try some Thai

Thai meals strive for balancing flavors and textures, with an emphasis on fresh herbs over powdered mixtures. /Photo: George Mendel

The Mt. Lebanon area is now something of a gastronomic hub.  In recent years, Thai cuisine has been a prominent addition to our mélange of fusion, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and local flavor restaurants. There are now five Thai choices nearby—two pan-Asian venues, Sesame Inn and Jade Grille; Thai Touch on Washington Road; and just a quick hop over the border in Dormont are My Thai and Thai Spoon.

Thai food can largely be defined by the borders of the country. Many Thai proudly point out that Thailand’s border takes the shape of an elephant. The elephant’s trunk, along the Gulf of Thailand, rests against Malaysia, while the ear goes almost to China. Since the borders were culturally porous for centuries, Thai people were exposed to many flavors that they later incorporated into their
own cuisine. Southern Thai food offers hotter, spicier food with influences from Malaysia and Indonesia, while northeastern food is heavily influenced by Laos, bringing strong flavors and elegant salads. Thailand’s central region developed dishes with coconut milk.

Jade Grille owner Justin Liu says of Thai cuisine: “China (is the) most influential of food from (the) old days.” Frying, especially stir frying for quick, crisp results, along with noodles, were Chinese imports into Thailand.

Clockwise from Bottom: Red Curry Chicken, Famous Spicy Tangy Fish Filet, Jade Spring Roll and Shrimp Pad Thai. A few of the many special Thai dishes that the Jade Grille, known for its more contemporary Chinese dishes, creates. /Photo: John Schisler

Asian neighbors were not the only contributors to Thai food. There were also influences from the western hemisphere, brought by traders from The Netherlands, France, England, Spain and the Middle East. Chilis are said to have been brought into Thailand during the late 1600s by Portuguese missionaries who had developed a taste for them while working in South America.

Thai cuisine also reflects a substantial Indian influence. Buddhist monks are thought to have brought curries from India to Thailand, but there are major differences between the two interpretations. “Thai uses … fresh herbs instead of powdered,” says Liu. That is said to increase the pungency. He adds that “Indian food is more stew like.” Dairy products from Indian cookery were replaced by coconut oil and milk.

A few fresh herbs, plus some standard complementary ingredients, are used in dozens of dishes, or ground into a paste which is then added to a curry. That array of components may include galangal root, clove, turmeric, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, Thai basil, Thai hot chilis, shrimp paste and fish sauce. Plus coriander, of course, the leaves, stems, seeds and roots of which each impart a different note.

It may sound complex, but Sesame Inn manager Danny Ng says, “… Chinese (is) more complicated,
Thai less complicated.” The herbs help layer tastes of sweet, spice, sour, bitter, salt (which) combine all ingredients to make Thai food, says Ng. The herbs work in harmony. For instance, the sour taste of lime softens the heat of the chilis.

At Sesame Inn,  manager Danny Ng and hostess Kentty Cheng welcome guests to try Chinese, Thai or both. /Photo: George Mendel

Creating an entire Thai meal, however, can be complicated because of the number of dishes, says Pat Bosken, owner of Thai Touch. Authentic Thai meals would have soup, curry, fish and vegetables as basics, with more dishes as appropriate. Balance is important. A spicy curry, for instance, would be offset by a cool salad. Unlike American meals, which are food specific, Bosken says the same foods, not necessarily the same dishes, are eaten at all three Thai meals. Just as the food itself is layered, diners can layer the dishes, mixing and matching to create their favorite combinations.

There is one more component that rounds out the Thai meal. Ted Haralambiev, co-owner of My Thai, with his wife, Jaa Suwannanan, says that cooks “… put out condiments so everybody can adjust (the taste) to what they want.” Hot sauces and sweet, cool sauces are examples.

Has Thai food become Americanized in the sense of true Mexican versus Tex-Mex? Can we expect to find hot dogs cut up into curry? “Thai food is still very authentic,” says Bosken. “(It is) not from a can as yet.” Some ingredients may be held back—Americans have not developed a fondness for bitter melon or bitter cucumber, he notes—but those are exceptions.

Fortunately, our local restaurants are committed to strict authenticity thanks to the training and long experience of the chefs/cooks. Suwannanan began cooking at a tender age. “Jaa is the queen of papaya salad,” says Haralambiev with a smile. “She was barely out of diapers and making the salad.” Suwannanan says her grandmother “went to restaurants to teach them how to make food. When they had a weak part of the menu, she would teach them how to make it better.” An industry consultant, in other words. She wrote down the recipes which the family continues to use.

Thai Spoon in Dormont. /Photo: George Mendel

Curries are just one of many Thai dishes that include dumplings, satays and salads. Noodles are ubiquitous whether made from wheat or rice. For those who have never tried curry, Thai Spoon’s yellow curry is a nice introduction, incorporating familiar vegetables, a sweet, creamy sauce with a hint of spices, making for a pleasant comfort food.

Pad Thai, a combination of noodles, bean sprouts, eggs, meat or tofu and flavorings is often said to be the Thai national dish. Each of our local Thai restaurants offers their own unique take on Pad Thai. Try them all and choose your favorite.

Thai food is the result of dozens of influences that over the centuries have become a unique amalgam of contrasting yet balanced elements. It is a light, delicious, exotic yet also pleasingly familiar—think salads and skewered meats—cuisine that can be easily customized with condiments.

Best of all, most Thai foods, especially curries, are easy to do at home if you use some of the readily available, excellent canned pastes—no need to grind your own. Thai curries actually are easier to make than many American stews, soups and

There are a few standard curry pastes: Panang, Massaman, red, green and yellow. Again, each uses variations on the basic herbs, chilis and spices, although panang adds peanuts, while green, obviously, uses green chilis rather than red. They are built to pair best with specific meats and vegetables. Duck and pieces of fresh fruits are wonderful with red curry.

Unless specified otherwise, curries, as well as most other Thai food, are served with jasmine rice.

To paraphrase a Thai wish at mealtime: “Enjoy your delicious food.”



Pomelo Salad

Pomelo are a large, thick-skinned citrus similar to grapefruit but with more sweetness and less astringency. A refreshing pomelo salad is just the thing for a warm summer day. It is a flexible dish that adapts to some creativity. If pomelo are not available, try grapefruit, or a combination of oranges and not-quite-ripe mangoes for a delicious, if not purely authentic, taste.

4 servings


4 pomelos, sectioned, membranes and pith removed, juices reserved (4-6 cups of fruit)

2 cups chopped salad greens (any combination)



2 Thai chilis, dry roasted, seeds and membranes removed, crumbled, or ½ Tablespoon hot chili paste, or to taste

¼ cup. fish sauce

1 clove minced garlic

3 1/2 Tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 Tablespoon water

4 Tablespoons white sugar (Add another tablespoon if you are using grapefruit.)

Reserved fruit juices


Toppings and Garnishes

4 Tablespoons raw (most authentic), or roasted, salted peanuts (my preference), roughly chopped

1 cup lightly packed shredded fresh mint leaves

¼ cup unsweetened (most authentic) or sweetened (my preference) coconut flakes

4 kaffir lime leaves, shredded (optional)

1 pound. shelled shrimp

4 hard boiled eggs, sliced in quarters (optional)



  1. Divide the greens among four plates.
  2. Put the fruit in a bowl.
  3. Mix all ingredients of the dressing and stir vigorously until the sugar has dissolved.
  4. Pour the dressing over the fruit and mix gently.
  5. Divide the dressed fruit evenly over the four portions of greens.
  6. Divide one egg per person, if using, evenly around the fruit. Divide the shrimp evenly over the top of the fruit. Sprinkle the peanuts, mint leaves, kaffir lime leaves (if using) and coconut evenly over the fruit.

Serve immediately.


Massaman Curry

4 servings

Meat and Vegetables

1 pound. beef, fat and gristle removed, in small chunks (or use chicken) Skirt steak works well, cut in strips.

2 medium potatoes, peeled, cut into 2″ square chunks, steamed until “al dente”

1 large white onion, cut into eighths, separated at the layers


Oils and Liquids

4 Tablespoons canola or other liquid vegetable oil (Do not use olive oil.)

20 ounces of coconut milk (Do not use lite.)

1/2 cup beef stock (or chicken stock if chicken is used)


Pastes, Spices and Other Seasonings

Seeds from 1 whole white cardamom (or ¼ teaspoon dried)

2 garlic cloves, minced

4 Tablespoons palm (preferred) or brown sugar, or to taste

3 Tablespoons tamarind concentrate

1 4-ounce can of massaman curry paste

2-inch piece cinnamon stick, dry roasted (optional)

1/8 teaspoon (scant) freshly grated nutmeg (Do not use powdered nutmeg.)


Toppings and Garnishes

4 Tablespoons raw (most authentic), or roasted, salted peanuts (my preference), roughly chopped

2 Thai chilis, dry roasted, seeds and membranes removed, crumbled (optional), or to taste

20 Thai basil leaves, shredded


  1. Heat the oil until very hot.
  2. Fry the cardamom seeds until just fragrant, stirring constantly.
  3. Fry the garlic until just slightly translucent, stirring constantly.
  4. Add the beef or chicken and stir fry until just barely cooked.
  5. Carefully add the stock; it will splatter. Incorporate all the other ingredients into the liquid.
  6. Add the coconut milk and stir until incorporated.
  7. Add the massaman paste and stir until broken up and well incorporated. (Note: You can start with 2 ounces of the paste and adjust to taste.)
  8. Add the tamarind concentrate and palm sugar, stirring to incorporate.
  9. Add the cinnamon stick.
  10. Cook over low-medium heat until the mixture has thickened, stirring regularly, about 30 minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick and discard.
  11. Add the potatoes in the last 10 minutes to finish cooking and warm up.
  12. Add the onions in the last 5 minutes to just barely cook; they should have some slight crunch to them.
  13. Ladle the curry into bowls over jasmine rice.
  14. Sprinkle the peanuts, chilis (if using) and basil leaves over the dish. Chilis or chili sauce may be served (instead or in addition) on the side (most authentic).

Serve hot with extra rice available.

A note on palm sugar:

Palm sugar traditionally comes in a hard-pressed cake or cone that is very difficult to use. It is now available ground, but it dries out even more easily than brown sugar. Store airtight or freeze.

A note on tamarind:

Tamarind is an astringent fruit that is sold in a variety of forms. My favorite is a pressed, seeded block of pure fruit. I think it gives a better flavor to the final dish, but it does require more sugar to offset the astringency. The most common forms of diluted fruit are concentrate and sauce; I prefer the former. Both are easier to find in local grocery chains than the pressed fruit.