Vegetarians and Thai food are a match made in heaven.
Thai food is a go-to for the meatless crowd, because it is so packed with flavors and textures that don’t rely on animal foods. Rich coconut milk, tangy lime, lemongrass and tamarind, tongue tingling ginger, chiles and garlic all enliven the simplest, most basic foods to make a symphony. Peanuts and cashews add crunch and heft to the otherwise weightless salads. Rice paper wrapped veggies and noodles take a dip in peanut sauce, and all is right with the world.
So it is absolutely crucial that veggie minded folks have a source for authentic Thai recipes. Thanks to Nancie McDermott, we do, with Simply Vegetarian Thai cooking, 125 real Thai recipes (Robert Rose $19.95.)
Full disclosure: Nancie is a colleague and friend, and I look to her as an expert on this and other topics. She knows her stuff.
McDermott knows how to walk her talk, when she says “real” Thai recipes. You see, she lived in Thailand for three years as a Peace Corps volunteer. In between teaching English to Junior High students and exploring the Thai culture, she absorbed the flavors and practices of Thai food. At that time, she had no idea that she would ever write about food.
For her three year immersion, McDermott shopped in the farmers market every morning at dawn. She cooked in an open air kitchen, with a group of her English students as roommates and helpers. No imported cheesy poofs and peanut butter for her, she ate rice three times a day and learned to make the simple dishes that her young female students had learned at home. The market was a source for more amazing home-cooked foods, from snacks to freshly pounded curry pastes.
In the intervening years, she has returned to Thailand, as an accomplished food writer and historian. And we all benefit, thanks to her extensive writing on the foods of Southeast Asia. She has written two other Thai cookbooks, as well as Chinese and Vietnamese cookbooks, among her ten cookbooks. Her website is packed with well written blog posts and delicious recipes, check it out here.
According to McDermott, vegetarianism is not widespread in Thailand, even though there are several forms of Buddhism practiced there. The Theravada Buddhist Monks vow to live simply and take no life. As in other Buddhist cultures, practicing Buddhists offer the Monks food to live on, which may or may not contain meat and fish. Because someone else took the life of the animal, and it’s an offering, the Monks consume the meat. There is a growing movement toward vegetarian fare, though, a confluence of Buddhist practice and the contemporary awareness of the health benefits. She advises looking for vegetarian restaurants in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, if you are so lucky as to get to visit.
Simply Vegetarian Thai is a well-organized guide, with appetizers and snacks, soups, salads, curries and noodle dishes, as well as drinks and sweets. Unlike your local Thai place, where you have to make sure that no fish sauce or shrimp paste is in the dish, when you make it at home, you can rest easy. McDermott makes it a joy, with her clever substitutions, that stay as close to the authentic as possible. One such trick is her Mushroom Mince, a vegetarian alternative to ground meat that is used in several recipes in the book. She’s also got a method for replacing fish sauce: a little vegetable stock and salt, and a dab of soy sauce, rather than just subbing soy, for a subtler, more authentic taste.
There are many tempting recipes here, that you won’t find on the standard Thai menu. Crispy Mung Bean Fritters and Sweet Potato Shiao Mai (DUMPLINGS!) sound delicious. Kale Salad with Thai Flavors is a little bow to the American love of kale, among the traditional salads. Soups like Tome Yum and Jasmine Rice Soup with Mushrooms Green Onions and Crispy Garlic make your mouth water. An extensive curry chapter gives you options for all seasons, with Winter Vegetables Infused with Coconut Milk and Cashews or a summery Green Curry with Zucchini and Bamboo Shoots. Main courses like Sweet and Sour Tempeh with Cucumber and Cauliflower and Thai Omelet with Sriracha are a meal in themselves. Noodles and Rice recipes are also craveable, with Pineapple Fried Rice and Mee Grob, the crispy fried noodle dish that has more textures and colors than just about any food you will encounter. Desserts like Mango Sorbet and recipes for Thai Iced Tea and Coffee are worth the price of admission.
At the beginning of each chapter, McDermott gives you deeper explanations of the background and practice around the dishes, which is fascinating information.
So whether you are looking for a few new Thai dishes for Meatless Mondays, or you have been a veg for years, this is a great addition to your cookbook library. Fire up the wok, and give these recipes a try. They are just a teaser, there are plenty more in the book that you may never have had in a restaurant.
Who can resist a good Paht Thai? Not me!
In Thailand, most noodle dishes have clear Chinese origins and have been adapted very little, since they please Thais just the way they are. This is the exception, a Thai invention, with the basic technique of stir-frying applied to seasonings that marry sweet with sour and salty with hot in a way Thais adore. The full name for this dish is kwaytiow paht Thai. The first word means rice noodles and paht means to stir-fry in a wok or shallow skillet. The word Thai says that the use of tamarind, sugar, peanuts, bean sprouts and lime in this dish is a signature of Thai ingenuity in the kitchen. Noodle chefs in Thailand freely include their own touches to create a signature version, so use your ingenuity once you get the hang of cooking the noodles.
Serves 1 as a main course or 2 as an appetizer
Asian-style wire strainer or slotted spoon
4 oz dried rice noodles, the width of linguine or fettuccine
8 oz firm tofu, cut into slender 1-inch (2.5 cm) long rods
1 tbsp coarsely chopped garlic(4 to 6 cloves)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1⁄4 cup Vegetable Stock, homemade or store-bought
2 tbsp Tamarind Liquid (or freshly squeezed lime juice)
1 tbsp Asian bean sauce
1 tbsp granulated sugar
2 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp salt
1⁄2 tsp hot pepper flakes
1⁄2 cup finely chopped salted dry-roasted peanuts, divided
2 cups bean sprouts, divided
3 green onions, whites thinly sliced crosswise and tender, green tops cut into 1-inch (2.5 cm) lengths
1 lime, quartered lengthwise
- Place dried rice noodles in warm water to soak for 15 to 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, pour vegetable oil into a medium skillet to a depth of about 2 inches (5 cm). Place over medium heat until a bit of tofu added to pan sizzles at once. Line a plate with paper towels and place near the stove. When oil is ready, add tofu in small batches to discourage them from sticking together.
- When noodles are very limp and white, drain and measure out 21⁄2cups (625 mL). Set near the stove.
- Heat a wok or a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 tbsp (15 mL) oil and swirl to coat pan. Add garlic and toss until golden, about 1 minute. Add egg and tilt pan to coat surface in a thin sheet. As soon as egg is opaque and beginning to set, scramble well and transfer to a serving platter.
- Add 2 more tbsp (30 mL) oil to pan and heat for 30 seconds. Add softened noodles and, using a spatula, spread and pull noodles into a thin layer covering surface of pan. Then scrape down into a clump again and gently turn over.
- Add vegetable stock, tamarind, bean sauce, sugar, soy sauce and salt and toss well. Hook loops of noodles with edge of spatula and pull up the sides, spreading out into a layer again. Repeat this process several times as the stiff, white noodles soften and curl into ivory ringlets. Add pepper flakes and about half of the peanuts and turn noodles a few more times.
- Set aside a little less than half of the bean sprouts for garnish. Add remainder to pan along with green onions and cooked egg. Toss well and cook until bean sprouts and green onion tops are shiny and beginning to wilt, 1 to 2 minutes more. Transfer to serving platter and squeeze lime wedges over top. Garnish with remaining peanuts and bean sprouts on one side and serve at once.
This makes only one or two portions, which is the best I can do with a wok on a Western stove. In Thailand, expert cooks do only a batch or two at a time, too, even when a tableful of diners orders paht Thai. A wok can only do justice to so many noodles at one time.
My recipe instructs you to squeeze the lime juice over the noodles just before serving. This is because I have found that if I present the dish Thai style, with a lime wedge on the side, it is left behind like a parsley garnish on a dinner plate at a banquet. Thais always squeeze on lime juice, so I like to include some and then offer extra lime wedges to those who like an extra sour hit.
Green Papaya Salad
This sparkling tangle of shredded unripe papaya, juicy tomatoes, shallots and garlic is infused with an incendiary combination of lime juice, palm sugar and chiles. Known by its Laotian name, som tum, this rustic, intensely flavored dish is made from simple ingredients that epitomize the cuisine and spirit of northeastern Thailand.
- Mortar and pestle (see Tip)
2 fresh green serrano chiles or 1 fresh green jalapeño
1 tbsp coarsely chopped garlic (4 to 6 cloves)
1 tbsp coarsely chopped shallots
1 small hard, green unripe papaya, peeled and finely shredded (about 2 cups/500 mL)
9 green beans, trimmed and cut into 2-inch (5 cm) lengths
2 tsp palm sugar or brown sugar
1⁄2 tsp salt
2 tbsp vegetable stock, store-bought
1⁄2 lime, quartered lengthwise
9 cherry tomatoes, quartered
- In a large heavy mortar, combine chiles, garlic and shallots. Grind and pound with a pestle until everything is broken down but not completely mushy. Use a spoon to scrape down the sides occasionally and mix everything together well.
- Add papaya and pound until the stiff shreds become limp and soft, about 3 minutes. Use the spoon to scrape and turn the mixture over as you work.
- Add green beans and pound to bruise. One at a time, add sugar, salt and stock, pounding a little after each addition. Squeeze in juice from each piece of lime and then add pieces of squeezed lime to the mortar as well. Add tomatoes and pound another minute, turning as before as the tomatoes release some of their liquid. Pound more gently so that you do not get splashed.
- Taste sauce in bottom of the mortar and adjust the seasonings (there should be an interesting balance of sour, hot, salty and sweet). Using a slotted spoon, transfer salad to a small serving platter. Drizzle on some of the sauce remaining in the mortar and serve at once.
If you do not have a heavy Thai-style mortar and pestle, here is a shortcut version: To crush and bruise shredded papaya, place in a big plastic bag on your cutting board, leaving the bag open. Pound with a cooking mallet or rolling pin, working it until all the shreds are limp and bruised. Transfer to a bowl. In a blender or mini processor, combine chile, garlic, shallots, sugar, salt and stock and blend until fairly smooth. Toss with papaya. Add green beans and pound to bruise. Add tomatoes and squeeze juice from lime quarters over salad, tossing in lime pieces when you are done. Using your hands, toss again, squeezing salad to crush tomatoes so they release some of their juice as you mix in the lime. Transfer to a deep serving platter and serve at once.