A meal at Chili Thai, 3623 23rd Ave. in Evans, is meant to be shared. Order a variety of plates to taste and explore the flavors of Thailand. (For The Tribune/Emily Kemme)

Not all Asian food is spicy, and it’s not all Chinese take-out or sushi, either. As vast and versatile as is American cuisine, the scope of Asian food, encompassing Japan, parts of Russia, India, Vietnam, Afghanistan and others, is more so. According to the United Nations, there are nearly 50 sovereign states or dependent territories within the geographical boundaries of the Asian continent. Chili Thai3623 23rd Ave. in Evans, stir-fries up a wide assortment of dishes with the authentic flavors of Thailand.

But what is that, exactly? Are there egg rolls and fried rice? Will there be soy sauce to enhance your meal? Does everything on the menu have chilies? Does Thai food taste like the more familiar Chinese food? All these and more are good questions.

Unlike Chinese food, actually an umbrella name for the many regional cuisines of China — there is Guangdong (also known as Cantonese), Sichuan and Hunan, to name only a few — the cuisine of Thailand is slightly more uniform. It borrows from other southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, which is in close proximity. Thailand also has several regions with different focal points based on geography. And as with regional foods eaten anywhere, each has its own traditions and cultural stories associated with the dishes.

Look for fresh herbs and less oil than Chinese cooking

Thai cuisine is lighter with a focus on fresh vegetables and herbs. Little oil is used to stir-fry; in contrast, Chinese cuisine relies on a lot of oil to fry many of its dishes.

Thai cuisine centers on balancing five flavors: sour, sweet, salty, bitter and spicy. Sour flavors come from lime juice, fresh kaffir lime leaves, tamarind, rice vinegar and the delicate lemon grass, an herbal root with tangy citrus notes. Order lemongrass chicken or shrimp for a milder, aromatic dish. Sweetness is derived from palm sugar, the bountiful fruits that grace the Thai table and often are served for dessert, Thai basil, a strong and sweet basil tinged with purple stems, and coconuts.

Rather than soy sauce, fish sauce — a fermented condiment made from salted fish — is typically used to add salt and can mellow the chilies’ heat. It also contributes an umami element to a dish.

For vegetarians, ask to leave fish sauce out of the preparations.

Fresh herbs like cilantro provide bitterness. Chilies lend varying levels of heat to a dish. Interestingly, they were introduced to Thailand from the Americas in the 16th century through traders bringing new foods discovered by the Portuguese and Spanish. 

A Pu Pu Platter at Chili Thai features a selection of traditional Thai street foods mixed with Chinese appetizers. (For The Tribune/Emily Kemme)

How spicy is spicy?

Thai spices feature a wide range of ingredients that tingle the tongue. Chili paste and slivered red chilies will deliver more of a burn than fresh basil leaves (tending toward pepperiness), ginger, onions or fresh mint leaves. At Chili Thai, jalapeños are featured in several dishes, like Bangkok Beef with Basil or Spicy Thai Ginger Shrimp. Condiments like the popular red Sriracha — a chili sauce made from chilies, vinegar, garlic and salt — can be added to a dish to ramp up the fire, but if you’re a wimp, leave it off. Many dishes are prepared with a paste made from ingredients like garlic, chilies, shrimp paste, shallots, lime and spices muddled with a mortar and pestle.

Thai food is all about complexity, with herbs and spices like fresh ginger, turmeric, dried peppercorns and the cinnamon-clove star anise contributing interesting flavors.

But there are non-spicy options. Just ask your server.

Is there rice with a meal?

Rice is an important part of a Thai meal. Many different grain varieties are steamed to serve alongside meats and fresh vegetables, which are often carved into pretty shapes — part of a Thai meal is to dine with the eyes. Jasmine rice is long grained and has a delicate floral fragrance. Shorter grained rices are used to prepare the shapeable sticky rice which can be eaten by hand and dipped into sauces.

There also is fried rice. Jasmine rice shouldn’t be stir-fried, but rather should be eaten unadorned, so as not to detract from its aroma. Find sticky rice in desserts.

I’ve heard about Pad Thai noodles — what are those?

Pad Thai is a noodle-based dish where wide ribbons of rice noodles are stir-fried with egg, green onions, bean sprouts and crushed peanuts. Meat can be added — chicken, pork, beef, shrimp — or the dish can be made vegetarian with tofu. If you prefer spice, order them “Drunken ” — rice noodles prepared with basil and dried chilies. Other noodle dishes are prepared with rice noodles as thin as vermicelli or angel hair pasta. Find these in the Vietnamese rice noodle bowl, topped with a choice of meat or tofu, and served with lettuce, ground peanuts and a chili-lime sauce.

Red paper lanterns and a sparkling chandelier give Chili Thai’s dining room a festive note. (For The Tribune/Emily Kemme)

Why is there curry on a Thai menu?

Curry is not limited to Indian cuisine. The Thai palate includes both red and green curries, each prepared with a chili paste as its core, often with a coconut milk base. Thick and soup-like, Thai curries can be mild and sweet, include potatoes and peanuts, and often are served with the ubiquitous rice.

Chili Thai offers Panang, a sweet red curry, a spicier green curry with bell peppers, onions, bamboo shoots and jalapeños, and a delicate — yet a bit spicy — pineapple curry. But remember, spice doesn’t necessarily mean eye-watering, water-gulping levels.

Why is there “Chinese” food on the menu?

Because of geographic proximity, there still will be what are considered typical Chinese dishes on the menu — they are what Americans look for in Chinese food. There are egg rolls, cheese-filled wontons and Chicken Lo Mein, alongside many other recognizable Chinese dishes.

Call it Asian fusion, or maybe because this is the United States, Chili Thai serves more than simply Thai cuisine, which was never all that simple to begin with.

— Award-winning author Emily Kemme — Musings, recipes, and a touch of satire. Follow her on her blog, Feeding the Famished or on Twitter @emilykemme





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