Wisdom in the Kitchen
A good cooking class leaves you fired up and full of recipes. But a great cooking class sends you home with the chef’s best secrets of the kitchen.
I am one lucky gal. I have a cabinet full of aprons splattered with the wisdom of cooks across Southeast Asia. I’ve studied from well-known chefs and village mothers, scribbling notes amid flurries of chopping and pounding. For years, their insights lay scattered across pages and pixels, in my office and on my laptop, in no discernible order. But now—finally—I’m scratching one big to-do off my list with this index of cooking tips amassed through a dozen years of mixing, mashing and tasting. Every little tidbit below is a morsel of expertise, straight from the teachers* I have met around burners and flames. So, tie that apron and wash those hands. You have work to do:
• Tamarind wood makes the best, most durable cutting board.
MORTARS & PESTLES
• A granite mortar and pestle is best for pounding curry pastes to a smoothness that allows all the flavors blend. You can use a blender, but the result will not be the same. Blades merely slice the ingredients. But smashing encourages each ingredient to release its full flavor.
• Clean your mortar swirling a little water inside after you have finished pounding your ingredients. Add that spiced water to whatever you are cooking.
• Clean your wok by swirling a bit of coconut milk after cooking, then drizzle it into your curry or soup.
• Fresh, raw bamboo is bitter. Boil with salt a short time to remove the bitterness.
• Use sweet basil for curries and lemon basil for salty dishes. Lemon basil also helps remove fishy smells.
• Make sure to pound your paste with a little salt, which acts as an abrasive and pulls moisture from the other ingredients, helping the mixture to soften.
• To fry, put a dollop of curry paste in the center of your wok and surround with a ring of coconut cream so it looks “sunny side up.” Heat, then mix. Cook on low or the paste will burn.
• Use duck eggs in custard; they make for a fattier, richer dessert.
• Marinate and/or cook with shallots to remove fishy flavors and scents.
• Never stir prawns or fish while cooking. They will break. If boiling, gently flip with a spatula.
• Make simple fish balls by mixing minced fish meat, salt, a little sugar, black pepper and bouillon or soup stock. Form into balls and drop into boiling water to cook. Add to soups or curries.
• When buying, don’t worry about the brand. Look for clear sauce (like whiskey) without stones on the bottom of the bottle.
• To revive old, dried-out galangal, smash with a pestle or cleaver, then slice it.
GARLIC & SHALLOTS
• To crispy fry without burning, put sliced items into oil in a cold wok, then crank the heat high. Stir constantly, and turn off the heat as soon as garlic or shallots turn golden. Drain oil and remove from wok.
• To extract juice from ginger, sprinkle with salt and let sit a while, then squeeze. The juice easily comes out.
• Keep herb leaves in cool water while you are cooking in order to preserve freshness until you need to add them to your dish.
• Look for vegetable leaves with small holes. They are healthy. It means bugs have been eating them, and they are most likely organic.
• Use tough, old stalks to enhance the flavor of soups (discard after cooking).
• To store lemongrass, cut stalks into short strips and freeze.
• To grow lemongrass, put a stalk in 1 inch of water until roots begin to grow. Then plant in a pot indoors or outdoors (if you live in an area that doesn’t freeze).
• Many people discard the green leafy ends of lemongrass stalks, but you can use them to color a curry (this is the secret to Khmer green curry).
• To revive an old lime: roll it around on a cutting board to soften with the warmth of your palm.
• If you only need to use a little lime juice, poke the lime with a toothpick (rather than cutting it) to extract what you need. Stick the lime in the fridge and save the rest for later.
• Use a bit of thick, black soy sauce to give stir-fry dishes a more intense color.
• Cut the potatoes so all edges are smooth, otherwise they will break while cooking.
FOODS FOR BODY & HEALTH
• Good for regulating blood pressure.
• Use to moisturize your hands.
• Good for the stomach.
• Good for the stomach.
• Kaffir lime juice is great for the skin, but not to drink. Use the juice to wash hands after a messy meal.
• Relaxes the muscles, regulates body temperature.
• Nourishes the skin and makes a good shampoo.
• Keep a cloth ball of peeled, smashed shallots by your bedside when you get a cold. It will help you recover more quickly.
TOM YAM SPICES
• Can be used for an aromatic sauna steam.
• Good for fighting colds.
• Good for skin and digestive health.
• Rub fresh turmeric on mosquito bites. It relieves the itch better than Tiger Balm.
• “When you cook something from your heart, it tastes better.”
* A big round of thanks to these many cooks and schools: Pip at The Thai House Homestay and Cooking School in Nonthaburi; Toot and Nary at Nary Kitchen in Battambang, Cambodia; Sompon at the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School’s Master Class; Ann and Ao at the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi in Chiang Mai; Pitak Srichan and the Four Seasons Team in Chiang Mai; Jang at the Krabi Smart Thai Cookery School; May and the Khum Lanna Farm team; Joy and Caroline at Tamarind in Luang Prabang, Laos; the Tuophema Village team in Nagaland; the Three Generation Cooking Academy and Farm (formerly Prem Center) in northern Thailand; Sunny and Andy of Pok Pok; and Vilaylac, who runs one of my favorite restaurants in Vientiane, Laos.
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