Written by Amy Roberts in collaboration with Thrive Market. See original publication here.
Salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and spicy flavors are all represented in equal measure in nearly every dish in Thai cuisine, from zesty, chewy Pad Thai noodles to deep, aromatic curries loaded with rice and veggies. It’s an impressive feat to balance each of these flavors in a single dish—even more so when you consider that Thai cooking often eschews recipes in favor of knowledge passed down from generation to generation.
Leland Copenhagen and Sarah Hughes, the founders of Yai’s Thai, aim to level the playing field when it comes to cooking Thai food at home. Their colorful, modern brand creates Thai sauces made using only wholesome ingredients based on the family recipes that Leland remembers eating as a child.
Yai’s Thai toes the line between traditional and modern, and their goal is to encourage people to experiment with Thai cooking in a way that suits lots of different diets, tastes and skill levels. “We want to get people away from feeling like they have to follow a complicated, multi-step recipe to enjoy Thai flavors,” Sarah says of the brand’s mission. “Before I met Leland, I wouldn’t have tried to make Thai food myself; it just seemed inaccessible. But we want people to feel more comfortable experimenting [with Thai flavors] in the kitchen.”
So whether you’re looking for a healthier alternative to your traditional takeout, a way to enjoy Thai food on a keto or paleo diet, or just a simple weeknight dinner option that you can make on the fly, Yai’s Thai makes it simple to incorporate those complex Thai flavors into your own cooking.
A Flavorful Balancing Act: The Basics Behind Thai Cooking
According to Leland and his mother, Thai cuisine’s balanced, fresh flavors “are rooted in daily trips to markets”. She credits herb gardens and roots grown in the backyard, fresh coconuts “milked” by hand-pressing, and certain key ingredients for the distinctive Thai flavors found in each dish. Things like lemongrass, makrut lime, coconut, and ginger each lend key notes to Thai curries, soups, stir fries, and salads.
“[In Thai cooking], you cook by taste and how things are married together,” Leland says. “Everything in Thai food is about balance: a balance of heat, acid, sweet, savory, salty. All those flavors being in balance is the most important thing.”
Most Thai dishes are aromatic and at least somewhat spicy, though specific flavors and dishes vary from region to region. “Just like in the U.S., Thailand has a lot of different nuances in different regions,” Leland explains. “My family has some roots in the Northern part of Thailand, which is very mountainous, and some of them are more from the Southern, hot beach areas. The biggest difference is that in the North there are no coconuts, so the curries there (like our Prik Khing Curry) don’t have any coconut milk in them.”
Instead of trying to encompass the vastness and long history of Thai cuisine, Yai’s Thai offers a uniquely accessible view of the modern Thai experience Leland grew up with. “We’re not spanning the whole country by any means, we’re just trying to distill it down into what is authentic to us,” Leland explains. “We want to represent the heritage as transparently and authentically as we can.”
As an added perk, Thai cooking organically allows for a lot of versatility when it comes to abiding by specific diets or health goals thanks to the fresh ingredients used. “Thai cooking uses all whole ingredients,” Leland explains. “A lot of the buttons that we hit in terms of Whole30®, paleo, keto, [and other diets] weren’t even things we were trying to do. We wanted to remain authentic to the roots of the recipes, and we just happened to fit into some of those boxes because so much of Thai cooking is just so clean.”
Thai Food Just Like Yai Makes It
“The difficult thing with Thai cooking in general is that there’s not a lot of writing down of recipes,” Leland explains. So, the couple set out to capture those family recipes in easy-to-use ways. Yai’s Thai makes it simple to add some of the most well-known Thai sauces to veggies, meats, and noodles in the same way that you might pour a jarred pasta sauce over spaghetti.
The couple started out canning the sauces in their own garage to sell them at local farmers markets and events around the Denver area. “It was a really grassroots start,” Leland says. “We just wanted to do something together,” Sarah remembers of that time. “It seemed like an adventure we could have together.”
More often than not, each sauce still starts with Sarah and Leland discussing flavors with Leland’s mother or grandmother. “We’ll go in with an idea, and either my mom or my Yai or someone in the family will say, ‘Let’s take this recipe and see if we can come up with a sauce that will work well,’” Leland says.
Sarah and Leland experiment with each new sauce in their home kitchen, tweaking the flavors in small batches until it tastes just right. This warm, communal approach to cooking applies to not just the type of foods the brand creates, but the way they want you to enjoy the food as well. “The kitchen is a very central place in a Thai home,” Leland muses. “My family always asks guests what they would like to eat as opposed to what they would like to drink, so that just gives you a good idea of how central food is. These recipes are things that I grew up eating, cooking, or just kind of being around.”
“We’re trying to represent the experience that’s authentic to us and Leland’s family, which is Thai-American,” Sarah explains. “Yai’s Thai is like Yai’s grandkids, not Yai — it’s like she’s cooking for us. It’s like you’re going to these family gatherings and having that warm, kitchen-centered, happy feeling.”
Which leads to one final question: how does Leland’s Yai feel about the name Yai’s Thai?
“She really does like the name a lot, actually,” he laughs. “I think we’ve done her proud.”
How to Use Yai’s Thai Sauces
Yai’s Thai makes it easy to add Thai sauces to veggies, noodles, and just about anything else you can imagine (Thai mashed potatoes, anyone?) Here are Sarah and Leland’s quick tips for using their flavorful products.
- For a tried-and-true Thai dinner, sauté your favorite veggies with a meat or plant-based protein, then add any Yai’s Thai sauce on top. “Everything we make is meant to be poured in with vegetables and protein — whatever you would normally cook,” Leland says. “Instead of serving that plain, you can use our sauces just like pasta sauce.”
- While Thai restaurants typically cook with fresh noodles, you can replicate those dishes at home by buying dried rice noodles. Sarah and Leland suggest soaking the noodles first, then cooking according to the directions on the package and adding a Yai’s Thai sauce for flavor.
- Can’t find traditional Thai rice noodles? Sarah suggests using any noodles you have on hand for a fun Thai fusion dish. “There are definitely more traditional ways to make each of the products we have, or you can go off the rails and make it with fettuccine,” she says. “When Leland’s family cooks, it’s very much a little of this, a little of that. You can’t really mess it up, just have fun with it!”
- New to Thai flavors? Try the Yellow Thai Coconut Curry. “We actually call our yellow curry our ‘gateway curry’ — it’s not super spicy, and it has a wide range of flavors that are balanced quite well,” Leland says.
- Want to recreate your favorite Thai takeout classic? Make your own Pad Thai with a modern twist using the brand’s Thai Almond Sauce.
Amy Roberts is Thrive Market's Senior Editorial Writer. She is based in Los Angeles via Pittsburgh, PA.