"Much of Thai culture expresses itself through food,” and nowhere is it better displayed than on a crowded Bangkok street, said David Thompson in Thai Street Food (Ten Speed Press). Packed with markets and stalls that brim with snacks, roads in Bangkok “often seem more like busy restaurant corridors than major thoroughfares for traffic.” Yet it wasn’t always this way. Though large numbers of rural migrants began settling in Bangkok in the early 20th century, only with the population explosion of recent decades did dishes such as stir-fries, noodles, fish cakes, and steaming soups begin “gradually spilling out onto the streets.”
One secret to this quick stir-fry—a mainstay on Thai streets for 50 years—is tempering the wok for an added smokiness. The recipe also works well with ground chicken or pork, whole shrimp, or scored squid.
Recipe of the week
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Stir-fried Minced Beef With Chilies and Holy Basil
4 garlic cloves, peeled
4–10 bird’s-eye chilies (scuds)
Good pinch salt
3–4 tbsp vegetable oil
6 oz ground beef
About 2 tbsp fish sauce
Large pinch white sugar
¼ cup stock or water
2 large handfuls holy basil leaves
Chilies in fish sauce (see below), to serve
Coarsely chop garlic with chilies and salt. Heat a well-seasoned wok over high heat, turn down and add 2 tablespoons of oil. Crack one egg and fry gently, shuffling egg to prevent from sticking, until it has cooked to preference. (I like a runny yolk but crispy, frazzled edges). Spoon some hot oil over egg to ensure yolk cooks evenly. Carefully lift egg with spatula and place on warmed plate. Fry other egg. Keep eggs warm while you cook beef.
Add more oil—you’ll need about 4 tablespoons in all—to wok. When hot, fry garlic and chilies for a moment, but don’t let the oil color. Add beef and continue to stir-fry for a minute until just cooked. Season to taste with fish sauce and sugar, but be careful not to make too salty.
Add stock or water and simmer a moment. Don’t let it boil or stew too long, otherwise meat will toughen and too much liquid will evaporate—there should be enough to form a sauce.
Stir in holy basil, and as soon as it wilts, remove from heat. It should taste rich, hot, salty, and spicy from basil. Serve on two plates with plenty of steamed jasmine rice, egg on top, and chilies in fish sauce on side.
Chilies in fish sauce
¼ cup fish sauce
10–15 bird’s-eye chilies (scuds), finely sliced
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced (optional
1 tbsp lime juice (optional)
Good pinch chopped coriander
Combine fish sauce, chilies, and garlic in bowl. Set aside. It keeps for some time, and becomes richer and milder as it settles for a day. Make sure to cover if making in advance. If fish sauce evaporates, add an equivalent amount of water to refresh. Stir in lime juice and coriander before serving.
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