I don’t think I’m alone in stating that my knowledge of Thai food begins and ends with Pad Thai from the local Thai joint (for me this is the Canadian fast food chain Thai Express which has a gluten-free Pad Thai so long as you ask for the vegetarian sauce-I highly recommend!).
As you know, my mission in starting Global Gluten-Free was to be able to explore all different types of international cuisine without feeling limited by having to follow a gluten-free diet. With this goal in mind I recently set my sights on learning more about Thai cuisine to understand if and how authentic Thai food can be made gluten-free.
I would LOVE to be able to one day visit Thailand-it’s definitely on my bucket list- but for now I had to settle on learning about Thai food the old fashion way- research. While the internet is teeming with resources I found that the most valuable information I gained was through a collection of three very different Thai cookbooks. Though the format and style of each of these books was very unique, the information, ingredients, dishes and techniques shared many similarities and together provided an overarching portrait of authentic Thai cuisine.
Like a good student I studied each of these books in great depth and took detailed notes (I’m not joking, I really did take pen and paper notes!) so that I could share my findings with you today. My goal is to summarize the key elements of Thai cuisine and identify how this translates to a gluten-free diet. But first, let us look at the amazing cookbooks which helped us with our study:
#1) Food of Thailand: A Journey for Food Lovers by Kay Halsey, Lulu Grimes, Alan Benson
The title of this gorgeous cookbook says it all-this book truly takes you on a journey to Thailand and is equal part travel/cultural guide as it is a cooking manual. What stands out about this book are the beautiful, glossy pictures of the recipes as well as of Thai landscapes and people. Even if you were not interested in making a single Thai recipe this cookbook makes for an attractive coffee table book. From an information perspective this cookbook clearly explains how Thai food, ingredients and traditions vary from region to region (in fact the opening chapter is dedicated to explaining this) and also provides a comprehensive glossary of Thai ingredients. This cookbook provided me with the majority of the information I will be sharing with you regarding Thai cooking culture.
To purchase your copy of Food of Thailand: A Journey for Food Lovers from Amazon, click here.
#2) Simple Thai Food by Leela Punyaratabandhu
This cute and compact cookbook is brimming with traditional, Thai home cooking recipes by the Thai native and award-winning blogger Leela Punyaratabandhu. Just as our previous cookbook stands out for its spectacular photography, this cookbook will captivate you with its personality. Thanks to the author’s great voice this cookbook reads as if Leela were in your home having a fun, informative conversation. Chock full of funny and interesting anecdotes, this cookbook provides simple, delicious recipes with a personal touch. Another highlight of this cookbook is the fact that the author understands what it is like to cook Thai food outside of Thailand (though a native of Thailand she has also lived in the U.S.). In other words, she provides helpful substitutions for certain hard to find ingredients and provides recommendations on how to adapt Thai cooking to an international kitchen-something I found was lacking in the other two cookbooks.
To purchase your copy of Simple Thai Food today from Amazon, click here.
#3) Beginners Thai (“Australian Women’s Weekly” Home Library) by Susan Tomnay
Don’t be fooled by the slimness of this no-frills cookbook. From the moment you open the cover each page provides a beautifully photographed dish and recipe along with a dedicated section of helpful tips. What this cookbook may lack in cultural insights or personal anecdotes as found in the previous two books, it makes up for in very clear, easy-to-follow instructions and cooking tips. This is probably the most technical of the 3 cookbooks and best for those looking to cut to the chase and begin Thai cooking.
To purchase your copy of Beginners Thai today from Amazon, click here.
So which cookbook would I recommend? Well all of them of course! But truly I think each book has something to offer depending on what you are looking for. If you want to learn more about Thai culture as a whole, the obvious choice is cookbook #1. For a fun, easy read in which the recipes are written in more of a personal, blog style, then the answer is #2. And if you are after no-nonsense, step-by-step directions and recipes then #3 is your guy. I hope you too will find enjoyment from one of these cookbooks!
Now that we have become familiar with our “textbooks” let’s head to the classroom to go over our notes!
WHAT IS THAI FOOD?
- Put simply, Thai food is RICE! (Score for being gluten-free!) Rice is the staple of a Thai diet. In fact, one Thai greeting for how are you? roughly translates to Have you eaten rice yet?
- In general there are 3 types of rice eaten in Thailand:
- Jasmine white rice
- Sticky/glutinous rice
- Black/purple rice (similar to wild rice)
- In general there are 3 types of rice eaten in Thailand:
- Rice is the main dish in Thai cuisine-other dishes (curries etc.) are simply accompaniments to flavor the rice
- 2nd only to rice is seafood-because of the country’s geographic location, most people eat seafood daily (especially in the South) and fish sauce and shrimp paste are used in almost every dish. IF YOU HAVE A SEAFOOD ALLERGY BE CAUTIOUS-even if you are eating a vegetarian or non-seafood dish there is a very high chance a seafood ingredient (ex. shrimp paste) is in the food
- In addition to the abundance of seafood, dishes involving all major meats (chicken, pork, beef (and even insects!)) can be found throughout the country
- Some of the main categories of Thai courses/dishes include: Soups, Salads, Curries, Stir-Frys and Noodles
- Street food and snacks are an integral part of Thai culture and eating-street food can be found virtually everywhere in the country, even in the remotest of villages. For this reason there are many recipes for sweet and savory snacks
- The difference between Thai and Western flavors: In general Western food can roughly be categorized into 2 flavors: salty and sweet. Thai food is founded on the harmonization of 4 flavors: Hot, Sour, Sweet and Salty
- To achieve the 4 Thai flavors a variety of ingredients are used, such as chillis = hot, lime/tamarind = sour, palm sugar = sweet, fish sauce = salty
- Other common Thai ingredients include fresh herbs and roots such as lemon grass, galangal (a rhizome similar to ginger but with a hot flavor), coriander and Thai sweet basil, to name a few
- Tropical fruit grows easily throughout the country and is used often in Thai cuisine for breakfast, snacks, salads, curries and desserts
- Curry-the famous Thai curry can be broken down into 2 basic categories:
- Curries made with coconut cream/milk
- Curries made with water or a stock base
- Thai curries are all made using a curry paste as the flavor base. A curry paste is a blend of fresh herbs, spices, chilies and pastes/sauces (such as shrimp paste) blended together in an electric blender or by hand with a mortar and pestle. Curry Pastes can also be bought premade from the store.
- While all of the cookbooks provide recipes for making homemade curry paste, they also cite how this can sometimes be a time-consuming and expensive endeavor due to the fact that curry pastes require fresh, sometimes exotic and hard to find Thai ingredients such as galangal and kaffir limes. For this reason they reassure us that using store-bought curry paste is 100% ok and that even some of the best Thai home cooks use premade pastes. When shopping for a commercial curry paste, ideally look for a brand imported directly from Thailand.
- Random tidbit:
- Contrary to popular belief, Thai food is not eaten with chopsticks (with the exception of noodles or sticky rice)-instead the utensils of choice are a fork and spoon
Conclusion: how much of Thai food is gluten-free?
From my research, Thai cuisine is a gluten-free heaven! As we know the staple of a Thai diet is rice (gluten-free) and the accompaniments of curries, meat, seafood and stir-frys are composed of natural, gluten-free ingredients such as fresh herbs and spices. What’s more, Thai noodle dishes use predominantly rice noodles and recipes which call for flour tend to use rice or tapioca flour. So far Thai cuisine gets an A+ for being gluten-free!
There is however, one catch. Before you go and order everything on the menu from your local Thai restaurant beware of soy sauce. Our cookbooks explain that historically Thai cooking relied on fish sauce as the main element of adding saltiness to any dish. However, because of the influence of Chinese cooking soy and oyster sauces have found their way into many Thai recipes. As we know, soy sauce is commonly NOT GLUTEN-FREE because of the inclusion of roasted wheat as one of the ingredients. For this reason when eating Thai food from a restaurant be sure to ask if the dish is gluten-free, specifying if there is soy sauce and if yes, if the soy sauces is made with wheat. When making a Thai recipe at home which calls for soy sauce this is easily remedied by using a gluten-free soy sauce such as Sans-J (my favorite GF soy sauce brand).
I hope our study on Thai cuisine has provided you with some new insights and inspiration! I know I can’t wait to get into the kitchen and make some authentic Thai dishes-check back soon for recipes!