Sag Harbor Days: Memories of Thai Flavors

Spring Grain Bowl with Thai Flavors.

One of the most memorable dishes I’ve ever eaten was a plate of Thai basil chicken at a neighborhood restaurant near my student apartment during my graduate school days. It was a textbook example of balanced cooking. Sugar, vinegar, fish sauce and herbs provided sweet, sour, salty and bitter flavors, which shone through even though the chicken was so spicy that it actually made me cry. I wasn’t alone. A waiter circulated through the small dining room constantly with a silver pitcher of ice water, refilling glasses as they were quickly drained by customers like me who appeared to be in distress while devouring food flavored with incendiary Thai chilies.

I thought of that dish as I contemplated some leftover rice and a half-dozen farm eggs I had picked up the other day. Like chicken, rice is pretty bland when served on its own. When stir-fried with some special sauce, and spiked with chilies, it would be anything but. Slide a fried egg on top and it would be a complete meal.

Fish sauce is easy to find at any supermarket and adds umami flavor to rice along with salt. Other authentic Thai ingredients aren’t always available at King Kullen or the IGA. Thai red chilies are potent, about 100,000 units on the Scoville scale and 20 times hotter than the average jalapeno. They deliver a lingering heat, which builds as you continue to eat them. Take care when chopping such hot chilies, and consider wearing rubber gloves. The chili oil in the peppers can be difficult to wash away. Inadvertently touch your eyes and you will experience painful stinging and burning. If Thai chilies are unavailable, substitute a smaller amount of Habanero peppers, which are even hotter — up to 350,000 units on the Scoville scale — than Thai red chilies.

Thai basil has small leaves with purple stems. Its flavor is similar to the sweet basil available in supermarkets here, but with a hint of licorice. Sweet basil is a very good substitute. Unlike Thai basil, sweet basil loses its bright green color when cooked over high heat. For an attractive presentation, hold back half of the basil leaves and stir them into the rice just before serving.

Coconut sugar is made from the sap of the flower bud stem of the coconut palm. It is traditionally used in South and Southeast Asia, where coconut palms are plentiful. Coconut sugar has gotten some press lately for its supposedly lower glycemic impact and trace amounts of some vitamins and minerals, but mainstream nutritionists aren’t calling it a health food. You can find it at Provisions, but granulated sugar or Turbinado sugar (“Sugar in the Raw”) will provide the same sweetness.

I used white basmati rice in my dish, but it would be just as good with any leftover grain. Brown rice would add a nutty note. Barley or farro would give it a pleasantly chewy texture. If your grains are unseasoned, you might need a little salt along with the fish sauce. Taste after stirring in the sauce and adjust accordingly.

Spring Grain Bowl with Thai Flavors

Makes 2 servings

Seasoning is a matter of taste. Serve this dish with additional vinegar, sugar, and fish sauce on the side and adjust as necessary.

1/2 cup fresh basil leaves

1 garlic clove

3 Thai red chilies or 1 habanero pepper (or more or less to taste)

1 1/2 teaspoons fish sauce

1 teaspoon oyster sauce

1 teaspoon coconut sugar, granulated sugar, or Turbinado sugar

½ teaspoon white vinegar

2 shallots, thinly sliced

1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 1/2 cups cooked rice, barley, or farro

2 large eggs

  1. Finely chop 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, the garlic clove, and the chilies. Place in a medium bowl and stir in the fish sauce, oyster sauce, sugar, and vinegar.
  2. In a large skillet, heat one tablespoon oil. Add the shallots and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the shallots are golden and crispy, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate. Add the basil mixture to the pan and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
  3. Stir in the grains and press the mixture evenly against bottom of the pan. Cook until grains crackle, about 1 minute; toss and press against the pan again. Continue to toss, press, and cook until the rice is lightly toasted, about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in the remaining whole basil leaves, and cover to keep warm.
  4. Heat the remaining 1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil in another clean skillet over medium-high heat. Fry eggs until whites are set but yolks are still runny, about 3 minutes. Top bowlfuls of grains with the eggs and sprinkle with crispy shallots. Serve immediately.