'Kaeng Som' A thai culinary classic

This economical, distinctive and delicious dish offers a reflection of many features of traditional cooking culture

Authentic Thai food has its origins in simplicity, made from ingredients that were close at hand. Preparation was simple and did not take much time, and the dishes were served as soon as they were ready. If a number of dishes were to be eaten at the same time, the meal became special. That was the character of Thai cuisine in its original form, and one dish that remains a favourite today is kaeng som.

TASTE OF TRADITION: ‘Kaeng som’. PHOTO: SUTHON SUKPHISIT

Kaeng som is very much an authentic Thai dish. In the past, Thais ate only fish and other marine animals. They didn't like to eat animals that lived on land, especially large ones such as cattle and water buffalo. Pork came into the Thai diet later, influenced by the Chinese. Even now you will never find kaeng som made with beef or pork, and among marine animals only fish and prawns are used, never frogs, shellfish, or eels.

Kaeng som also shows the traditional Thai fondness for using ingredients that can be found near the preparer. A wide choice of vegetables can be used, varying with the season, and flowers, tender shoots, pods, roots and unripe fruit are all viable. Flowers might include common Thai types like dok khae, dok khajawn, rice flowers, or cabbage flowers; shoots might be from the morning glory-like pak boong or water-loving pak krachate; long beans or maroom can be used, as can lotus roots or banana plant runners. Baby gourds or watermelons might also go into the dish.

Kaeng som, or "sour curry", gets its name from its tanginess, and there is an ingredient available year round that supplies it _ the fruit of the sour tamarind. This can be pressed into cakes and stored for a long time without spoiling, ready for immediate use after mixing with water. In the past, every household had some on hand. Other seasonings for kaeng som were palm sugar and nam pla.

The curry paste for kaeng som is very easy to make from dried chillies, shallots, kapi _ the aromatic rhizome called krachai in Thai _ and salt. The krachai masks any fishy smell. Overall, the dish testifies to its traditional Thai origins in the use of fish as the protein ingredient, the ease of preparation and the use of vegetables, herbs and seasonings that would be to hand in the kitchen garden.

In the central Thailand version of the dish the curry liquid is thick, and gets its body from fish. The most suitable fish for making kaeng som is pla chon (snakehead fish). It is cut in two, with the tail part boiled and the meat then removed. The cooked meat is pounded together with the seasonings and then added to the pot containing the water that was used to boil the fish, which is then put on the fire. When the liquid comes to a boil the other half of the fish, cut into pieces, is added.

Once the fish is fully cooked, the curry is seasoned with sour tamarind, palm sugar and nam pla. When the proper balance of sourness, saltiness, sweetness and heat from chillies has been achieved, the fresh vegetables go in. This has to be carefully timed to ensure that they cook properly _ flowers are done quickly, while roots and fruit take longer. Some cooks like to add shrimp or prawns.

The above method describes the way Thais made the dish in the past. Today people tend to prefer a thinner soup. Cooks don't pound the boiled fish meat together with the seasonings any more either. They boil water together with the curry spices and add the pieces of fish, then seasonings and, finally, the vegetables.

A typical Thai meal includes a number of dishes to be eaten with rice. Kaeng som goes well with many other foods because it is not extremely spicy, so the meal might also include a spicy nam phrik. Or the curry might be eaten with scrambled eggs, fried salted beef, fried salted mackerel, bitter melon fried with egg, or any number of other dishes. It should not be served as part of the same meal as a tom yam, however.

Kaeng som is not exclusively a dish of the central region. Prominent on southern Thai menus are kaeng tai pla (a fiery curry made from fermented fish innards), sataw phat kapi sai kung (a crunchy, strong-smelling bean stir-fried with kapi and shrimp), and bai lieng phat khai (a type of leaf, popular in the South, fried with egg). But kaeng lueang, a southern variant of kaeng som, is also a standard, and it offers stiff competition to the central version.

Kaeng lueang, which means "yellow curry", gets its colour from turmeric, a spice that is often used in southern dishes because it covers the odour of the sea fish that are so often included. It also has medicinal properties. The curry paste used to make it is similar to that used in the central region: dried chillies, kapi, garlic (used instead of shallots in the South), salt and turmeric. Many types of vegetables can be used, even bean sprouts, and all kinds of sea fish can go into it, although not shellfish or squid.

Southerners use a different plant, makham khaek, to give the curry its sourness, and add nam pla but no sugar. The taste of southern kaeng som combines sourness, saltiness and spiciness, with no sweetness, and the chilli heat strongly dominant. Because of its heat it is eaten together with dishes that counter the spiciness, like sweet-salty shrimp or pork, fish fried with turmeric, bai lieng fried with egg or the fern-like phak kuud fried with coconut cream.

Kaeng som may be a familiar favourite that we enjoy but take for granted, but it also offers a reflection of many features of traditional Thai culinary culture. It takes ingredients that are easy to obtain and in a few simple steps transforms them into a dish that is economical, distinctive and delicious. What's more, since the herbs that go into it have medicinal properties, it is as healthy as it is tasty. No wonder kaeng som has established itself as a classic.

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