Quick, what’s the most important ingredient in Thai cuisine? None of them, says Bret Thorn, senior food editor, Nation’s Restaurant News. The journalist spent five years living and working in Thailand, where he gained an understanding that the key to this food’s deliciousness is its emphasis on balance.
“It’s never one particular ingredient that predominates,” he says. “Instead it’s about a particular palate that’s an adventure with every bite. Your brain should always be saying, ‘Oooh, what’s this?’ when you eat Thai food, and finding a balance of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and spicy.”
Sriracha and Sweet Chili Sauce
Many culinary pundits say that Sriracha sauce has been many Americans’ “gateway” to Thai food (check out Marzetti® Sriracha Bourbon Sauce, for example). But Thorn discards the notion that the super-popular sauce is classically Thai. “Thais don’t even use it that much. It’s mainly used on fried eggs, and occasionally on seafood, and that’s about it.” Speaking of another famous Thai condiment, he says he knew the cuisine had truly gone mainstream when he saw Sweet Chili Sauce as dipping sauce for McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets. “We Americans like spicy food, but we like sugar even more,” he says.
“Thai” up your menu
When asked why he thinks the cuisine finally seems to be taking off in a more mainstream way, he says:
“People are already familiar with Chinese food, so that makes Thai food approachable. He isn’t pleased with a habit he sees on many menus – adding one ingredient and calling a dish “Thai.” Just because you added lemongrass or peanuts, you’re not necessarily cooking Thai cuisine.
One great way to add Thai dishes to a menu is with the category that Thai cooks call “Yum,” which are room-temperature dishes that are spicy, sour and a little bit sweet, such as green papaya salad. “It’s a very refreshing and robust food category, and it can be very light if you need to fill in some healthier dishes on your menu,” Thorn says. The best way to learn more about an ethnic cuisine he calls “exotic and yet approachable,” Thorn says, is to try it for yourself. “If you really want to honor Thai food, go eat some of it.”
Thorn’s top picks for Thai restaurants:
For an extra kick, serve Marzetti® Sriracha Bourbon Sauce on the side or as a finishing sauce