In the cities these days, the Thai kitchens tend to reflect various levels of the impact of Western technology. However among the less affluent, and specifically in the many rural villages, the Thai kitchen still operates as it has for hundreds of years. In this issue, we will talk about the Thai kitchens and cooking utensils as they still exist for millions of Thai people.
The kitchen in Thailand is a very simple affair, which is generally built away from the main house. It is a plain room, with a cement or dirt floor, with unglazed windows which might boast the luxury of screens to keep out the mosquitoes, although many do not even have a door, let alone window screens. In the central region, Thai homes are set on teak poles due to annual flooding during the late rainy season from September till end October.
The central feature of the kitchen is the stove, which is generally built-in, and constructed of cement or brick. It has a large aperture below to insert and remove the charcoal pot, a funnel shaped vessel of kiln-baked earthenware or a cement-lined metal pail that holds the burning charcoal. When the charcoal pot is in place, it fits directly below a circular opening in the top of the stove. This hole has flanges which hold a ‘wok’ (the traditional round-bottomed Asian frying pan) firmly in place above the charcoal fire. Extra charcoal is kept in a box or a sack beside the stove. In poorer households, they will simply use the charcoal pot, made with flanges on the top, as the stove.
Because there are no oven arrangements, there is no baking in the home, and in the entire range of Thai cuisine there are almost no baked dishes to be found.
The next most important thing in the kitchen will be a freestanding storage cupboard resembling an old-fashioned Western meat safe, made from either wood or aluminum. The back, sides and doors are all covered with wire-mesh screens to keep the flies out and allow air circulation. The legs stand in saucers of water to discourage ants and other insects. This cupboard usually houses nothing more than some stored garlic bulbs, the ubiquitous fish sauce (nam pla), some dried fish, dried chillies and perhaps some precooked cold rice.
Due to the hot climate and the fact that a Thai kitchen in the countryside seldom has a refrigerator, shopping is done daily at the local market, and leftovers are uncommon.
If the kitchen is blessed with running water, there will be a sink. In any case, there will be large, clay water-storage jars nearby which are filled with city or well water, and in which rain water is collected. There will be a few wooden shelves on the wall for extra storage, and nails in the wall on which to hang various cooking utensils and implements.
With the availability of electricity spreading through even small countryside villages, the first status symbol to arrive in the kitchens has been the electric rice-cooker. This relieves the housewife of the daily chore of preparing the rice – no small thing in a country where each person consumes approximately one pound of rice per day.
Pictured below are the tools and utensils which have been used in Thai kitchens for years. These items were originally brought by Thai ancestors who migrated from China to the northern part of Thailand. If you walked into a traditional Thai kitchen, here is what you would be likely to find:
- Stove: This is the crude charcoal burner, built of either clay or metal, on which sits a wok, large pot or steamer.
- Tongs: These are used chiefly for handling the charcoal.
- Fan: This is used to get the fire started in the stove by fanning the coals.
- Bamboo Tube: This has the same function as the fan, to keep the charcoal glowing. In this case, the air is blown onto the fire through the tube.
- Grill: Placed on top of the stove to cook meat or fish.
- Skewer: This utensil, like the grill, is laid across the stove. One end of the skewer is sharp and pointed, and meat and vegetables can be speared on it and cooked in shish-kebob style.
- Wok: This is easier to clean and distributes heat more evenly than a conventional frying pan. It is also less likely to be damaged. Used for conventional frying, stir-frying and deep-fat frying.
- Spatula: Made of wood, or metal with a wooden handle, used for stir-frying in the wok.
- Rice Pot: A clay pot with a lid and no handles. This pot is used almost exclusively for rice.
- Coconut Shell Spoon: A simple spoon with a wooden handle, which comes in many sizes. There are also similar utensils made with halves of coconut shells, used as ladles.
- Curry Pot: This clay pot has large handles on the sides that curve up above the level of the lid, which makes it easy to carry. As the name implies, it is used for the large variety of curries which the Thai people enjoy.
- Steamer: This is made of clay or aluminum, and fits atop the mouth of the charcoal burner. Since the Thai eat rice with every meal, a steamer is no luxury, but a part of every kitchen. (In fact, in Thai, the verb “to eat” is “gkin kao” which literally means “to eat rice”)
- Bamboo Strainer: This is handy for straining many foods, especially rice.
- Coconut Grater: Since coconut is used so extensively in Thai cooking, this utensil is almost a necessity and used by every housewife.
- Chopping Block: This block, unlike its Western counterpart, is usually round instead of square or rectangular in shape.
- Rice Grinder (Mill): To make rice flower, the cook puts rice into the top opening and turns the crank. The pressure inside the mill reduces the rice to powder.
- Cleaver: This large knife is used to chop, slice and dice the meats and the vast array of vegetables and herbs in Thai cooking.
- Glutinous Rice Basket: This tightly woven basket keeps sticky rice warm and moist, preserving it for a surprisingly long time without refrigeration.
- Mortar and Pestle: the mortar is made of crude earthenware, stone or hardwood, and is deep with a weighted base. The pestle is chunky. They are especially designed to cope with the moist curry pastes and for bruising lemon grass, citrus rind, garlic and coriander roots.
- Cupboard: Formerly always made of wood, but now often seen in lightweight aluminum. Used for storing dried condiments, bottled sauces, dinnerware, eating utensils and drinking vessels, etc.
Three other widely used cooking aids deserving of mention are:
- Bamboo Handled Frying Basket:: This is a large but shallow metal-mesh basket with a bamboo handle, used to lower all manner of foods into boiling oil for deep-frying.
- Noodle or Vegetable Cooking Basket: Another wire-mesh basket attached to a long bamboo handle, but this is flower pot shaped, deep and about 5 centimeters in diameter. Used for blanching vegetables or for plunging noodles into boiling water.
- Banana Leaf: The all purpose banana leaf, serves as kitchen foil, waxed paper and plastic wrap, all rolled into one. Steamed foods are wrapped in it, serving containers are shaped from it, and it is also used in numerous ways in making or being part of offerings taken to the temple on Buddhist holy days.