The cuisine of Thailand is a cornucopia of nature’s gifts in this land of abundance, and reflects the country’s rich history; blending elements of several Southeast Asian traditions. There are actually four regional cuisines in Thailand: Northern, Northeastern (Isan), Central and Southern, and these are, in turn, influenced by the surrounding countries and regions. Southern curries, for example, often contain coconut milk and fresh turmeric, while dishes in Isan tend to include lime juice. Visitors to Bangkok will have the chance to try Thai cuisine at its very best; made with all the fresh local ingredients.
Ranging from chilli-hot to comparatively mild, each dish or meal makes a balance between three or four of the sweet, sour, salty and bitter tastes. With harmony as the keynote, Thai food is also distinguished by a generous use of fresh herbs and spices as well as the use of fish sauce. Meals typically consist of rice with a colourful array of complementary dishes served together and shared by everyone at the table. The display makes a visual feast and is a delight to the palate as well as being very healthy. At the same time, many of the popular dishes, especially those with noodles, were originally Chinese dishes that were introduced to the country by the Chinese communities here. The Chinese also brought the wok into Thailand and the techniques of deep-frying and stir-frying as well as oyster sauce and soybean products. Thais have adapted certain dishes from India, such as yellow curry, and the massaman curry is influenced by Persian cuisine. In addition, the influence of the Thai Royal Cuisine, which goes back several centuries, has influenced the cooking of Thailand’s Central Plains.
Rice, noodles and aromatics
As in most Asian cuisines rice is a staple grain of Thai cuisine. The scented jasmine rice that is indigenous to Thailand is highly prized; growing abundantly in the luxuriant patchwork of paddy fields that cover Thailand’s central plains. This naturally aromatic long-grained rice is often steamed to accompany highly aromatic curries, stir-fries and other dishes, perhaps with chilli peppers, lemongrass and lime juice. Another type of rice that grows here is sticky rice, which has a sticky texture when cooked. This sticky rice is used in Northern Thailand and Isan, where people shape it into small, sometimes flattened, balls which are then used to dip into side dishes.
Noodles are also popular and are usually served as a single dish, like noodle soups or the stir-fried Pad Thai. There are three main types of rice noodles as well as egg noodles and the very thin kind made from mung bean flour and known as cellophane noodles. Many Chinese noodle dishes have been adapted to suit Thai taste, such as the sour and spicy rice noodle soup, kuai-tiao ruea, and the curry soup with egg noodles, khao soi.
Herbs, spices and the exotic
Kaffir lime leaves give their characteristic flavour to nearly every Thai soup, including the hot and sour tom yam and to many of the curries. The leaves are often a part of curry paste, mixed with turmeric, garlic, galangal, lemon grass, and/or finger root, all blended together with various chillies. Banana leaves encase ho mok pla, a spicy steamed pâté or soufflé that is made with fish and coconut milk. Banana flowers make an appearance in Thai salads and are minced and deep fried in patties. Fresh Thai basil adds its fragrance in certain dishes such as green curry. The culinary repertoire also brings cilantro and mint into play, as well as ginger, and tamarind. The spices are usually freshly ground in a pestle and mortar, thereby giving the best flavour.
Thais use five varieties of chilies – and they have given them wonderfully descriptive names – like ‘garden mouse-dropping chilli’ for the smallest and hottest one, and ‘sky pointing chilli’ for a larger green or red chilli.
A characteristic ingredient used in nearly all Thai dishes is nam pla, an aromatic and strongly-flavoured fish sauce. It is a fragrant and salty condiment that is prepared with fermented fish. Some types of fish are fermented with shrimp and spices. Thais sometimes add one of these sauces to spicy papaya salad. Thai shrimp paste, called kapi, which is fermented ground shrimp and salt, goes into red curry paste, certain rice dishes and into the renowned chilli paste called nam phrik kapi.
Of the many exotic fruits grown in Thailand, the tamarind brings the sour flavour to many dishes, and from the coconut comes coconut sugar, coconut vinegar, and coconut milk. Thais also serve the juice of a green coconut as a drink and eat the young flesh. Even more exotic are the insects especially favoured in Isan and in the North but Bangkok market stalls also sell deep-fried grasshoppers, crickets, silkworm, ant eggs, bee larvae and termites. Thais have extended their culinary creativity to one tasty larva, also known as ‘bamboo worm’, to calling it ‘express train’ because of its appearance.
Although eating insects may be too alien for some people, Thai cuisine is like a great musical symphony where everyone can find melodies and harmonies to delight them.