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Thai food is currently enjoying international popularity. Only twenty years ago, almost no one outside of Thailand had any knowledge of Thai cuisine whatsoever. Now, Los Angeles alone has more than 200 Thai restaurants, and many others can be found in almost every other major city in the world.

What produces the wide range of tasted in the assorted curries, soups, salads, snacks, and sweets cooked Thai-style? Of the fresh seasonings, the most celebrated are the chilies, more than a dozen different kinds, varying a great deal both in flavor and in potency. The most explosive chili is the smallest, a yellow-orange bombshell know as prig khee nu. A number of large chilies, several degrees milder, are also used when a less aggressive flavor is called for.

A wide range of dried spices is found in a Thai kitchen. The most frequently used, perhaps, is pepper (prig thai), usually the white variety, which goes into almost every non-sweet dish. In addition, there are the dried skins of the Kaffir lime, cumin seeds (yira), nutmeg (loog junn), cardamom (grawan), bay leaf (bai grawan), clove (garn plu), cinnamon (ob choei), curry powder (pong kari), dried chilies (prig haeng), sesame seeds (nga), and saffron (ya faran).

Equally essentials is coconut (maprao), the milk of which is used in curries, soups, and sweets. The olive-like maggot is an ingredient in some chili pastes, and carcinia (madunn) lends a sour taste to many dishes.

Numerous other fresh plants are also added to Thai food. Lemon grass (tha krai) lends a delicate taste to several soups and salads, and the leaves of the Kaffir lime (bai magrood) are used in certain curries.

Several roots play a part in Thai cooking. Among these are three or four different varieties of ginger (khing), galanga (kha), tumeric (khamin), and coriander roots.

Sauces are essential to any Thai meal often to provide a salty contrast to the blend of sweet and sour that characterizes many dishes. The most popular are fish sauce (nam pla), and shrimp past (gapi), a concoction of dried shrimp and assorted spices which many regard as one of the tests of a good cook.

The proper combination of all these ingredients is considered a high art in Thailand, one that required both skill and time. In the most discriminating kitchens, the preparation of a single sauce can take hours of grinding, tasting, and delicate adjustment until the exact balance of flavors is achieved. Only then, say the masters of the art, can the true glory of Thai cooking be fully appreciated.

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