Welcome to the amazing world of Thai cuisine!
Thai food is globally popular due to its healthful ingredients and tantalizing blend of flavors. Once one learns a few of its secrets, delicious Thai dishes are remarkably simple to prepare. Fortunately, Thais are rightfully proud of their cuisine and happy to share its secrets.
Thai food mirrors the history and geography of the country and its people with an emphasis on natural ingredients found in Thailand’s rivers, seas, and forests or grown in simple gardens. Naturally, Thailand’s famous jasmine rice is a staple of most meals. In its development, Thai cuisine borrowed from the regional mega-cultures of India and China. Early Portuguese traders introduced the Thai to the spicy power of chilies. Nonetheless, these influences are subtle, blended and balanced in local styles that are uniquely Thai. Large ingredients such as chunks of fish or meats are eschewed in favor of modest portions that are shredded or chopped. Heavy spices such as those found in Indian curries are toned down with herbs such as lemon grass and galanga. Coconut milk serves as a substitute for dairy ingredients. Thai cuisine manifests the spirit of the Thai people: a balance of harmony and individuality, inclusiveness, and spontaneity. Hence, it is rare to find a Thai dish prepared by two different chefs that tastes exactly the same.
There are clear regional variations in Thai cuisine, a reflection of history and ecological circumstance.
Northern Thai food is influenced by the cuisines of neighboring Burma (Myanmar) and the Thai’s ethnic cousins, the Shan. The region is landlocked, hence beef and pork are more common ingredients than fish. Northern Thailand is famous for its oxtail soup and Chiang Mai’s deliciously rich creamy derivation of a Burmese curry dish, Khao Soi.
Northeastern (Isan) dishes are influenced by the cuisine of Laos. Another landlocked region, Isan dishes typically feature minced pork, beef, or fish paste blended with local herbs, garden produce, and occasional foraged delicacies such as ant eggs. Fiery chilies are a prominent ingredient. The meal is usually balanced with a serving of delicious sticky rice.
Cuisine from Central Thailand tends to be more cosmopolitan and a bit less spicy, but no less exciting. Fish and large freshwater prawns are often featured. The cuisine is smooth with longer lasting flavors and a touch of sweetness. A typical setting includes four or five dishes: a soup, a curry with condiments, a dip or paste, some variation of fish, accompanying vegetables and, of course, rice. High cuisine seeks to harmonize tastes and textures within each dish and in the overall meal.
Southern Thai cuisine quite naturally features the bounty of the sea. Malaysian and Chinese influences are also evident. Pork dishes popular elsewhere in the country are practically nonexistent. Coconut milk-based curries are thick, spicy, and overwhelmingly flavorful. Locally grown nuts and a uniquely pungent long green bean called a Sadtaw (it’s actually harvested from a tree) are common additions along with sour fish soups and shell fish. A roti or other Muslim flat bread may accompany the meal in place of rice.
No Thai cuisine discussion would be complete without mentioning Thai fruits and snacks. Thai people love natural snacks like dried fruit and fried or sun-dried crisp snacks like shrimp, squid, or beef, often mixing salty and sour flavors in unusual combinations. In addition to familiar fruits like melons, mangoes, and pineapple, Thailand has an abundant variety of less common fruits such as mangosteen, papaya, jackfruit, starfruit, rambutan, and, of course, the formidable, durian. Large Thai meals always include a finishing course of polamai ruam (mixed fresh fruit).