I've said in my previous recipe post that Korean food was the soul food of Asian cooking. If this is true, then Thai food is the artwork. There is something about Thai food that I just adore, and it has everything to do with the Thai penchant for chili. I love love LOVE spicy food, and Thai food is known for its liberal use of bird chilis, the tiny, incendiary red and green peppers. Also prevalent in Thai cooking is the use of coconut, lime, basil, and various curries. Most Thai curries are vastly different from traditional Indian curry, but many of the preparation methods are the same. Thai cooking relies on "The Five Flavors" and a balance for each. The Five Flavors are salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and hot. Larb Gai is a good balance of salty, sour, and hot and the cucumber salad adds a slightly sweet element.
Here in Columbus, we have a few Thai restaurants but my favorite is Chili Thai, the closest to our home. Maggie had never eaten Thai before, so this is what I ordered for her on her first trip to the restaurant as it was my favorite and I was certain she'd like it as well - and man oh man was I dead on! They make a fantastic warm chicken salad called Larb Gai, which is my favorite Thai dish hands down. It is fragrant and spicy, made with lean chicken breast, lime juice, fish sauce, lemongrass, chilis, fresh cilantro, and green onions. Part of what gives it its character and distincive flavor is the addition of ground, toasted, raw rice which imparts an interesting flavor and texture to the finished dish. It is a simple thing to make, from start to finish it may take me about 20 minutes including prep time. With the Larb Gai we eat Jasmine rice and Cucumber salad to cool our mouths down from the heat of the chilis used in the Larb Gai. Two other things I enjoy are stir-fried pineapple with ginger, which is very similar in both preparation and usage to chutney, something else I really love, and jasmine flower syrup. The syrup has many uses, from a sweetner for tea and sodas to a dip for fruit. The best thing about the Larb Gai is the fact that it contains almost no fat whatsoever, making it very light, nourishing, and guilt free.
Larb Gai (Thai Chicken Salad)
- 1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breast, chopped fine
- juice of 2 limes
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 1-2 stalks fresh lemongrass - tough, fibrous outer layers removed and lower portion chopped
- 4-8 Thai bird chilis, chopped -or- 1-2 tbsp Thai Kitchen brand red curry paste
- 1 bunch fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
- 1 small bunch of green onions, sliced -or- 2 whole shallots, thinly sliced
- 1 tbsp ground, toasted rice
- In a dry skillet over high heat, toast the rice until it becomes very tan in color and fragrant. Allow the rice to cool, then grind in a food processor or blender and set aside.
- Make the dressing in a bowl by combining the lime juice, fish sauce, and chilis or curry paste and stir to blend well.
- In a skillet or wok over high heat, stir-fry the chicken with the lemongrass in about 1/4 cup of water. Break any clumps into small pieces and cook until it is firm and no longer pink, drain off any excess water and return to the pan.
- Stir the cilantro, onions, ground rice, and dressing into the chicken and serve with Jasmine rice, cucumber salad, and lettuce or cabbage leaves to wrap it in.
- 2-3 cucumbers, peeled, cut lengthwise into quarters, then into thin slices
- 1 tbsp rice vinegar
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 2 tbsp fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
- 2 carrots, thinly sliced into strips
- 2-3 green onions, sliced -or- 1 small shallot, thinly sliced
- 2 cups of cold water
- Dissolve the sugar in the vinegar in a large bowl.
- Toss the cucumbers, carrots, onions, and cilantro in the vinegar, then pour in the water and stir to combine.
Stir-Fried Pineapple* with Ginger
- 1 fresh pineapple, peeled and trimmed and cut into large dice
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
- 2 shallots, peeled and chopped
- 1 2" piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely shredded
- 2 tbsp light soy sauce
- juice of 1/2 a lime
- 1 large, resh red chili pepper, seeded and finely shredded
- Heat the oil in a skillet or wok and stir-fry the garlic and shallots over medium heat until just golden, careful not to burn them or they'll turn bitter.
- Add the pineapple and stir-fry until the pineapple begins to caramelize to a golden brown color around the edges.
- Add the ginger, soy sauce, lime juice, and chili, and stir to combine, cook for an aditional 2-5 minutes and serve.
* if desired, you can use peaches, nectarines, or mangoes instead of pineapple - 3-4 of each
Jasmine Flower Syrup
- 1/2 cup water
- 5 tbsp sugar (palm sugar or light brown sugar work nicely also)
- 20 - 30 fresh jasmine flowers, plus a few extra for decoration if you like
- Heat the water and sugar in a small pan until the sugar dissolves, then simmer for 4-5 minutes.
- Pour the syrup into a small bowl and allow to cool slightly, then gently stir in the jasmine flowers and steep for at least 30 minutes then strain the flowers out, gently pressing to extract as much syrup as possible.
Serve this syrup drizzled over fresh fruit, use it to sweeten tea, or make a flavored soda by adding a shot of it to a glass of crushed ice and club soda.