I grew up in a small village in the north-east of Thailand. Our methods of preparing food were very traditional and I was set to work with the mortar & pestle from a very early age. We would grow most of our ingredients ourselves, raise our own chickens and catch fish in the nearby rivers or rice paddies. Supermarkets had yet to make an appearance and what shopping we did was in local markets.
Although many things have changed since then, a lot of the values remain the same. We have supermarkets selling fresh food and canned goods but the ready-made meals we are so used to seeing in the UK don’t really exist in Thailand. The abundance of cheap eating places and street food is truly astounding, it’s often far more expensive to assemble the ingredients to cook yourself a meal than it is to stop off at a food stall on the way home and pick up a very satisfying dinner. My idea of Thai heaven is to be sitting in a bustling street food area watching the chefs juggling the woks over huge gas burners and creating an amazing variety of dishes, you can keep the beaches!
All that changed when I came to the UK and found out that street food usually consisted of a dodgy hot dog and that Thai restaurants were not only expensive but much westernised. I have a real problem with that, I remember reading a food critic’s review of a restaurant saying “You westernise Thai food and it loses its soul”. How true that is. I’m not just talking about cutting down on the spiciness either but the general muting down of the tastes essential in Thai food, the sour and the sweet and the salt and the spicy that should balance each other.
It wasn’t long before I realised that I was going to have to make my own curry pastes to recreate the taste of home. Living in London I was fortunate in that I was at least able to obtain the ingredients in places like Chinatown, sometimes with difficulty, for example it can often be difficult to get hold of enough Coriander root. Coriander easy, but in the UK you mostly find the roots have been cut off, duh, you throw away the best bit!
You’re probably thinking by now that I’m a little short sighted as I must have missed the tubs of Thai curry paste on the shelves in Chinatown and increasingly now in supermarkets. Not at all, I had even seen TV programs about them in Thailand and what a successful export product they were. In fact they export nearly all their production because in the picture below you can see how we buy our curry pastes in Thailand when we are not making them ourselves.
You’re looking at freshly mixed pastes. At this stage they are still a work in progress as they are uncooked. We then take them home and cook, continually adjusting the taste with fish sauce or chillies, shrimp paste etc to our own personal taste before adding our meat, fish or vegetables. It’s in cooking the paste where we achieve that final balance of the tastes we need in Thai cooking. For me this is where the factory produced pastes fall down, if you are going to cook with lots of fresh ingredients (not that I am saying they do) you need to be constantly tasting the paste and balancing it as you cook. You can’t just cook to a formula, the levels of spiciness, saltiness, sweetness, sourness,change constantly with fresh ingredients. I think this applies to any style of cooking but probably never more so than in Thai food where we are trying to achieve harmony between different ingredients that “logic” tells us shouldn’t even be in the same cooking pot.
I prepare and cook these pastes carefully balancing the taste in the hope that you can experience how Thai food should really taste. Hope you enjoy them!
PS. Many thanks to my husband and daughter for their help with this website. Any mistakes or errors are entirely their fault. 🙂