Thai Cooking from the Experts

Whilst on Koh Lanta we had probably the best meal we had in Thailand (out of many good ones). The place was Time for Lime (check their site for many good recipes). I’d say if you’re on Koh Lanta it’s pretty much a must visit. The decor was cool, the setting lovely and to cap it all off, part of the proceeds went to the protect the local animals, so it was pretty hard to to fall in love with the place on all levels.

The view from our table - magic init? Welcome to Thailand.

Whilst enjoying ourselves there we noticed they have a cooking school – and decided to sign up on the spot. Here are my notes from that evening. They’re quite extensive: I wanted to have some permanent record of all the stuff we learnt that evening.

Sweet, Sour, Salty and Spicey: The Secret of Thai Cooking

Bim, our teacher, first sat us down and spent some time, explaining our Thai cooking, about the ingredients, about what to look for in good Thai ingredients and good Thai food. And about the secret of Thai cooking, that is, the 4 esses:

  • Sweet,
  • Sour,
  • Salty
  • and Spicy.

These are provided in turn by:

  • Palm sugar,
  • tamarind or lime,
  • fish sauce, soy sauce or oyster sauce
  • and of course, chillies.

About Thai Ingredients: how you know they’re good and how to store them

Palm sugar

Normally, in European countries, comes as small, hockey puck like nuggets. These should just be crumbled (possibly with the help of a mortal and pestle) never dissolved in water. It will lose it’s taste in water.


The best thing to buy is tamarind pulp. From that you can mix a little bit with water to gain tamarind sauce – as you need it. It apparently keeps better in raw pulp form. Note also that the pulp is the raw (seeded) fruit, not tamarind paste – which apparently often has other additives/chemicals which give it a less pleasant taste.

To prepare tamarind sauce from the pulp: Place tamarind pulp in 4 times as much water and leave soak for 15 minutes. Once soaked, squeeze with you fingers to mix. Add to little salt and sugar and simmer on a medium low heat for 30 mins. Add water if it begins to look dry. Sieve out the seeds and big chunks of fruit. Pour into ice molds and freeze. These can be kept for up to 6 months.


Lime juice is either not used or used in the exact same proportion as fish sauce (i.e. if you add 2T of lime juice then you add 2T of fish sauce). Also, never cook lime juice: It is always added at the very final moments of cooking or mostly when the meal has already come off the heat.

Pad Thai à la Maiju (and spicy papaya salad in the background).

Fish sauce

Good fish sauce should be a semi-transparent, light brown. If it’s dark and/or murky, it’s probably a bit past it’s best. It should not be stored in the fridge.

Bim recommends: Tiparos brand.

Kaffir limes and lime leaves

Both Kaffir limes and lime leaves are commonly used in Thailand. In my experience they’re much more difficult  find in Europe. You should be able to find the leaves at least. If by some miracle you should find the fruit themselves, use only the rind. If not, you can substitute Kaffir lime leaves instead.

Maiju cooks with fire!

Galanga root

You’ve probably never tried this by itself. So it may be a surprise for me to tell you then that it tastes like soap. I kid you not. It is (by itself) in no way appealing. Presumably when mixed in with out stuff it adds something positive, but I somehow struggle to see how the first one to put galanga in a curry paste thought to themselves “yeah, this is pretty good now… But you know what’s it’s missing? Soap!”.


Fresh lemongrass should be hard. Can be washed and placed in a sealed bag in the freeze. Where they should keep for up to 6 months.


Thais apparently use roughly two types of chilli. Big, milder, dried and rehydrated chillies for curry pastes and small smack-you-around-the-face-firey, birds-eye chillies. If buying large, dried chillies, it pays to open them and check for mould before soaking them, as some shops keep them on the shelf for quite a long time. Note, you can control the heat obtained from chillies both by picking milder chillies and also by how long they are cooked for i.e. they may be added in only at the very end of cooking in which case they won’t impart much fire to your meal.

Meang Kum: tapas Thai-style

Chilli paste

Roasted chillies mashed and stored in oil.

Bim recommends: Mae Phra Nom brand

Spring onions

Should be added only at the very end of cooking or better, once the dish has come off the heat.

Shrimp paste

If you cannot find this, you can substitute anchovy paste (which should be easier to find in Europe) or failing that, salt.

Thai basil (aka holy basil)

One of those things that should be added only at the very end of cooking or once the pan has come off the heat. Holy basil is so good…

Oyster sauce/Soy sauce

Reminder: you most likely can’t eat these as they contain wheat.

Eat me, don’t eat me: how to prepare Thai ingredients

If you see a whole chilli in your meal at a restaurant you’re not offending anyone by not eating it. Neither a big chunk of galanga, lemongrass or a whole kaffir lime leaf. Thais prepare herbs in too ways: large, decorative and there to impart flavour and small and to be eaten. So for example that whole chilli has just been slapped with the side of a knife to let the spice out but the waiting staff might look at you funny if you try eating it.

Eat herb or spice has an eat-me and a don’t-eat-me style of preparation. For example, kaffir lime leaves: roughly torn = don’t eat me (if you leave them completely untouched they won’t release any of their flavour), finely sliced = eat me.

Leave a Reply