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Fish sauce, rice and everything nice

A sprinkle of the Thai kitchen essentials is sometimes all it takes to make a simple dish more splendid

comfort food: Soft boiled rice porridge with fish and squid, below. photos: Suthon Sukphisit

What are your seasoning staples for cooking? In the average Thai kitchen, we have fish sauce, sugar, chilli sauce and tomato sauce. What about the other essentials for home cooking? These may include rice, dried fish, salted eggs, frozen ground pork and shrimps.

Many households will also always have herbal ingredients on hand like garlic, red onion, coriander, cucumber, chilli and lime, ready to cook for a slightly more extravagant meal.

These ingredients may come to the rescue when, for instance, you have a long weekend and you don't want to dine out. Why not cook for yourself when you have everything at home?

Basic meals like kao kai jeow (rice with omelette) are served with chilli fish sauce. Boiled rice is another easy meal you can make fast and serve with fried kun chiang (sweetened Thai sausage), kai kem (boiled salted eggs) and yum gung haeng (spicy dried shrimp salad).

But if you have some more time and would like to try something more challenging, you can make kao pad (fried rice). This dish demands a bit more from your culinary skill set.

There are individual tricks for cooking, frying and boiling rice to make them their best.

Fried rice comes from Chinese cuisine. The art of making it has developed over time. There is a saying that the ultimate test of whether you can cook can be demonstrated by making fried rice. It is not surprising to see that it's always the finale of any Chinese banquet menu.

The trick to making fried rice is warming the pan to the proper heat and waiting until the oil starts to vaporise. Then you whisk a duck egg in the pan and wait until it gets dense before putting in rice and stirring to mix the egg in it. Then put in the fried meat -- pork, beef, chicken or seafood, your call -- which you prepare separately beforehand. Stir to mix everything and add boiled chopped kale stems. This is Chinese-style fried rice.

However, the recipe and method varies depending on personal taste and ingredients. Generally, fried rice isn't meticulously made at most restaurants. The cook might just toss in some chopped garlic, sliced onion and tomato, meat, egg and rice together, stir-fry it and season it with sugar and fish sauce.

There are a variety of ways to cook Thai-style fried rice. You may use shrimp paste left over from yesterday's dinner to fry with rice for kao kluk kapi (fried rice with shrimp paste). Many like kao pad pla tu (fried rice with salted mackerel). Glam both up a bit by adding spring onion and kun chiang to make it kao pad nam phrik (fried rice with chilli paste). If you have basil and ground pork, you can make kao pad bai kra prao and eat it with fried egg.

Now we come to kao tom (soft boiled rice porridge), considered a single-dish meal, which can be prepared easily or more complicatedly based on the added touches you want to provide.

You start by preparing the stock soup made of boiling pork or chicken bone with a clove of garlic and coriander root, then season it with soy sauce and salt. The most familiar porridge is kao tom pla (fish). The fish most suitable to this dish is king mackerel as the meat hardens with heat. You boil the rice separately from the soup and fish.

A special take on the kao tom might include mu ba teng (pork sliced into tiny square shapes stewed with soy sauce and sugar), tao hu luaeng tod (fried sun-dried yellow tofu) and dried shrimp. Garnish this with sliced spring onion and Chinese celery. This makes for a perfect and sophisticated dish.

For Kao tom mu and Kao tom kra duk mo (soft boiled rice porridge with grounded pork meatball or chopped spare rib), mix the ground pork with soy sauce, sugar and pepper and leave it to settle before eventually adding it to the boiling soup. Add this ingredient to the prepared boiled rice. As for the kao tom kra duk mo, add the chopped spare rib to the boiling water to make the soup. Mix it in when serving a bowl of boiled rice. To garnish, sprinkle with fried garlic, Chinese celery, dried cabbage leaves and pepper. In the past, porridge lovers liked to add sliced omelette on top for an extra special touch.

For me, however, I enjoy the idea of making the boiled rice porridge with a range of different ingredients. The other one that I like for porridge is the hard-to-find pla krai, fried featherback fish, which normally is made with tawd mun (fried fish paste balls). To make it, fry the fish meat with garlic, coriander root and pepper until it is deep fried. Add it to the prepared boiled rice.

Both fried rice and boiled rice porridge are easy-to-make dishes. They are tasty and nutritious, and perfect for a long weekend spent at home. Instead of calling for pizza and fried chicken on delivery, make these two quick but rewarding dishes for a change.

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