Samui Wining & Dining
T hat ’s a What ?

Vegetable shopping in Thailand can be quite an eye- opening experience.

 

16A few years ago, eating your ‘greens’ would include spinach, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and green beans, and very few people (in the West) could even name another green veggie, let alone know how to cook one. Then suddenly, it was fashionable to cook Asian-inspired (albeit westernised) dishes, and supermarkets and greengrocers started stocking kale and bok choy – but that was about as far as it went.

      Nowadays, most big cities will have Asian markets supplying restaurants and trendy cooks with a wide variety of Asian fruit, vegetables and other products. But still – even with the West opening their larders to Asian vegetables, if you visit a market in Thailand, you’ll still be surprised at the array of vegetables, many of which you’ve never seen or tasted before. Walking around the fresh market can be a little intimidating, so it’s a good idea to bring a Thai friend along to explain the curious-looking vegetables on offer. Another good way to learn about them is to take a cooking class that includes a trip to the market beforehand with the chef. This way you’ll learn not only how to select the veggies, but also how to prepare and serve them.

      And even vegetables that we all know, come in many shapes and sizes in

Thailand. The common eggplant, big, purple and shiny, known for its use in Mediterranean cooking, is available here. But eggplant (makeau) comes in all shapes and sizes here. There’s the tiny ‘pea’ eggplant (makeau phuang), which is not commonly available outside of Thailand. They grow in clusters and look like oversized green peas. They are often added to curries or are eaten raw with nam prik (spicy chilli paste).

      Thai eggplants (makeau prau) resemble golf balls, and are pale green and white in colour. They’re served raw and crunchy as part of a mixed platter of raw vegetables and herbs, or steamed until soft and are a main ingredient in green curry. You’ll also find cucumber-sized pale purple Chinese eggplant as well as smaller finger-sized versions. And don’t be put off by the small, watery looking tomatoes. They might not be full of colour, but they are full of flavour.

      But it’s the greens that really cover the full spectrum of both flavours and shapes. The aptly named ‘long bean’ – it really is long, about a foot or more, is used in curries, stir-fries and som tam (green papaya salad), and is a little crunchier than a regular green bean. Wing beans (tua poo) are very crunchy, and a strange irregular shape with almost serrated edges. They’re often eaten raw, or chopped up in fish cakes.

       Heading to the roots, both taro (puaek) and yucca (mun sum pa lunk) roots are mainly used in making Thai desserts. Yucca is also known as tapioca or cassava in the west. Lotus root (hua bua) is another that’s used in Thai desserts, as well as drinks. Potatoes are the one vegetable group that lacks variety in Thailand, but you will find them used in curries such as massaman.

      Fak kiow – careful how you say that one out loud – is also known as fuzzy squash. This, as well as smooth loofah gourd (buap hom), and opo squash (nam tao) are used in soups and stir-fries.

         Garlic is used in virtually all Thai dishes, and most contain an onion of sorts too – from crispy little Asian chives or chive flowers, to green salad onions, white onions and small red shallots.

         Bananas, although strictly speaking not a vegetable, do form a big part in Thai cooking. The fruit itself is used in desserts, the leaves are used to wrap ingredients in cooking, such as for sticky rice dishes or baked fish, and the flowers are used in salads or served on the side of phad Thai – only the tender, inside part is eaten. Bamboo shoots and water chestnuts are used in several dishes, including stir-fries and curries, as is the daikon radish (hua pak got kao), which resembles a large white carrot.

         In Western cuisine, herbs are usually used in cooking, and few, other than basil, coriander and parsley are eaten raw. In Thai food, there’s a fine line between herbs and vegetables, and you’ll often find bunches of herb-like greens lying with the vegetables at the market. Although they’re often used in cooking, they’re just as likely to be munched raw, often forming part of salads or on platters of greens used to cool or cleanse the palate alongside a spicy meal. Sadoa flowers and leaves are very bitter and are eaten with laab (a spicy minced meat dish from Isaan). Isaan food contains many ingredients that are an acquired taste, and also accompanying laab, are the very sour samek leaves, and the more palatable tia to, citrusy-tasting leaves.

         But the best way to explore the diversity of Thai vegetables is to just give them a try. Some you’ll like, some you might not. But that’s all part of the fun of discovering a new place and what it has to offer.

         

Rosanne Turner


 


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