Wait to exhale, But garlic is great

The pungent herb is indispensable in many popular dishes and its Thai variation offers a particularly pungent flavour infusion

It is always surprising to hear people say that they don't eat garlic because it seems so ubiquitous that keeping clear of it presents a challenge. Garlic is included in all kinds of dishes in almost every country worldwide. It has been used for thousands of years, and although the plant originated in Asia it has long since spread throughout the West. Even bread, that symbol of Western cuisine among rice-eating Asians, is sometimes flavoured with it.

CLOVE CALL: From left: Chinese garlic already chopped up, Chinese garlic is popular for its large bulbs and ‘plaa thawt krathiem’ with garlic sprinkled on top.

In traditional Thai food, and that of every ethnic subgroup, garlic, or krathiem, finds its way into almost everything. Staples such as curry pastes and nam prik, basic to the Thai culinary repertoire, cannot be made without it. It is eaten raw, cooked into food as a seasoning or pickled. In each form it has qualities that make it suitable for a given type of dish.

When khao ka moo (Chinese-style aromatic stewed pork leg with rice) is eaten, little cloves of fresh garlic and small prik khee nu (bird chillies) are served along with it. Many people say that garlic lowers the cholesterol level in the blood after eating this rich dish, but even those who do not expect health benefits know that garlic completes the flavour and, with the added chillies, perfects it.

HOMEFIELD ADVANTAGE: Thai garlic is favoured by cooks who want to capitalise on its flavour. PHOTOS: SUTHON SUKPHISIT

There are two different varieties of the minced meat-based dish called larb. The first is made with beef, which is minced, mixed with seasonings, and then cooked slowly over the fire or stir-fried until done, after which blood is added. The second, called larb khua, is made the same way, except that no blood is added. The larb is eaten with different kinds of fresh local vegetables that may vary, but bird chillies and small cloves of raw garlic must always be included.

Among the many dishes that include cooked garlic, one favourite is thawt krathiem prik Thai. To make it, peppercorns are pounded to a fine consistency with a little salt, mixed with a meat of the cook's preference, set aside to marinate for a while, and then fried. One version found everywhere is made with pla, or fish _ pla thawt krathiem phrik Thai. In Central Thailand the fish used is generally the thin, blade-like pla nuea awn, while in areas near the sea pla kraphong (snapper) is preferred.

The dish can also be made with pork or _ and this is especially delicious _ with prawns, with the large variety called kung kamkram the tastiest of all. This type of prawn usually has a lot of fat in its head, and when it mixes with garlic during frying produces a dish more delectable than when made with other meats.

Crisp-fried chopped garlic is sprinkled on snacks such as sakhu sai moo (palm sugar-sweetened, seasoned pork mixed with pounded peanuts and wrapped in tapioca, then steamed), khao kriab pak maw (the same pork mixture wrapped in thin sheets of steamed rice flour batter), and Chinese-style khanom jeep (thin wheat four noodle sheets wrapped around a seasoned pork and shrimp mixture and steamed). None of these three dishes can be made without garlic.

Likewise, almost every type of kui tio, or noodle dish, where the noodles are cooked in hot water, no matter whether it is made with beef, pork, chicken or duck, has to include krathiem jio (crisp-fried garlic in oil). If the cook fries the garlic in pork oil and includes a little of the rind, finely chopped, the noodles will be especially delicious.

When frying any kind of vegetable, crushed garlic should be put into the wok first, then tao jio (a salty fermented whole-soya bean sauce) and the vegetable is added, followed by soya sauce and sugar to season it. Dishes in which the vegetable is fried with chillies, pad pak krachate and pad pak boong, for example, also need garlic.

Pickled garlic, finely sliced, must always be sprinkled on the top of mee krawp (crisp fried, fine-grade noodles with a sweet sauce and various added ingredients). Restaurants serving mee krawp without pickled garlic do not understand the dish. Pickled garlic also works wonders for omelettes or scrambled eggs.

The variety of garlic used in making the dishes mentioned above is krathiem Thai, or Thai garlic, a type with small bulbs and cloves. It is grown in the North and in Isan. In the North most of it is farmed in Lamphun, Chiang Mai, Lampang and Chiang Rai. In Isan, Si Sa Ket is famous for its garlic.

Thai garlic has a strong, hot flavour and a pungent aroma. Because of its small size, dishes that require the cloves to be peeled take a lot of time to make, especially if the garlic has to be sliced finely for crisp-frying. Slicing tiny garlic cloves is not easy.

Chinese garlic has come into wide use for several reasons. The bulbs and cloves are large and easier to slice, it is cheaper than Thai garlic, and it can be stored longer. However, it lacks the intense flavour and aroma of the Thai variety. For this reason fastidious cooks stick strictly to Thai garlic for foods like nam prik kapi and certain curry pastes. Fried vegetable dishes and garlic bread are fine when made with Chinese garlic, however.

Cooks in restaurants are often less fussy, and use Chinese garlic for everything because it is economical and easy to work with. There are spice and seasonings shops that process it for sale, using machines to chop it and then packing it in bags. Most of the buyers are kui tio shops that fry the garlic to add to their noodles.

Today, there are shops that take the process even further, chopping the garlic and then frying it for customers who don't want to deal with preparing it at all but need to have it on hand to sprinkle over dishes that call for it. Vendors who sell khao kriab pak maw and similar snacks are big customers.

But the worst offenders here are restaurants that have moo or pla thawt krathiem prik Thai on the menu, but just fry the pork or fish and then douse it with some of the shop-bought instant fried garlic to make it look good.

When restaurant kitchens inflict this shortcut on classic dishes like these to save preparation time, it does serious damage to their character. But good cooks working in their kitchens at home are willing to spend a little time to do things right, and know that Thai dishes should be made with Thai garlic. In this way they ensure that each dish maintains its true identity while also helping the farmers who grow the garlic that is so essential to Thailand's cuisine.

About the author

Writer: Suthon Sukphisit
Position: Writer