4 essential flavours of Thai cuisine
Let's start first with a little reassurance for those of you that are newbies at the art of Thai cuisine. Don't panic! Thai cooking is quite easy, and practice will make perfect. Try not to get overwhelmed by the many ingredients that you see is recipes as they are quite simple to use once you understand the balance of the flavours of different the spices, but most of all try to have fun with it
So what makes Thai food smell and taste so wonderful?
Uniquely, Thai cuisine is based on the 4 pillars of taste, often referred to as the 4S of Thai food. (There is another, but I'll discuss this later in my blog)
Sour - Sweet - Salty - Spicy
Nailing that authentic tasting dish comes down to understanding and achieving the perfect balance between these four key flavours and their ingredients within Thai cuisine. Every Thai dishes will include at least 2 of these elements in some way, with one being dominant depending on type of dish. Sometimes you will get all 4, and in this case there would be 2 dominating flavour and 2 subtle undertones.
Knowing what a dish is supposed to taste like is the first battle, but then again, experimentation can be fun too, so as long as you don't go crazy with the dominant flavours in your cooking, you should end up with something that will taste pretty good and authentic to Thai cuisine.
Striking the right balance means you need to have a sense of what the lead taste element should be in any specific Thai dish.
The lead taste element is referred to as "Rot Chad naam" (รสชาตินำ), while the secondary flavours or after tones are known as "Rot Chad Rong" (รสชาติรอง).
What ingredients are used in Thai cuisine to use to achieve the right balance of the 4S flavours?
Sour - Lime or lemon, young tamarind, green mango, sour pineapple, green papaya, bamboo
Sweet - Palm sugar, fruit, coconuts
Salty - Shrimp Paste, Fish sauce, light soya sauce, sea salt, shellfish
Spicy - Chillies (red, green, fresh or dried), black or white peppercorns, long pepper
Introducing other Aromatic Herb and Spices in Thai cuisine
Thai food differentiates itself from others by the extensive use of fresh herbs, many with medicinal properties, that have been introduced into recipes over generations.
There are some key ingredients that give Thai food it's distinctive aroma, depth and layers of flavour. Lemongrass, galangal, lime (rind and leaves), coriander leaves, sweet Thai basil leaves and garlic are used in one way or another is all Thai dishes. Other spices, including cardamom, nutmeg, cumin and coriander seeds are added to some pastes.
So what is the 5th extra flavour?
Although sour, sweet, salty and spicy are by far the most common taste elements in Thai cuisine, it wouldn't be complete without including bitterness.
Normally, bitter things aren't pleasant to the taste, although this does vary from person to person. However, it is common for Thais to eat raw bitter green leaves (I love it), or include baby aubergines (eggplant) and bitter melon into some dishes for their medicinal properties, using the other taste elements to enhance and balance the flavour.
Another important ingredient that has a bitterness is turmeric. This has a range of benefits like detoxification of the body, helping weight loss, providing antibiotic, anti-parasitic and antiseptic properties. Pretty impressive!
Other than striking the right balance, using good quality fresh ingredients will bring out the very best of the flavours. Using organic or farm grown vegetables and meats will further enhance your experience. So my advice would be to always cook with fresh ingredients whenever possible
So why use Mae Jum's Herb and Spice pastes?
Mae Jum produces high-quality premium Thai Herb and Spice pastes. We do not include shrimp paste to preserve the fresh aromas of the herbs, so our products are suitable for vegans, vegetarians, and is also Halal certified. We never use artificial preservatives, additives or colouring, and our paste products are gluten-free.
The pastes I created are based on recipes passed down to me through generations of my family. By using our paste will get you on the right path to perfecting Thai cuisine and by following my recipes will help you understand the right balance you need to cook amazing Thai dishes.
As our pastes do not include shrimp paste or added sugar, the element of saltiness and sweetness is up to you, and like we discussed you can use fish sauce, shrimp paste or light soya sauce for saltiness and palm sugar for sweetness. Keep cooking and practising, take a look at our recipes here.
TIP: Always use good quality coconut milk, it makes such a difference. I'll write a blog on this too, as it is quite important, please check it out here
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