Thai cookery places emphasis on lightly-prepared dishes with strong aromatic components. Thai cuisine is known for being highly spiced. Balance, detail and variety are important to Thai cooking. Thai food is known because of its balance of five fundamental flavours in each dish or the general meal: hot (spicy), sour, sweet, salty and (optional) bitter.
Although considered a single cuisine, Thai food would be more accurately described as four regional cuisines corresponding to the four main areas of the country: Northern, North-eastern (or Isan), Central and Southern, each cuisine sharing similar foods or foods derived from those of neighbouring countries and regions: Burma (Myanmar), the Chinese province of Yunnan and Laos to the north, Cambodia, Laos in addition to Vietnam to the east and Malaysia to the south of Thailand. In addition to these four regional cuisines, there is also the Thai Royal Cuisine which can trace its history back to the palace cuisine of the Ayutthaya kingdom (1351-1767 CE). Its refinement, cooking techniques and its use of ingredients were of great influence to the cuisine of the Central Thai plains.
The culinary traditions and cuisines of Thailand's neighbours have influenced Thai cuisine over many centuries. Regional variations tend to correlate to neighbouring states in addition to climate and geography. Southern curries usually contain coconut milk and fresh turmeric, while north-eastern dishes often include green lemon juice. The cuisine of North-eastern (or Isan) Thailand is heavily influenced by Lao cuisine. Many popular dishes eaten in Thailand were originally Chinese dishes which were introduced to Thailand mainly by the Teochew people who make up the majority of the Thai Chinese. Such dishes include chok (rice porridge), kuai tiao rat na (fried rice-noodles) and khao kha mu (stewed pork with rice). The Chinese also introduced the use of a wok for cooking, the technique of deep-frying and stir-frying dishes, noodles and soy products.
Certain insects are also consumed in Thailand, especially in Isan and in the North. Many markets in Thailand feature stalls which sell deep-fried grasshoppers, crickets (jing reed), bee larvae, silkworm (non mai), ant eggs (khai mot). The culinary creativity even extends to naming: one tasty larva, which is also known under the name "bamboo worm" (non mai phai), is colloquially called "freight train" (rot duan) because of its appearance. Most of the insects taste fairly bland when deep-fried, somewhat like popcorn and prawns, which is still fairly tasty, but when deep-fried together with kaffir lime leaves, chillies and garlic, the insects become a good snack to accompany a drink. In contrast to the bland taste of most of these insects, the maengda or maelong da na has been described as having a very penetrating taste, much like that of a very ripe gorgonzola cheese. This giant water bug is famously utilised in a chilli dip called nam phrik maengda. Some insects, such as ant eggs and silk worms, are also eaten boiled in a soup in Isan.
Popular Thai Foods
Thailand’s food needs little introduction. From San Francisco to Sukhothai, its profusion of exotic flavours and fragrances make it among the most coveted of international cuisines. As a walk through Bangkok forcefully reminds, these flavours and fragrances are seemingly inexhaustible. However, whether it is juicy pieces of grilled pork on a stick or a fiery bowl of ‘Tom Yum’ soup.
Tom Yum Goong (Spicy Shrimp Soup) - The quintessential Thai aroma! A bold, refreshing blend of fragrant lemongrass, chilli, galangal, lime leaves, shallots, lemon juice and fish sauce shapes this classic soup, giving it its legendary herbal kick. Succulent fresh prawns and straw mushrooms lend it body. A versatile dish that can fit within virtually any meal.
Som Tum (Spicy Green Papaya Salad) - Hailing from the Northeast state of Isaan, this outlandish dish is both great divider - some can't get enough of its bite, some can't handle it - and greatly distinctive. Garlic, chillies, green beans, cherry tomatoes and shredded raw papaya get dramatically pulverized in a pestle and mortar, so releasing a rounded sweet-sour-spicy flavour that's not easily forgotten. Regional variations throw peanuts, dry shrimp or salted crab into the mix, the latter having a gut-cleansing talent that catches many newcomers by surprise!
Tom Kha Kai (Chicken in Coconut Soup) - A mild, tamer twist on Tom Yum, this iconic soup infuses fiery chillies, thinly sliced young galangal, crushed shallots, stalks of lemongrass and tender strips of chicken. However unlike its more watery cousin, lashings of coconut milk soften its spicy blow. Topped off with fresh lime leaves, it's a sweet-smelling concoction, both creamy and compelling.
Gaeng Daeng (Red Curry) - Made with morsels of meat, red curry paste, smooth coconut milk and topped off with a sprinkling of finely sliced kaffir lime leaves, this rich, aromatic curry always gets those taste buds tingling. At its best when the meat is stunningly tender, it's mild, sweet and delicately fragrant.
Pad Thai (Thai style Fried Noodles) - From Cape Town to Khao San Road, the default international Thai dish! Dropped in a searing hot wok, fistfuls of small, thin or wide noodles (you choose) do a steamy minute long dance alongside crunchy bean sprouts, onion and egg, before disembarking for the nearest plate. A truly interactive eating experience, half its fun (and flavour) lies in then using a quartet of accompanying condiments - fish sauce, sugar, chilli powder and finely ground peanuts - to wake it from its slumbers.
Khao Pad (Fried Rice) - Fried rice, egg, onion, a few herbs - nothing more, nothing less. A popular lunch dish served typically with a wedge of green lemon and slices of cucumber, the secret of this unpretentious dish lies in its simplicity. The concept is this: you're the one devouring it, so you dress it. To do so, Thais use everything from prawns, crab or chicken to basil, chilli and left over vegetables, in the process turning an unremarkable pauper into a gastronomic prince!
Pad Krapow Moo Saap (Fried Basil and Pork) - An incredibly popular ‘one plate’ dish for lunch or dinner, fried basil and pork is certainly one of the most popular Thai dishes. It is made in a piping hot wok with lots of holy basil leaves, large fresh chilli, pork, green beans, soy sauce and a little sugar. The minced, fatty pork is oily and mixes with the steamed white rice for a lovely fulfilling meal. It is often topped with a fried egg (kai dao) you will most likely be asked if you would like an egg with it. Be aware that most Thai people ask for lots of chilli in this dish so if you are not a fan of tingling lips, ask for you pad krapow ‘a little spicy’.
Gaeng Keow Wan Kai (Green Chicken Curry) - Morsels of fresh chicken, cherry-sized eggplants (aubergines) tender bamboo shoots, sprigs of coriander and generous handfuls of sweet basil. But how does it get so gloriously green? That’ll be the spoons of green curry paste that's stirred furiously into hot creamy coconut milk, served alongside a bowl of fragrant Thai rice.
Yam Nua (Spicy Beef Salad) - If there was such a thing as a 'Salad Hall of Fame', Thailand's zesty own breed or 'yam' as they are known here, would surely take pride of place. Experience the fresh, fiery thrill of yam nua - with its sprightly mix of onion, coriander, mint, lemon, dried chilli and tender strips of beef.
Kai Med Ma Muang (Chicken with Cashew Nuts) - Pardon the pun, but tourists go nuts for this stir fried dish. Perhaps it's the wildly contrasting textures of a dish that sautés chicken alongside roasted cashews, sweet soy sauce, onions, chillies, pepper, carrot and mushrooms. Perhaps it's the sweetening dash of honey that appeals. It's simple but scrumptious, a little bit tame and yet still totally Thai.