I’m not exactly sure when I discovered Thai cuisine, but if memory serves me right, it was while I was working in Queens. At the time, I had many students from Thailand, and they told me how great their food was. Sure, by then I had heard that same phrase from every one of my students, but when I had a chance to try it, I went with a group of friends to this place somewhere in Jackson Heights.
What impressed me about the food is how it tasted both familiar and different at the same time. Since Thailand is a tropical country, they use many ingredients that are also common to Brazilian cuisine, such as red pepper, coconut milk, and cilantro and of course rice. But what gives the cuisine its kick is lemongrass, a spice that is used almost all of their dishes (it is also used sparsely in Mexican cuisine) with delicious results.
I remember watching an episode of the TV sitcom Will & Grace in which Will received Thai food and remarked, “I’m obsessed with the yum yai salad. You know, it announces its own goodness right in its name: yum yai.” I could say the same about Tom Yum Gum, a soup with a vegetable base that can be served with either seafood or chicken. And Pad Thai, which is pretty unanimous around lovers of good food (some people cannot stomach the spicier stuff, but everyone seems to love pad Thai).
I’ve gone to numerous Thai restaurants over the years, but sadly most of my favorites have either changed ownership (or chef) or simply closed down. One I recall vividly is Erawan Thai Cuisine (925 Arch St, http://erawanchinatown.com/) little hole in the wall in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, where I tasted the best Pad Thai I’ve ever had in my life.
When cooking at home, I sometimes make Thai food – one staple of sorts here is red curry tofu with vegetables and white rice, a very simple dish that makes eating tofu a true pleasure (those who don’t like eating it can easily substitute the tofu for cooked chicken tenderloins cut in bite-size pieces). It has a real kick thanks to the spiciness, but somehow it works on a warm day paired with sauvignon Blanc or a nice rosé.
Recipe (from Epicurious)
1 cup jasmine rice
1 3/4 cups water
1 medium onion, halved lengthwise, then thinly sliced crosswise
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large garlic clove, chopped
2 teaspoons bottled Asian red-curry paste
1 (14-oz) can unsweetened coconut milk (not low-fat)
1 teaspoon salt
1 (1-lb) package frozen mixed vegetables such as broccoli, corn, and red peppers
1 (14- to 16-oz) block firm tofu, rinsed, patted dry, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce
Accompaniments: fresh cilantro sprigs; lime wedges
Rinse rice briefly in a sieve and drain, shaking sieve to remove excess water. Bring rice and 1 1/2 cups water to a boil in a 1 1/2- to 2-quart heavy saucepan over high heat, then cover pan with a tight-fitting lid and cook rice over low heat until water is absorbed and rice is tender, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook onion in oil in a wide 4-quart heavy pot over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until pale golden, about 3 minutes. Reduce heat to moderate, then add garlic and curry paste and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in coconut milk, salt, and remaining 1/4 cup water and bring to a boil. Stir in vegetables and return to a boil. Cover pot, then reduce heat and cook at a brisk simmer, stirring occasionally, 2 minutes. Gently stir in tofu and simmer curry, partially covered, until vegetables are tender, 7 to 8 minutes. Remove pot from heat and stir in fish sauce and salt to taste. Serve curry with rice.