Broadening your menu horizons with must-have Thai dishes like Pad Thai, curries and super-fresh Tha salads.
Mai Pham's philosophy on preparing Thai food centers on respect for the culture. “It's hard to respect something you don't know,” however, so Pham teaches onsite chefs first with stories — about Thai street vendors and their fresh, vibrant food — and then moves onto techniques and recipes.
Pham was born in Saigon, Vietnam, and raised in Vietnam and Thailand. In 1975, at the end of the Vietnam War, she came to the US with her family and earned a degree in journalism at the University of Maryland. After a career as an on-air correspondent for ABC News and later as a political speechwriter, she launched Lemon Grass restaurant in Sacramento. Pham writes a food column for the San Francisco Chronicle, has written cookbooks and appeared on numerous TV shows.
Recently Pham has been on tour, going to several Sodexo-served campuses to help the chefs to enhance their culinary portfolio by showing them Thai and Vietnamese cooking techniques and recipes.
“Part of the expertise that I bring is translating iconic Thai dishes from restaurants to foodservice,” Pham says. “These are dishes that you do not want to miss; core dishes — the best of the best, top of mind — that we can replicate for students.”
Pham has spent a lot of her time showing staff how to “take the time to do things right,” a step Pham says makes all the difference in the final product on the plate.
Pham wants to make sure that the signature Thai flavors come across loud and clear.
“One reason Thai cuisine is so appealing is that it's Asian food that is very bright and citrusy,” she says. “As you get closer to the equator, the food is more vibrant, because of the ingredients that grow there. As you move south from China, the flavors become laced with chiles, lime and garlic.”
Here, Pham shares a bit of what gives Thai cuisine its flavor and tips on signature Thai dishes to try on your menu, such as Pad Thai, curries, and super-fresh Thai salads.
“The iconic Thai street food dish Pad Thai (see recipe) has a story. It's a street food. In Thailand, there are lots and lots of street vendors and each one takes their own family's special Pad Thai recipe and if it's good enough, they take it to the streets. In Asia, anyone can be in the business of selling food, so if you don't do a good job, you're toast. The food has got to be delicious; it has got to look fresh.
“Thai curries are very doable for onsite foodservice. You can make one big batch, and it's a simmer dish. All the aromatic basics are in the broth. Thai curry is a stew, but it's not like a pot roast. It's a light stew that can be spicy. Once people taste it, they love it.
“There are many different kinds of curries, but if you do only one curry, it's got to be green curry. It's a fresh taste, made with green chiles, cilantro and lemongrass.
There is also red curry, made with dried chiles and dried hard spices as the base, like peppercorns and coriander.
Yellow curry is closer to Indian curries in flavor with a lot of turmeric.
“Curries can be made with any protein and rice on the side. Curries are a wonderful format for vegetables. Add just about any vegetable to a curry and it will be good: sweet potatoes, snow peas, carrots, broccoli, squash.
“One of the most critical factors in executing a Thai curry is Thai basil. If you can source an ingredient like fresh Thai basil, that can add so much distinctive flavor. It's different from sweet Italian basil. It has more of an anise flavor. It's becoming easier to get, not just in big cities.
“Place your herbs in the warmest place in your walk-in, in double plastic containers. When you respect and love the herbs, they repay you with amazing flavor.
“I have seen students who have never tried Pad Thai line up for seconds. It's a signature dish in Thai cuisine, and people love noodles.
“I also focus on salads. Thai salads can add a lot to your menu. They are healthy, lighter, lower calorie, yet still very flavorful choices. Thai salads are very savory and they are often eaten as an entrée. They are a big seller at the restaurant.
“A green papaya salad with lemongrass, prawns and brown rice is very craveable and healthy, too.
“When you bite into a Thai salad, you are going to bite into a lot of flavor.
“A dipping sauce made of fish sauce, lime and garlic can be served on the side of many dishes. I take a key lime and slice it into tiny wedges and add that to the sauce. That can be served in a small sauce ramekin with a demitasse spoon.
“It's impossible to do Thai cuisine without fish sauce. You also need tamarin (a sour-sweet seasoning that can be found in the form of a paste or powder), Thai noodles, and rice paper for salad rolls.
“It's important to use the right noodles. I often say, in Italian cooking, you would not substitute a lasagna noodle when you should use spaghetti. There is just less knowledge about Thai cuisine, but that doesn't mean you can't do it right.
“Thai is an especially good area to look into if you want to menu gluten-free items, because wheat is not indigenous to Thailand.