pad thai

Cooking Outside the Lines

Guest post by Lara Slabisak

Salty. Sour. Sweet. Spicy. The four components of nearly every Thai dish, and the underlying structure behind what allows Thai food to strike that delicate balance between brightness and warmth. Think: yin and yang – seemingly contradictory forces working together to create complex flavor profiles worthy of lending Thai food the epithet “French Fare of the East.” It’s one of those cuisines that has an answer to every occasion and craving.

This January, my family and I were able to spend three incredible (delectable) weeks in Thailand, where my father was born. I had not been back to visit my family there for a few years, but felt instantly at home as I was greeted with plates of coconut sticky rice and mango, mounds of pomelos, and bowls filled with green and yellow curry. I was inspired this trip to taste each food with a discerning tongue and the intention of bringing back some Thai culinary know-how and dishes to add to my arsenal. I tried not to shy from anything, even the street carts boasting unidentifiable seafoods and congealed pigs blood soup…but don’t worry, I left everything I ever wanted to know about pig’s blood there.

What I learned: Cooking Thai food can be deceptively difficult. If you look at a list of ingredients in a recipe, they are seemingly simple and few. The tricky part lies in achieving that delicate balance of flavor I spoke about before. You don’t want to overpower the subtle hints of lemongrass and galangal in Tom Kha with too much salt, or assault your Pad Thai with an overabundance of lime juice. To master this, the structure-loving, rule follower in me wanted to know exactly how much of each component is required to attain that intricate balance so I can reproduce each dish perfectly and consistently every time. However, this trip I learned that to authentically create harmony and complexity in a dish, I had to throw my measuring spoons and desire to strictly follow a recipe to the wind and instead “cook with my tongue”…as my aunt would say.

I can’t help but think that this is great life advice too. It’s okay to deviate from the script in the name of exploration. Maybe you’ll happen upon a new favorite flavor combo! Don’t shy from trying new ingredients or methods. If there’s a better way, find it. Allow space for your palette to grow! Maybe you can only stand one Thai chili pepper per dish before scurrying to grab the closest glass of water (me), but eventually your tastes will mature and change.

Life certainly doesn’t give us the perfect recipe to follow. This can sometimes be scary, but it’s also exhilarating! That means we have the chance to discover, even if through our mistakes, something new and exciting each time we have the audacity to step out and take a risk. So here is my charge…As we approach this week, may we be adventurous, make mistakes, and cook outside the lines!