Photos by Leigh Beisch

When I arrived in Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1975, my eyes were dazzled by evidence that I was far from my North Carolina home: water taxis and rice barges on the Chao Phraya River, floating markets, palm trees and bamboo groves, beautiful green-and-orange-tiled Buddhist temples. Even more wonderful to my senses was Thailand’s extraordinary cuisine: an abundance of intense flavors bursting forth from a rainbow of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices.

Thai food adds up to a healthy balance of natural ingredients that are heavy on flavor, yet generally light on fat and calories.

Now that I teach and write about Thai food and cook it often for my family, I appreciate the healthy way Thai people traditionally eat. They adore eating a little of a lot of good things. Rice anchors most meals, a plain and satisfying foil to highly seasoned dishes. Fish is the main protein source; meat serves more as a seasoning than as a central ingredient. Vegetables and tofu play major roles for their texture and as showcases for other strong flavors. Thai cooks infuse dishes with the freshest, most pungent herbs and spices, including cilantro, basil, lime, tamarind, and chilies, and they work culinary magic by putting sweet fruits like pineapple, grapefruit, and coconut in savory dishes. It adds up to a healthy balance of natural ingredients that are heavy on flavor, yet generally light on fat and calories.

Southern Thai Rice Salad with Fresh Herbs
(Kao Yum Pahk Dai)

Serves 8–10 / Traditional kao yum includes dried shrimp, a tangy sauce seasoned with shrimp paste, and a few herbs and vegetables seldom found in the West. My vegan version combines traditional and creative ingredients; don’t worry if you can’t find them all—simply use what’s available, or add something else you like.

Use kitchen scissors to cut the wild lime leaves.

2 stalks fresh lemongrass
1 cup shredded or flaked unsweetened coconut, toasted
6 wild lime leaves, cut crosswise into very thin strips (optional)
1 tablespoon ground dried red chili flakes
1 cup fresh green beans, thinly sliced crosswise on the diagonal into little ovals
1 cup cooked fresh or frozen edamame beans
1 cup peeled and diced fresh cucumber (seeded if desired)
1 cup fresh bean sprouts
1 cup diced tart green apple
1 cup chopped fresh or canned pineapple or grapefruit
1 cup dry-roasted, unsalted cashews or peanuts, chopped or whole
6 cups cooked long-grain brown or jasmine rice

1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
1/4 cup fresh lime juice or white vinegar
1/4 cup pineapple juice
1/4 cup pineapple chunks
3 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped garlic
1/4 teaspoon chili-garlic sauce or other hot sauce

1. Combine all dressing ingredients in a food processor or blender and blend until smooth. Set aside until serving time, or refrigerate for up to 5 days. (Makes about 2/3 cup.)

2. Trim lemongrass down to a 3-inch plump stalk with a smooth base, discarding any dried outer leaves. Carefully slice crosswise, cutting as thinly as possible, to make very thin rounds. Set aside. Chop and prepare all remaining salad components.

3. Place rice in a large serving bowl. Add all salad ingredients and toss well. Add about half of the dressing and toss again. Serve with additional dressing on the side.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 392 calories
% fat calories: 35
Fat: 16g
Saturated Fat: 6g
Cholesterol: 0mg
Protein: 11g
Carbohydrate: 55g
Fiber: 6g
Sodium: 186mg

Shrimp Soup with Lemongrass and Lime
(Tom Yum Goong)

Serves 4–6 / Thai cooks leave the tail portion of peeled, deveined shrimp attached; it turns a beautiful bright red, and one can hold it if eating the shrimp by hand. Roasted chili paste, a spicy-sweet, slightly smoky condiment sold in the Asian section of natural groceries, is also delicious as a meat rub, tossed with noodles, or in soup.

For a vegetarian dish, omit shrimp and fish sauce, add 1 teaspoon salt, and include more mushrooms: shiitakes, oyster, and canned straw mushrooms, halved lengthwise.

1/4 cup fresh lime juice
5 whole Thai chilies, bruised with flat side of knife, or 1 jalapeño, thinly sliced
6 wild lime leaves, torn or cut in quarters, divided
3 tablespoons thinly sliced green onions
1 tablespoon fish sauce
2 tablespoons roasted chili paste (such as Thai Kitchen brand)
3 stalks fresh lemongrass
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups water
5 quarter-size slices fresh galangal or ginger
1/2 pound raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 cup thinly sliced shiitakes or other mushrooms
1/3 cup fresh cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped

1. In a large serving bowl, combine lime juice, chilies, 3 of the torn or cut wild lime leaves, green onions, fish sauce, and roasted chili paste. Set bowl aside by the stove.

2. Trim lemongrass stalks to a 3-inch base, discarding outer dried leaves; halve base lengthwise and chop coarsely. In a medium saucepan, combine chopped lemongrass, broth, water, and galangal or ginger; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, scoop out lemongrass and galangal. Discard.

3. Return soup to a boil and add shrimp, mushrooms, and 3 remaining torn or cut wild lime leaves. Cook 2–3 minutes more, just until shrimp are pink and cooked through. Remove from heat and pour immediately over seasoning mixture in serving bowl. Stir once. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro and serve hot.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 107 calories
% fat calories: 18
Fat: 2g
Saturated Fat: 0g
Cholesterol: 86mg
Protein: 16g
Carbohydrate: 6g
Fiber: 1g
Sodium: 598mg

Red Curry with Beef, Sweet Potatoes, and Edamame
(Gaeng Peht Neua)

Serves 6–8 / Thais enjoy this curry with lots of jasmine rice, but you could use basmati, brown rice, couscous, noodles, or even good bread. For a vegetarian curry, omit the beef and fish sauce and add 1 teaspoon salt, along with pineapple, chickpeas, or firm tofu. Remove lime-leaf bits before serving.

Shake or stir coconut milk well before measuring. Leftover coconut milk freezes well; keep it for use in rice pudding or another curry.

1 cup unsweetened coconut milk, divided
1 tablespoon red curry paste
1/4 pound lean beef, sliced into thin 2-inch strips (tri-tip or flank steak)
1 1/4 cups low-sodium chicken broth or water
1 1/2 cups peeled, bite-size chunks sweet potato or butternut squash
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon light brown sugar or palm sugar
4 wild lime leaves, torn or cut into quarters
1/2 cup frozen edamame or green peas

1. In a medium saucepan or heavy skillet, bring 1/2 cup of the coconut milk to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Simmer for 1–2 minutes, until fragrant and slightly thickened. Stir in curry paste and reduce heat to medium. Cook about 2 minutes, stirring and pressing to dissolve paste.

2. Scatter in beef and cook, tossing once or twice, until it changes color and is coated with curry sauce. Add remaining coconut milk, broth or water, sweet potatoes, fish sauce, sugar, and wild lime leaves. Bring to a full boil. Reduce heat to maintain a lively simmer and cook, stirring now and then, until beef is done and sweet potato chunks are tender but still firm, 6–10 minutes.

3. Stir in edamame or peas, remove from heat, and let stand, uncovered, for 5–15 minutes. (You can serve it at once, but the flavors enlarge as the temperature settles.)

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 211 calories
% fat calories: 53
Fat: 13g
Saturated Fat: 8g
Cholesterol: 13mg
Protein: 11g
Carbohydrate: 15g
Fiber: 2g
Sodium: 298mg

Grilled Salmon with Chili-Lime Sauce
(Plah Sah-mohn Pao)

Serves 6 / Thais eat lots and lots of fish. Salmon is not traditionally Thai, but I use it here because its flavor fits right in with Thai seasonings. You can also use catfish, tilapia, or other firm fish. Try the sauce with anything steamed, fried, or grilled.

3 tablespoons coarsely chopped garlic
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro leaves and stems
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
1 1/2 pounds salmon fillets (or tuna, snapper, cod, catfish, or tilapia)

Sauce (optional)
2 tablespoons fish sauce
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh hot green chili, such as jalapeño
1 teaspoon finely chopped cilantro

1. For the marinade, combine garlic, cilantro leaves and stems, fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar, salt, pepper, and oil in a food processor or blender and grind to a fairly smooth paste. (Or grind in a mortar with pestle, combining solid ingredients and then stirring in liquid ingredients.) Transfer to a medium bowl or large zip-top bag and add fish fillets, turning gently to season well. Cover and set aside for 30 minutes, or refrigerate for up to 1 day.

2. For the sauce, combine fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and garlic in a small bowl, stirring to dissolve sugar. Sprinkle with chili and cilantro and set aside.

3. Coat a grill rack with cooking spray and preheat, or lightly oil a shallow baking pan and preheat oven to 425°. Remove fish from marinade and cook until done, turning once, about 5 minutes per side (longer for thicker fillets). Arrange on a serving platter, along with a small bowl of sauce, if using, to spoon over fish. Serve hot or warm.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 286 calories
% fat calories: 52
Fat: 16g
Saturated Fat: 3g
Cholesterol: 75mg
Protein: 25g
Carbohydrate: 9g
Fiber: 0g
Sodium: 624mg

Pad Thai Noodles
(Kwaytiow Paht Thai)

Serves 6–8 / Thais usually enjoy paht Thai at a noodle shop or market cafe, where expert cooks make it their signature dish. In its original country-style form, paht Thai included salty dried shrimp and small rods of crisp fried tofu, but Thais love to personalize the dish, so interpretations abound. It calls for lots of ingredients, but once you start cooking, it goes fast.

To make this vegan, simply omit the egg.

1/2 pound dried rice noodles
1 egg
1 teaspoon canola or olive oil
3 tablespoons tamarind chutney (or 1 tablespoon hoisin sauce plus 1 tablespoon lime juice plus 1 tablespoon sugar)
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
1-2 teaspoons salt (optional)
1/2 teaspoon dried red chili flakes or chili powder (optional)
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped garlic
1/2 cup chopped green onions (green and white divided to add separately)
1/2 cup firm tofu, cut into 1-inch rods
1/2 cup sliced shiitakes or other mushrooms
Water, as needed
2 cups fresh bean sprouts, divided
1/4 cup coarsely chopped dry-roasted, unsalted peanuts
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/3 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
Lime wedges, for garnish

1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil; add rice noodles and remove from heat. Let noodles steep 3 minutes. Drain, rinse in cold water, drain again, and place by the stove.

2. Beat egg with 1 teaspoon oil. In a small nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, add egg and swirl to cover the pan in a thin sheet. Cook 30 seconds to 1 minute, until egg is set. Flip to cook other side briefly, and turn out onto a plate to cool. Roll up egg and cut thin slices crosswise, to make long strips. Set aside.

3. Combine tamarind chutney (or hoisin, lime juice, and sugar), soy sauce, sugar, and salt and chili flakes, if using, in a small bowl, stirring well to dissolve sugar. Place noodles, sauce mixture, and all remaining ingredients by the stove, along with a serving platter and a spatula or long-handled tongs for tossing the noodles.

4. In a large, deep skillet or wok, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat, then add garlic and the white part of the chopped green onions. Cook 1 minute, then add tofu and mushrooms. Toss well and cook 1 minute more, until mushrooms are shiny and tender.

5. Add noodles and spread them out to cover the pan. Gently scoop and scrape to turn and heat evenly. Add tamarind–soy sauce mixture and continue cooking, turning and scooping, to cook and season evenly. Add a splash or two of water to prevent sticking, as needed.

6. Add half the bean sprouts, reserved egg strips, green part of the green onions, peanuts, lime juice, and cilantro. Remove from heat. Toss to mix well. Mound mixture on a serving platter, arrange remaining bean sprouts and lime wedges on the side, and serve hot.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 276 calories
% fat calories: 27
Fat: 9g
Saturated Fat: 1g
Cholesterol: 35mg
Protein: 7g
Carbohydrate: 45g
Fiber: 2g
Sodium: 266mg

Photos: food stylist, Merilee Bordin; prop stylist, Sara Slavin