Articles / Cuisine Sprint #1: Thai Food

Cuisine Sprint #1: Thai Food

Published December 14, 2018

I get a lot of emails that go something like this: “How do I get better at cooking in different styles, with unfamiliar flavors, or new ingredients?” Or like this: “Bored! Help!!” Or, “In a rut. What should I do?”

These are all various expressions of a feeling that you may know well: We have comfort zones in the kitchen, cooking grooves (right: ruts) that are easy to slide into and harder to get out of. (You know also that this is not just about cooking. Think about the ruts in your way of thinking and acting. And let’s not go there!)

We have go-to dishes that we fall back on, especially when time is short, and before we know it we realize we’ve eaten slightly modified versions of the same five things for months—or years! To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with this. Cooking regularly is an achievement, even if it’s not as varied as we’d like it to be. But sometimes all you want is a little shock to the system.

There’s a careful, kind of intellectual approach to expanding your culinary horizons: read about a new cuisine, study it a bit, dip your toes in slowly, buy a strange ingredient or two, try a recipe, reflect, repeat. Then there is reckless abandon: Pick a kind of food you’ve never cooked, or that you’d like to cook more of, and make a handful of those dishes over the course of a few days or weeks. The latter approach, my personal preference, is what I’m calling a “cuisine sprint.” (I coined that phrase yesterday. It’s a working title. Taking suggestions.) What tends to happen when you immerse yourself in a single cuisine for a small stretch is that you poke beneath the surface of the most obvious, iconic dishes, your pantry and fridge fill up with all sorts of ingredients that weren’t there before, and you blast yourself out of that rut. That’s the hope, at least.

So, consider this the first installment of the “cuisine sprint” series, occasional newsletters devoted entirely to the recipes of a particular type of cuisine. First up: Thai food. Why? Three reasons: 1) I remembered this Minimalist piece I wrote (20 years ago, yikes) called The Essence of Thai Cooking, which I thought would be fun to unearth. 2) Winter cooking can be lacking in bright, pungent flavors (especially around the holidays), and Thai food has those in spades (lemongrass, galangal, lime leaves, fish sauce—and those are just the beginning). 3) It’s incredible.

There are a handful of recipes here to explore, including four in that article (click here): Lemongrass-Ginger Soup with Mushrooms, Stewed Spicy Chicken with Lemongrass and Lime, Rice Noodles with Basil, and Shrimp in Yellow Curry. Some are ubiquitous (like Pad Thai), some are staples (like Sticky Rice), and some are downright exotic (like the world’s greatest Chile Jam). Of course, you don’t have to cook six Thai dishes over the weekend to make this project worthwhile (the “sprint” thing just fits my semi-obsessive personality). Go fast, go slow, whatever works. Mess around with some new ingredients, combinations, and techniques and see what you like—who knows, maybe you’ll even find a dish to slot into your weekly repertoire. Whatever happens, have a wonderful weekend.

— Mark

Ian Allen for the New York Times