
These look amazing. I am going to give them a try, but make them vegetarian. Thanks!
When we took our Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai, our instructor recommended that we remember the three-two-one approach: three tablespoons of soy sauce/fish sauce, two tablespoons of shitake sauce/oyster sauce, and one teaspoon of sugar. We seasoned every Thai dish with those three and I thought they really worked perfectly. Love these pictures!
Fun video, Thai food is my favourite. We still have yet to take a Thai cooking course in Thailand but it looks like a lot of fun. We did take one in China (our first cooking course ever) and had a blast. Maybe we’ll do one before we leave the country. You’ve inspired us:)
I’m going to have Shanti (our amazing cook) watch this video and try her hand at them.
Wow, my husband and I love Thai food. I would like to try these recipes. Our neighborhood Thai restaurant is good but you can not compare the food to the one in Thailand.
Thanks for sharing these mouth watering dishes. That shrimp paste is delicious in small amounts in dishes. It adds a whole other dimension to the dish. Yum!
Yum, I am looking forward to trying this! I love to cook and Thai food is one of my favorites. I would say that I like anything with Thai peanut sauce on it. I will have to exercise a lot when I go to Thailand with all the delicious cheap food. 🙂
@Annie: How did it go?
@Pete: Glad we could be of help!
@Margaret: It was, and she was.
@Jill: Panang is beautiful. It’s what launched our love affair with the kaffir lime leaf.
@NVR: I’m sure these can be pulled off vegetarian, so long as one’s vegetarianism is not strict, because some of those flavors come from the likes of fish sauce and shrimp paste.
@Akila: I love it. Three, two, one. Even though I’ve made Thai food over a hundred times, I’m all over the place with my sauces. So this is great rule of thumb. Thanks!
@Dave and Deb: Like Akila, our love affair with Thai food (and cooking it) began in Chiang Mai during our first visit in 2004. I remember returning home (to Prague at that time) with a giant Chinese market bag full of ingredients. Cooking classes rock. Do it!
@Ruth: Neighborhood Thai restaurants can often skimp on the flavor and sauces — that’s usually the problem I find. If you seek out the herbs (the Thai basil, kaffir lime leaf) and copious use of a good paste, you can come pretty close.
@naomi: Nice. Am definitely looking forward to hearing about the results!
@Anthony: Shrimp paste. On one level, the concept is appalling. But the flavor is crucial, for sure.
@Jennifer: The nice thing about Thai food (particularly on the street) is that the portions tend to be small and don’t include large heaps of meat. That definitely helps with intake and portion control.
If you like Thai peanut sauce, I’m guessing you are a big fan of satay?
I am sooo bookmarking this! Thai food is my kryptonite.
@Lola: Some of the tastiest Kryptonite around.
hi everyone!, I’m new on here and looking forward to being a part of the group!
I also wish you could have recorded the smell. That looks incredible, and makes me want to work some of that magic when I get back to Santiago. I’ll have to use some dried ingredients, esp. the lime leaves, but I’ll bet I can whip something up. Looking forward to it, and of course, one day getting to Thailand!
@Eileen: Dried lime leaves (try to get them frozen or keep them in the freezer to keep them fresh) are OK, if that’s all you have. In that case, some fresh Thai basil is going to be important. Am looking forward to hearing (seeing? smelling?) the results of your working your own Thai magic.
By the way, I’m pulling for you to get to Thailand, sooner rather than later.
It is true what you say: after you get the ingredients cooking Thai food is easy. When non-Thai people first try it they usually have difficulty because they think the flavors take time and hard effort to develop, but actually the ingredients are they key as they contain all the flavors without lengthy or critical cooking techniques. It is more of an art than rocket science. Your video and photos are beautiful.
@Lek: Thank you for the compliment — glad you enjoyed the photos and video. For sure, Thai food is not the mystery that people think it is. We should be thankful for inventive Thai cooks and experimenters figuring out the best flavor combinations over the centuries. True: Thai cuisine is more art than rocket science. I love that.
Some good recipes here…
Good, zingy and authentic Thai food is one of our obsessions! Hailing from the rice paddies of the rural northeast of Thailand (in Udon Thani province), our local cuisine is that of this region, known as Isan. Specialties here include fresh and spicy Laap salads with fresh herbs, green papaya salad, the region’s famous grilled marinated chicken…as well as other dishes reserved for the more adventurous such as ant eggs, fried crickets or wok-stirred bugs. Do try to head up here and try Isan cuisine: we’d be delighted to show you how it’s made!
@Bongkot: Zippy Thai food is definitely one of our obsessions, too. I love the style of heat. (I say “style” because not all heat is delivered the same.)
Absolutely love laap. In fact, the woman in this video is from the Isan region. She made all kinds of laap and sticky rice for us. Man, she was so sweet and happy and her food was astoundingly good. I’m getting hungry just writing this.
Now ant eggs — that sounds very interesting. And very small. Bugs and crickets — I’ve done those before, but my interest in going back is a little limited.
Thanks for the invitation!
Once I had original Thai food from a simple Thai kitchen, there was no going back. The complexity of flavor and care of preparation is unmatched. I’m ruined for westernized “Thai” restaurant food forever. Thank you for this lovely post.
@Cory: Thank you for the re-affirmation of authentic Thai. I’m with you on westernized Thai food. I either have to make it myself, or better yet, consume it on the streets of Thailand. Happy and healthy eating to you!
Thai food is really good for overall health. There are several thai cooking classes around the island of Phuket if you want to try having a delicious thai meal to bring back home.
Ohh, Thai food! This made me miss Bangkok! I’m drooling right now 🙂
I hear that! Thai food is some of the finest cuisine on the planet.