Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Most people in this country are at least somewhat familiar with the notion of Thai food.  In the 1980's Thai restaurants began to pop up in nearly every urban area.  Here in Chicago pretty much every neighborhood has at least one Thai BYOB restaurant.  Our friend Nick, who recently moved to New Zealand, is the son of a Thai restaurant owner in Indianapolis.  His mom's Thai Cafe in Broadripple was one of the first places I ate a Thai meal.  I strongly recommend checking them out next time you find yourself debating what to eat in Indianapolis.  Given the popularity of the food, I knew this meal would have to be a pretty large one.  

Fortunately, I've been cooking (or attempting to cook) Thai food since my time in college.  It took a lot of failures to make my first decent pad thai.  Also I've been lucky enough to have had the chance to visit Bangkok for a few weeks about five years ago.  I made sure to eat as much food as I possibly could.  That trip is still one of my fondest food memories and I'm sure I'll make the trip again.  The variety of the cuisine is astounding and no single meal could ever begin to encompass the complete glory of Thai food.  For this meal we decided to go for simplicity on a grand scale.  Most of the dishes can be made well ahead of time and served family style.  This allowed us more time to schmooze. Most of the ingredients are easy to find at an Asian grocery, and some supermarkets are now selling the staple ingredients.  Just be sure to buy plenty of rice.   

Mussel Fritter

The first time I had this was actually quite recently at a little place in Chicago called Sticky Rice at Irving Park and Western.  Amy and I both decided it was one of the most delicious things we'd ever had and were happy to discover that it was very simple to make after perusing a few cookbooks.  It may sound wretched, but we actually bought a large bag of frozen shelled mussel meat from a Vietnamese market for this dish.  The bag was so cheap we had to find out if the mussels were actually edible.  Naturally, the best way to do this is to cook a lot of them, feed them to your friends, and see what happens next.  So we prepared a large batch of the following recipe and were happy to see that nobody got ill or spat their food out in disgust.  Quite the opposite happened and the entire platter was quickly consumed.

1.5 cups mussel meat
5 tbsp rice flour
1.5 tbsp corn starch
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup water
2 eggs 
1 cup chopped scallions
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
1/4 tsp ground pepper
1 tbsp vegetable oil

1. Combine the rice flour, starch, salt, water and eggs to form a thick and smooth batter adding more water if necessary  Then fold in the remaining ingredients.
2. In a large skillet heat 1/2 cup oil or just enough to shallow fry over high heat.
3. Drop the batter into the skillet in ladle sized quantities one at a time and fry for until the bottom crust begins to brown and gently flip the fritter and fry the other side.
4. Repeat until all the batter is used storing the freshly made fritters in a warm oven until ready to serve.  Accompany with dipping sauce.

Dipping Sauce

1/3 cup fish sauce
3 tbsp sugar
1 clove garlic chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
1 red chili thinly sliced
1/3 cup water

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and serve with fritters.

Cabbage and Peanut Salad

Cabbage is one of my favorite vegetables to cook with.  It's cheap, flavorful, and is great raw and cooked.  The Thai understand cabbage is awesome as well.  Here it is prepared much like a cole slaw but with other savory elements of peanuts and fish sauce.  We overdid it a bit with the chillies and some people couldn't eat it, but generally this serves as a very spicy side dish with most Thai meals.

1/2 head or 1 lb green cabbage with outer leaves and core removed
2 carrots grated
1 red onion thinly sliced
1 bunch cilantro chopped
1/4 cup chopped mint
1 serrano chilli finely chopped
2 tbsp sugar or to taste
3 tbsp fish sauce or to taste
1/4 cup vinegar or to taste
1/2 cup chopped peanuts
1. Using a knife or mandolin, thinly slice the cabbage into even strips.  Place these into a large bowl.
2. Combine all the remaining ingredients and taste for sweetness and salt.

Laap or Seasoned Ground Beef

Our good friend Chris Allen prepared this dish for us when we visited him in beautiful Muncie, IN.  He came to know of the dish through his days in the Peace Corps where he served in a small Thai village.  He made it much better than I did.  I'm guessing the cut of meat I had was a bit too lean.  In the future I'll grind down a fattier cut of beef.   

1.5 tbsp rice
4 dried red chillies 
1 lb chuck steak ground
1/4 cup lime juice
3 stalks lemon grass minced
1 red onion finely chopped
1 green bell pepper finely chopped
1/4 cup mint leaves 
2 tbsp fish sauce

1. Cook the rice and chillies over medium heat in a dry pan until the rice has begun to brown.
2. Grind the rice and chillies in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle.
3. Boil the ground beef for one minute or until it just changes color.
4. Combine everything together and serve at room temperature.

Sweet Pork

It really doesn't get any simpler than this.  This dish's sauce of fish sauce and sugar is the base sauce of many Thai dishes.  Here the sauce is presented in its simplest form without any additional chillies or herbs.  With the fresh pork loin the dish tastes almost like a good sweet ham.  It tastes great for up to two weeks in the fridge.  Make sure to eat it with lots of rice.

3 pounds pork loin cut into 1 inch cubes
1.5 cups palm sugar
1.5 cups fish sauce
4 cups water
Crispy shallot flakes for garnish.

1. Place everything but the shallot flakes into a deep heavy pot and bring to a simmer stirring frequently to incorporate the palm sugar.  Lower the heat and cook for 30 minutes covered.
2. Skim off any fat that has risen to the surface and continue cooking another 45 minutes to an hour until the meat is very tender and the sauce is thick and syrupy.  Serve with rice feel free to add chili sauce.

Green Curry With Chicken

Thai curries may sound like a challenge to cook, but the hardest part of them is not so much making the curry but gathering the giant list of ingredients needed for the curry paste.  This is next to impossible if you don't live near a Southeast Asian grocer.  I'm lucky enough to be near one and most large to medium sized cities will have one tucked away somewhere .  Once you do have the ingredients, this curry is a simple process of grinding a paste and boiling everything together in a thick sauce of coconut milk and fish sauce.  

For the paste:

1 inch of fresh galangal or 1 tsp dried powder
1 inch piece of fresh ginger
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground caraway
1 tsp ground pepper
4 cloves ground
1 whole nutmeg ground
2 stalks lemon grass minced
4 cloves garlic
3 shallots
5 kaffir lime leaves
2 serrano chillies
1 tsp shrimp paste
1 tsp salt
4 tbsp vegetable oil

Grind everything to a uniform paste in a blender adding a bit of water at a time.  Set this aside or freeze for up to 6 months.

For the Curry

4 lbs chicken thighs chopped into 1 inch pieces
2 cans coconut milk plus one cup water
Fish sauce to taste
Green curry paste recipe
1/2 cup thai basil
5 kaffir lime leaves

1. In a large saucepan, dutch oven or wok, cook the chicken with one can of coconut milk and 2 tbsp fish sauce until the meat is tender (10-15 minutes).
2. Remove the chicken with a slotted spoon and set aside.  Boil the coconut milk down to a thicker consistency.
3. Add the curry paste and cook for 3 minutes stirring frequently until the paste gives off a strong fragrance.
4. Once again add the chicken to the pan and cook 5-10 minutes until the sauce has thickened.  Then add the remaining can of coconut milk.  Simmer this another five minutes and serve garnished with basil and kaffir lime leaves.  Serve with rice.

In Conclusion

This meal was a real pleasure to cook.  The literature on Thai food is so vast and expansive that there is no need to desperately search for recipes from obscure sources.  I should probably mention my personal favorite Thai cookbooks here since there are so many out there that aren't that great.  Jennifer Brennan's Original Thai Cookbook is my favorite reference point for most family sized recipes.  It has been a standard since it came out in the 80's and can be found used on Amazon for dirt cheap.  Her recipe for pad thai is still the best one I've found in a Thai cookbook.  David Thompson's Thai Food is a great encyclopedic look at Thai cooking and recipes, though many of the ingredients are a bit obscure even with access to a decent Southeast Asian grocer.  But it is a damn good cookbook.

The meal was a great success for the most part.  Once again all the leaves were used in the dining room table and nobody appeared hungry when they left.  I was a bit saddened by the lack of any noodle dishes, but it's hard to fry noodles for a large crowd.  The next day I made some pad thai to satisfy my craving, just writing this post has me thinking of busting out the wok tomorrow.

Up next: Malaysia!


  1. oh my goodness I am so jealous! I bet the laab was amazing--that's my fav. I know some Malaysian people~I think the cuisine is fairly similar to Thai? I'm not entirely sure. I look forward to seeing what you guys do!

  2. PORK!!! Next time use pork instead of beef in the laap! Looks like you did an awesome job though. Wish Christine and I could have been there.

    love Chris and Christine

  3. going to thailand tomorrow at 6am... can't wait for some grubbin street food.

  4. Thanks for sharing this recipe. I will try this in my cooking next time. Asian cuisine are awesome and especially this blog.