CHEF ERNEST REYNOSO GALA explains the irresistible temptation of Thai food, and why the popular Asian cuisine will hold his heart—and palate—forever.
Known for its rich culture, tradition and extraordinary cuisine, Thailand has become one of the culinary hot spots in the world. Attracting many tourists, Thai dishes appeal to the senses because of their unique combination of spices and herbs that layer upon each other. A common misconception is that all Thai food are extremely spicy (yes, many use various chilis, but a scrumptious trinity of spicy, sweet, and salty is done to complement the dishes, making the flavor pleasant, not overwhelming).
I first became obsessed with Thai cuisine back in 1998 when Brent International School Manila held its International Food Fair. Students from various countries were asked to bring their signature dishes and allow parents, teachers and fellow students to taste and understand a part of their culture. As I approached the Thai section, it was all too clear that the aroma was attracting many, caressing the palate like silk.
Pad Thai was my first dish, and the experience left such a lasting impression that I went home and asked my parents if I could go to Bangkok to study Thai cuisine. I quickly explained that I enjoyed eating this unique dish and my desire to learn more was so immense that I just had to travel, study, and learn everything there is to know. My passion persuaded them to consider this dream of mine. A year later, as a high school graduation gift, my mom, aunt Leni Araullo and I went and stayed at the prestigious Oriental Hotel Bangkok to take a full-course diploma on Thai cuisine.
Chef Sarsern Gajaseni taught us the rich history of Thailand, as well as various techniques in preparing and cooking authentic Thai cuisine.
The most potent of chilis, we learned, was not the big red chili but the tiny green ones. Known as bird’s eye chili (the popular labuyo in Filipino), the green chilis pack a punch like a Manny Pacquiao knockout.
For Thais, eating chili is an art, and as explained in school, placing it on the back part of the tongue reduces its potency. Exposing chili to sunlight, on the other hand, increases its potency; mixing it with water weakens the flavor. Thai people love chili because they believe that it is both an aphrodisiac and a way to cool down after a meal (due to the extremely hot weather in the region).
Fruity ingredients like kaffir lime (a signature Thai ingredient), tamarind, mango, santol, and root crops like yam and bamboo shoots are pounded together with other herbs (mint, coriander, lemon grass, horapa or sweet basil) to reduce their intense flavors and give a contrasting sweet taste to many dishes. Fish sauce (nam pla), Thai soy sauce (prain see), hibi paste with salt (kapi) are also often added to give a salty flavor.
Coconut is abundant in Thailand, and it is no surprise that most dishes contain coconut cream (from the first extraction) used in preparing curry. Thai curry is coconut-based while its neighbor India uses fresh milk or yogurt. Beef, pork and chicken are more commonly used in Thailand’s cities while in the provinces, vegetables and fish are the main ingredients. As with all cuisines, presentation is as important as the meal itself, so hand-carved vegetables and fruits are frequently used as centerpieces.
The promise of sweet, spicy and sour is as enticing to me today as when I first encountered my first pad thai. More local delicacies such as tom yum gung (chili sour soup), chili squid, pineapple rice, Thai chicken satay, catfish salad, Thai street noodles, and pork fried rice remain a gastronomic indulgence. The knowledge and experience of my travels have given me a better appreciation of a cuisine that is a foodie’s paradise. Sawadee!