The Top 5 Food Hacks I’ve Learned by Living in Thailand
Over the past four months I’ve spent living in the land of smiles, I’ve come to learn an indisputable truth about it’s people, one that’s only increased my love and affection for them (if that’s even possible). That truth is this: the only thing that Thai people love more than sanook (Thai word for fun) is eating.
To this point, “enjoy life, enjoy eating” has been deemed the unofficial motto of our beloved piggy gang. Yet, despite the fact that our students and colleagues are in a near constant state of snacking, in some bizarre twist of biological fate they effortlessly manage to keep the superfluous pounds at bay. This observation leads me to draw two possible conclusions - either the Thai metabolism is a thing worthy of scientific investigation or the quality of food in Thailand is far superior to what we consume in the States. Regardless, the one thing I am certain of is that Thai people are culinary wizards that can do more with an electric wok than I ever thought possible.
Throughout my time here, my palate’s been expanded to new depths, as my taste buds have ventured into flavorful territories featuring masterful combinations of spicy, sweet, tangy, and savory within the layers of a single dish (enter: Tom Yum). Along the way, I’ve managed to pick up a few culinary tips and tricks from pure observation, impromptu cooking lessons from our generous and patient friends, and a few from an intentional Thai cooking class we took in Chiang Mai! If you’ve ever wondered what it is that makes Thai food so damn irresistible, wonder no more. I’ve taken what I’ve learned and boiled it down (pun intended) into a list I’m calling The Top 5 Food Hacks I’ve Learned by Living In (and eating my way through) Thailand. Bon Appetit! Or perhaps more appropriately, Gin Kao!
The Top 5 Food Hacks I’ve Learned by Living in Thailand:
1 - Cook with Emotion (Ditch the Precision) - Cooking in Thailand is more of an art than a science (maybe that’s why I like it so much; I was never much for chemistry, anyways). It’s an expression of creativity, love, and flavor. As I mentioned above, on a recent trip to Chiang Mai we took a full day, seven course cooking class with a company called Asia Scenic (11/10 would recommend by the way!). During class our sweet instructor, Sue, summarized the Thai approach to cooking in a beautifully succinct way. As we watched her drip, drizzle, and pour seemingly disparate amounts of fish sauce, oyster sauce, and sugar (¾ of the Thai quartet, minus the vinegar) into the sizzling wok, she offered us this pithy piece of advice, “Emotion. Cook what you feel.” Thai cooking is not about precise measurements; it’s about adding a spoonful of this and a little pinch of that until you end up with a flavor that pleases you (and has been co-signed by all of of your friends along the way; our friends in the piggy gang love offering us samples of things as they cook them in the office and we love sampling!). Then, by all means, share with your friends and chow down!
2 - Buy Fresh, Eat Fresh - For many Thais, the day is not complete without a stop by the local market to pick up a bag full of ingredients for their next meal. In fact, the beloved members of the piggy gang pride themselves on cooking with only the freshest of ingredients, especially when whipping up something tasty for us to try during lunch (or at any time of day really, what can I say we love food). And with access to a sinfully inexpensive bounty of fresh produce on a daily basis, why shouldn’t they!? A key element of Thai cooking is using fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Forget your bag of frozen vegetables and two year old, freezer burnt fish sticks. And leftovers...who eats those!? When Dave expressed his affinity for throwing an egg (see hack #3) on yesterday’s leftovers and calling it dinner, he was met with several incredulous responses (about the leftovers, not the egg!) from our dear friends. Ultimately, it was a point we agreed to disagree on. However, in terms of buying our meat and produce solely from the local markets we’re total converts. You just can’t beat the taste of fresh food. Plus, there’s something special about buying directly from the farmers who used their time, energy, and skills to grow the food you’re about to consume.
3 - Throw An Egg On It - Protein lovers unite! In Thailand, the perfect accoutrement to any meal is an egg. Hard boiled, jammy, fried, or scrambled - you decide. Most menus we’ve encountered in northern Thailand offer a solitary boiled or fried egg for only 10 THB (or $0.32 USD). However, many dishes include an egg as a standard part of the meal already. Take one of our favorite pork dishes for instance, Pad Krapow Moo. This greasy, spicy, satisfying pork fried with Thai holy basil and red chilies comes standard on a bed of white rice with a gooey fried egg on top. One of my other personal favorites, Kao Moo Daeng, is a dish featuring barbecued pork on a bed of steamed white rice doused in a sweet, thick, red sauce and served with a boiled egg on the side. A deliciously jammy egg even makes an appearance in our favorite version of Tom Yum soup in Phu Sang! Eggs are plentiful and very cheap in Thailand. Each week during our routine local market haul, we purchase 10 eggs for only 35 THB ($1.12 USD). We’ve grown fond of adding an egg or two into whatever we’re cooking up for dinner and I must admit Teacher David has mastered the art of frying an egg in the wok, leading me to hack #4.
4 - The Power of a Wok and a Rice Cooker are Limitless - It’s pretty laughable now, but when we first moved into our humble teal abode in Phu Sang, a point of contention between my fiance and I was our desire to cook. I was intrigued by the local daily market and eager to see what culinary concoctions we could create in our little “kitchen”. Dave, on the other hand, had little (re: zero) interest in cooking, reveling in the sheer volume of cheap and delicious restaurants that lined every street corner. A couple weeks later, even he grew tired of eating rice or noodles for every single meal and we forayed into Phu Sang’s local market scene. At first, we stuck to cooking on our hot plate, using a worn out pan that had seen much better days. Eventually, we worked up the courage (and the knowledge) to experiment with the rice cooker. We even learned a cool way to add a subtly sweet flavor to our rice by cooking it with a few big chunks of ginger. Nowadays, we primarily cook with our electric wok, using it to make veggie stir fry, eggs, pad krapow, and curry. A once reluctant chef (at least in Phu Sang), David even dabbled in making crispy fried noodles in the wok to top off his homemade Khao Soi! Turns out you can make a pretty kick ass meal from an electric wok and a rice cooker.
5 - A Little Milk Goes A Long Way - Thai people ain’t afraid of a lotta little bit of sugar. One thing you’re sure to become acquainted with in the land of smiles is condensed milk. I’m pretty sure Thailand could single handedly keep Carnation in business for the next one hundred years. This sweet, milky syrup makes an appearance in most coffee and tea drinks in cafes and restaurants across the country. It’s the component of the infamous Thai tea (cha Thai) that when mixed with the hot, dark tea creates the bright orange beverage guaranteed to give you a sugar high. A quick way to gauge the sweetness of your cha Thai is to assess the color. Paler shades of orange indicate a heavy pour of condensed milk resulting in a very sugary drink. Darker shades of orange signal that less condensed milk was used and you can expect a bolder flavor of tea. If you’d prefer the latter, be sure to order “cha Thai wan noi” (or Thai tea with little sugar). Another milk ingredient that’s a bit more adaptable and generously used in Thai cooking is coconut milk. Many Thai desserts (and curries) make use of coconut milk to offer a subtly sweet flavor. However, it’s actually a combination of coconut milk and condensed milk that gives the sticky rice in the ever popular “mango & sticky rice” dessert combo it’s irresistible sweetness. When it comes to milk, it’s taken us a few Thai teas and several desserts to come to the conclusion that a little bit goes a long way!
6 - Stop Worrying So Much! - This final hack is really more philosophical than pragmatic, but I think it’s important. My hope in sharing my story with you is that if you’ve struggled with body image issues like I have, you recognize the power you have to change your life in an instant. Because truthfully, that’s all it takes. One instant. One decision. One commitment...to become a happier you.
In full transparency, in the days leading up to a big trip (which theoretically should be full of excitement and planning) I often find myself worrying about what food I’ll eat, if I’ll have time/access to work out, and if I’ll end up gaining the dreaded extra five pounds from vacay indulgences. As we inched closer to our departure date for Thailand, my unhealthy thought patterns became increasingly louder. I was convinced I would pack on the pounds during our time abroad and I was exceptionally nervous about parting with my digital scale. I even considered packing it in my suitcase...and then thankfully talked myself out of that genius idea.
About two weeks into our trip, I became utterly exhausted with the negative self-critic babbling on in my head and decided to do something about it. Well actually, I guess you could say I decided to stop doing something about it. I decided to stop worrying about what I was eating. I decided to stop worrying about what would happen if I gained one pound, ten pounds, or seventy-three pounds. I decided to take all of the energy I was spending worrying about futile things and refocus it on embracing my present experience and exploring a new culture, including the delicious food. I was so frustrated with myself, that I had no choice but to surrender to a new outcome, a new way of being.
In addition to ditching my detrimental self talk, I channeled all of my freed up energy on implementing new healthy habits. I started waking up at 5:20 AM every morning (at least during the school week) and meditating. I started keeping a gratitude journal and reading positive affirmations out loud. I started visualizing my future, writing about it, and setting tangible weekly goals. I started studying Italian just because I wanted to (and aspire to be bilingual, un giorno presto). I started running around the track before school while listening to positive, informative podcasts. I started a 30 day ab challenge. I started experimenting with intermittent fasting. I started to recognize when my inner mean girl was rearing her ugly head again and began questioning the validity of what she was saying. I started to be PRESENT.
The fact is, food is not your friend or your enemy. It’s just food. It’s energy for your body to function and it has as much or as little importance as you choose to give it. Everyday you get to decide the power that you’ll let food (or anything else) have over you. As the famous Italian poet, Horace, once said, “rule your mind or it will rule you.”