Think back to the first time you tried making Thai food from scratch. What you initially thought was a simple rice or noodle dish likely turned out to be a labour-intensive blend of 36 ingredients, herbs, spices and sauces.
Thai food is deceptively complex. It’s hard to achieve the balance of sweet, sour, bitter and salty the cuisine is known for without practice and a well-stocked pantry. The depth of flavour in Thai food is often the result of mixing ingredients such as lemon, palm sugar, fish sauce, lime, lemongrass and coriander.
“It’s hard to find that balance,” says Karen Batson, head chef at Melbourne’s Magic Mountain Saloon. “If you put in too much lime juice, it will take the dish in a completely different direction. How much fish sauce you use will make a big difference as well.”
Batson often encourages customers at Magic Mountain to choose a cocktail over a glass of wine or beer with their meal. She says those complex flavours are perfectly balanced by an interesting fruit-based cocktail. Wine can work too, she says, but cocktails work that little bit better.
“Fruit-based drinks really lend themselves well to Thai food. Tropical cocktails make you think of being on a beautiful beach, sitting back underneath a coconut palm,” she laughs.
Thananon Vatcharasuksilp, who created the cocktail menu at Sydney’s Asian-fusion restaurant Calabur, agrees with Batson about pairing Thai food with a fruity cocktail. Most of the cocktails on the list at Calabur are sweet and use fruits found in Thailand, such as pineapple, papaya, lychee and lime.
“If the food is sour, you go with something a bit sweeter to balance out the taste,” he explains. “The flavours should support each other rather than compete with each other. If the flavours are too different it will crush the taste.”
The sourness of fresh strawberries in Calabur’s Strawberry Sakenita cocktail pairs well with the savoury flavours in the namtok sauce on the picanha steak.
Sweet cocktails also help to balance out the heat in spicy food. Magic Mountain Saloon’s Caramel Royale, made with Bulleit rye whiskey, chocolate liqueur, cranberry, lime and caramel syrup stands up well against dishes like its chilli-heavy mixed grill.
Batson also recommends the watermelon-based Red Reviver. “It’s cooling and calming, but has a bit of a kick,” she says. It pairs well with the crunchy fried-chicken ribs. “It’s not so much that the ribs are hot, but they’re salty because of the shrimp paste. And they perfectly balance the sweetness in the watermelon.”
Another pairing she recommends is the Snow White, made with Tanqueray gin, elderflower liqueur and peach, and a chicken noodle salad. “The dry-roasted chilli and the elderflower are a beautiful combination. It’s bittersweet.”
Magic Mountain Saloon’s Snow White
Makes one. Approximately 1.5 standard drinks.
30ml lemon juice
30ml Tanqueray gin
15ml St Germain Elderflower Liqueur
15ml peach liqueur
10ml sugar syrup
dash of bitters
Combine ingredients and shake with ice, then strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a fine wheel of lemon.
This article is presented in partnership with World Class.