Each time I return to Chiang Mai my ritual is the same. I head down my lane to a small cart run by a shy Thai woman who cooks the food before dawn in her small wooden house, then sets up her cart opposite it. I lift the lids of her metal pots one by one, peer inside and breathe deeply. Usually there’s a green or red curry with chicken that has the sweet scent of coconut milk and the enticing anise-bite of Thai basil and green chiles. Then there’s a vegetable curry, made with pumpkin and eggplant, a fish curry wafting lemongrass, and stir-fried greens. Of course there is a huge pot of jasmine rice.
After a few bites of spicy red curry and lightly cooked, brilliant greens, my jet lag is forgotten and I am anchored back in Thailand.
The scent of food abounds at every turn in Thailand—it’s on the street, in boats, in carts and wafting out of kitchens. Thai dishes are striking in their balance of sour, sweet, salty and spicy and their generous use of fresh herbs. Like other Southeast Asian cuisines, you can see the influence of China in its noodle dishes and wok cooking. With several major rivers, including the Mekong, and miles of coast, fish and seafood are served often. Meat, as in many Asian countries, is used more sparingly. The fertile plains of central Thailand are blanketed in rice paddies, and rice is a mainstay at meals.
As a culinary and travel writer, I’ve been visiting Thailand for 25 years and I spend a chunk of the winter each year in Chiang Mai in the mountainous north. But my home base is Toronto. There, Thai restaurants are everywhere. But I’d rather cook homemade Thai food than eat takeout. It’s fresher-tasting, I can use good-quality ingredients, add extra vegetables and control the amount of added sugar and sodium. But one of the main reasons I cook Thai at home is that lots of the dishes are quick and easy, especially when you keep a few essential ingredients on hand.
It’s so simple, in fact, that even my university-age kids, whose cooking style tends toward pasta topped with jarred sauce, make Thai curries. When my younger son, Tashi, cooks supper, he loves to make red curry. He puts on a pot of rice, then starts frying a spoonful of store-bought curry paste in a little oil and coconut milk. When it’s aromatic, he adds one or two of his favorite orange veggies like carrots or sweet potatoes. He pours in water and simmers until tender, splashing in a little more coconut milk partway through. To finish, he seasons it with fish sauce and fresh basil. In just 30 minutes he has a meal for a crowd.
Tashi’s curries are utterly delicious, though he’s never put out such a spread as that on my neighbor’s cart in Chiang Mai. But it doesn’t matter. When my Toronto kitchen is filled with the floral notes of jasmine rice bubbling on the stove, the chile-and-aromatics of sizzling curry paste, the bite of Thai basil, I can close my eyes and almost feel the soft air and golden light of Thailand.