Cooking is just like producing and DJ'ing. No great big revelation there - mixing really is just like cooking. There's equal ingredients of science and artistic innovation, put into motion by combining sometimes disparate ingredients, sometimes familiar ones, in new and unexpected ways.
That being said, I've been experimenting with Southeast-Asian cooking for many years now. I've found Green Mangoes and Lemon Grass to be the best cookbook to get you started. There is some equivocating in this and most other SE Asian cookbooks about substituting ingredients. What I've learned is that you must use genuine ingredients to get the true taste of the food, and no substitution is worth it.
If you live in NYC, Udom is your one-stop shop for all things Thai. The block of Chinatown that this store is on is where to find all of your SE Asian cooking needs, though Udom has most of what you'd need for any SE style. The owner gave me some crucial hints that I'd like to share. Also if you're in Seattle, Viet Wah is the BEST store ever for all asian groceries, though they specialise in SE Asian.
Many of the recipes in Green Mangoes rely on making "tamarind water" by soaking Tamarind Paste in warm water and letting it sit for 15 minutes, then using the resulting water. The guy at Udom said to use this Tamarind soup concentrate, and boy is he right! I use less of it then the "tamarind water" usually. Also the other key I'm finding is to use real palm sugar. It's a much smoother, rounder sweet taste, and when combined with Tamarind, makes things taste like Thai food! Regular sugar is just too sweet and harsh. Tonight I'm going to try using a new kind of fermented bean paste with ong choy (water spinach), I'll post results - another ingredient suggested by Udom.
So I feel ok in posting this recipe from Green Mangoes because I am tweaking it with the above ingredients. You should buy the book. It's gorgeous and has tons of hints and a useful dictionary of ingredients. PS I use peanut oil instead of veggie oil. It is amazing stuff that burns a lot hotter than any other oil and it tastes good esp. when you're frying stuff.
1/2 cup of Tamarind sour soup base (see link above, must be this brand)
1/4 cup of water
4 tblsp fish sauce
3 tblsp palm sugar
1 tsp soy sauce
1.25 lb white fish filets (I used local northwest red snapper, but halibut works great too!)
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup flour (corn flour is best but I've used regular white flour)
Enough peanut oil to fry the fish in a wok (I poured in enough to cover the bottom of the wok with about 1/4" of oil) - this is another key mod
1 tblsp crushed minced garlic
1 tblsp finely minced ginger
1 large red chili (I used a korean red chili as is commonly available at Uwajimaya to great effect), minced
2 tblsp minced fresh mint
Combine the sour soup base with the water, fish sauce, sugar, and soy sauce in a bowl, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Depending on the type of palm sugar you got, a bit of may stay gloppy. Most of it should melt. Set aside.
Rinse and dry off the fish. Grind a bit of pepper onto it, and then dip each filet into the flour, coating both sides. Heat the oil until very hot but probably not smoking if you're using peanut oil. Add the fish, skin side down if skin is still on (not a tragedy if not). Lower to medium heat. Cook 3-4 minutes depending on how thick the fish is. Flip the fish and cook another 1-2 minutes. Transfer to a plate and keep warm. Don't throw out the oil.
Using the same wok and oil, stir-fry the garlic, ginger, and chili over medium heat for 30 seconds. Add rthe tamarind mixture and simmer 1 minute, stirring constantly. Stir in the mind leaves and immediately pour the sauce over the fish. Garnish with extra mint sprigs.