Sun, 13 Mar 2005

Thai cuisine: Tasty and healthy!

Susanna Tjokro, Contributor, Jakarta

These days, Thai food seems to be everywhere. But, not all of the restaurants serve authentic Thai cuisine, so if you are wanting some genuine Thai cooking, try dropping by the Bogor Cafe in the Borobudur Hotel.

The Exotic Thai Food Festival is taking place from March 7 to March 16. All food is prepared by four experienced Thai chefs, Chutchanok Boonchai (33), Teeraneth Boonnak (35), Aranya Mingkwan (31) and Kritsana Ukritrat (42). All of them teach culinary arts at the prestigious Suan Dusit International Culinary School.

"Thai food is more than just Tom Yam soup. We would like to present the variety of Thai dishes to people around the world," said Teeraneth Boonak who has worked as a chef in Slovenia, Austria, India and the Caribbean.

Indeed, Thai food differs from region to region. Thai cuisine can roughly be divided on a regional basis into northern, north- eastern, central and southern cooking. Food tends to be spicier in southern regions.

"Today we are presenting food from the central region. The central region also has what is called the Royal cuisine or Palace cuisine, which is influenced by the Royal kitchen," said Teeraneth Boonak.

The complicated art of fruit and vegetable carving that grew out of that Royal cuisine also completes this "Exotic Thai Food Festival", with Aranya Mingkwan's beautiful fruit and vegetable carvings on display.

Thai food is widely known for being very hot and spicy. But, contrary to this belief, not all Thai food is hot, including the food served at this festival. I had initially thought that the chefs had toned down the hot spices, however, I was wrong. As a person who cannot stand hot and spicy food, I was pleasantly surprised.

Thai food has a very distinctive flavor due to the abundance of fresh herbs and spices used. Thai cuisine provides a balance of hot, sour, salty as well as sweet flavors. Thai limes, tamarind, coriander, lemon grass, kaffir-lime leaves, ginger and shallot are just a few of the flavor-rich ingredients that dominate Thai dishes. Laos, Indian, Malay and Chinese cuisines have also influenced Thai cooking.

Som Tam (papaya salad) is a of the most popular Thai salads. Thai salads are cold dishes that almost always contain meat or chicken, and include dishes such as Spicy Chicken Salad (Yam Kai Yang), Spicy Dry Beef Salad (Yam Nue Dad Deaw) and Spicy Seafood Salad (Yam Talay).

Krathong Thong, translated as "minced chicken stuffed in a golden cup", is a bite-sized mouth-watering appetizer that should not be missed.

Meanwhile, Massaman Kae (Massaman Lamb Curry) is spicy curry with chunks of beef in coconut milk and a creamy curry paste. I've never been crazy about beef, but I found the Massaman Kae simply delicious, reminding me of Indonesian rendang. Chicken lovers should taste Pad Khing Kai, a delicious stir fried chicken dish with ginger and mushroom in oyster sauce. Meanwhile, satay aficionados shouldn't miss their tasty Thai satay. The famed tangy and sweet pad Thai (Thai fried noodles) is also on display.

Cheese and chocolate cakes are not included on Thai menus, with most desserts being based on rice, coconut milk and fruits. One of the most popular desserts is Sticky Rice with Mango (Khao Neow Mamuang). This dish combines the flavor of mango with sweet, creamy sticky rice. I found the sticky rice too sweet for my liking. My favorite was the delicious Thai Coconut Pudding, which was not too sweet.

I finished up by sipping luscious, creamy Thai Iced Tea, which somehow, oddly, reminded me of a milk shake -- but better. It was rich, smooth and pleasant and served to balance the spicy meal.

Thai food is known as healthy cooking, with natural herbs, spices and flavorings, rather than artificial ingredients being used to enhance the flavor of the dishes.

"In Thai cuisine, you can have it all, delicious food and better health. The ingredients used in Thai cooking carry medicinal benefits. It is a fact that Thai herbs are beneficial to health," said Teeraneth Boonak. Indeed, a herb like basil is known to combat flus and coughs, while shallots are used to treat stomach discomfort. Lemon grass is also known to combat flu.

In addition, fresh fruits are also included in Thai menus. Mango, pineapple, durian, watermelon, and banana -- you name it. Those fresh fruits, besides being delicious, also provide dietary fiber and vitamins. No wonder then that the chefs claimed that eating Thai cuisine, from the appetizer to the dessert, is actually good for your health.

By the way, all four chefs look much younger than their real ages. I wonder, is it because they eat healthy Thai food every day?

Exotic Thailand Lunch: Rp 120,000++ per person Dinner: Rp 130,000++ per person Bogor Cafe, Hotel Borobudur Jakarta Jl. Lapangan Banteng Selatan Tel: 380 5555