Junie Kovacs is the founder and owner of creative Thai cookery school, Time For Lime, on the island of Koh Lanta, Thailand. Born in California, Junie built her reputation in Norway and has been teaching and cooking Thai cuisine for 19 years in both Asia and Europe. Here she shares her top tips for keeping your Thai food authentic and healthy...
1. Use fresh ingredients
I believe most homemade food that tastes really special is made from scratch using fresh ingredients - and great Thai food is no exception. Many Thais still today do not own a fridge so will buy fresh produce on a daily basis at one of Thailand's many famous food markets.
In the West, not everyone has an Asian shop on their doorstep but simply making the journey to your nearest supplier twice a year will keep you in fresh Thai flavours. Be sure to ask what day their fresh ingredients arrive from Thailand (it's the same day every week), take your bounty home, give the ingredients a good rinse, let them air-dry for a bit, and freeze them the same day in an air-tight container. Not everything can be frozen with good results, but 90% of basic Thai ingredients can - just check with the shop.
Commonly, Thais will have a plate of assorted fresh raw herbs and vegetables on the side of their main dish. They will often put a little ice on the plate to act as a 'cooler' for both mouth and body and it has the added benefit of keeping the vegetables extra crispy. These sides provide extra vitamins and nutrients that you won't get in such abundance from cooked dishes. Often served on the side are; cucumber (skin off), long beans, apple, aubergine, sweet Thai basil, been sprouts, chives and spring onions.
3. Natural healing
The everyday basic herbs in Thai cuisine have many health benefits, and they taste great too. Here are just a few examples of what some favourite Thai ingredients can do for you:
- Lime - Good source of potassium and vitamin C.
- Fresh chilies - Good source of vitamins A, C and K. Research continues into pain relief potential.
- Lemongrass - Very good source of iron and potassium and thought to be an effective alternative treatment for yeast infections.
- Coriander:- Good source of dietary fiber and packed with vitamins and minerals.
- Galangal (Thai ginger) - Aids with digestion and is often used to help treat the common cold.
- Turmeric - Used as an effective anti-inflammatory and antioxidant
- Kaffir lime - Promotes gum health and is good for digestion
- Garlic - Antioxidant, aids with digestion and research continues into affect on blood pressure and cholesterol
One of the secrets as to why wok-cooked Thai stir-fries are so healthy is that very little oil is used in the cooking. A little oil is added at the beginning to soften the garlic and then the heat goes up and it's over to the broth. You'll often see a big pot of broth next to the chef in Thai kitchens to use throughout stir-frying to ensure the dish never gets too dry.
5. Sweeten the natural way
Thai food achieves a deeper taste and sweet flavour with the use of healthier natural sweeteners. Coconut sugar and palm sugar have been used in Thai cooking for centuries and have a lower GI than common refined sugars. Its lovely caramel flavour and lighter taste makes it a favourite throughout Asia.
6. Fish sauce - the salt of Thailand
Adding salt to food brings up the other flavours, but by adding fish sauce you get a deeper and rounder taste as well. Fish sauce is also full of proteins, vitamins and minerals. Most often it's made from anchovies and sardines, which contain omega-3. You won't achieve good food (both for taste and your body) if you don't use good ingredients. Be sure to check the ingredient information on the bottle - fish sauce should only contain; fish, salt and sugar. A lot of fish sauces are impure to keep costs down, and hurry up the fermenting process. Also there should be no sediments floating around and the colour should look like a dark whisky.
When storing, don't put your fish sauce in the fridge, the salt will start to crystallise and ruin. When your fish sauce gets cloudy and dark like soy sauce it's time to go shopping again...
7. We don't do dairy...
Although there has been a movement in Thailand in recent years to increase dairy farming it is still not a commonly consumed food group. In the East people often struggle to digest dairy produce and so, by default, dishes tend to include less hidden fats from ingredients like butter and cream.
8. Cook quick
One of the many reasons I got addicted to Thai food was that it is so fast to make a healthy meal. In the West we often tend to cook our food to death, loosing many of the nutrients along the way. In Thailand cooking food quickly on a high heat means keeping in much of the goodness and natural flavour while leaving you with a dish that has plenty of texture too.
9. Eat all day
In Thailand, people only eat when they're hungry and prefer to snack than eat three large meals a day. Snack stops in Thailand can include such treats as popping by a homemade soup stall or grabbing some fresh fruit on ice. While healthy snacking may be less convenient in the West, treating yourself to something nutritious regularly throughout the day will help to curb those cravings for junk food.
Thai meals always have to be balanced, not just in flavor (sweet, salty, sour) but also for the body. For example if you're having something that is heavy (e.g. with coconut milk, or something deep-fried) Thais would then consume foods that will help their digestion and lighten the load. For example, a curry made with coconut milk will often be served with a side of fresh herbs & vegetables.
Try out Junie's tips in some of our favourite Thai recipes.