by Kristie Rodgers
Thai food is famous for its aromatic and spicy qualities. Chili peppers were first imported to Thailand from the New World in the 16th century by European traders and were adopted into Thai cuisine with great enthusiasm.
However, mildly spiced dishes are also easily available. Although influences from China and India can be noticed in stir-fries and curries, Thai creativity has yielded a wide range of dishes unique to the country. The cuisine is full of distinctive flavors and complementary textures, nutritionally balanced and delightfully presented.
RICE AND NOODLES
In common with all its Southeast Asian neighbors, the Thai diet is based on the staples of rice and noodles.
The most popular type of rice is the long-grained khao hom mali (fragrant jasmine rice), which is usually steamed. However, in the north and northeast, locals prefer khao niaw (sticky rice), which is eaten with the fingers, rolled into little balls, and dipped in sauces. Jok (rice porridge) is a typical breakfast dish, with egg, chilies, and rice vinegar. Kuaytiaw (rice noodles), bami (wheat and egg) or wun sen (mung beans), are usually served fried or in a soup.
The most well-known Thai noodle dish among foreigners is phad thai (which literally means Thai fry). This delicious mix of noodles fried with fresh or dried shrimp, egg, beancurd (tofu), and bean sprouts, competes with tom yam kung for the title of Thailand’s national dish.
THE FOUR FLAVORS
All Thai dishes strike a balance between the four flavors – sweet, sour, salty, and hot – although the balance varies from dish to dish. While Thai cuisine is liberal with its use of chilies, it also features a variety of subtly flavored dishes that make use of different aromatic herbs and spices such as galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, basil, and coriander (cilantro) to enhance aroma and taste.
Pastes using these ingredients are pounded in a mortar to ensure the freshest flavor.
However, the real key to Thai cuisine is nam pla (fish sauce), which adds its typical piquancy to most dishes. Mixed with chilies, garlic, and lemon it becomes the popular condiment phrik nam pla.
REGIONAL DISHES AND SPECIALITIES
Food in central Thailand has been strongly influenced by Chinese cuisine and these dishes feature on menus nationwide, including the country’s signature dish tom yam kung.
Northern Thai cuisine takes much of its inspiration from Burma and the Yunnan province in China. Examples include khao soi, a delicious dish of boiled and crispy noodles in a mild curry broth, and kaeng hang le.
Northeastern Thais like their food with a kick, and one of their best known imports from nearby Laos is the tangy, crunchy som tam salad.
Southern food is the most fiery of the lot, where creamy coconut, turmeric, and sharp tamarind feature in typical dishes as the spicy and sour kaeng leung pla.
THE THAI MEAL
A typical Thai meal consists of a soup, a curry, a stir-fry and a spicy Thai salad, as well as side dishes of raw or steamed vegetables, served with a big bowl of rice. The meal is rarely divided into formal courses.
Westerners who do not realize this often order a soup or a salad as a starter although they are supposed to complement the main dish. The spiciness of these dishes is intended to be toned down by eating them with rice. However, Thai restaurant staff are likely to serve all dishes ordered at the same time anyway.
The only concession that Thais make to courses is with dessert, which is usually a plate of mixed fruit intended to clear the palate after the savory dishes. Many foreign visitors also like to indulge in the national favorite – khao niaw mamuang (mango with sticky coconut rice).
WHAT TO DRINK
Fruit juices Thailand’s wealth of luscious fruits, such as watermelon, mango, lychee, and papaya, are blended into refreshing juices, shakes, and smoothies. Coconut water, drunk through a straw straight from the nut, is a perfect drink for a hot day on the beach.
Beers There is a good range of beers available. Popular choices are the full-bodied local Singha and Chang.
Wines and spirits As well as locally made rice wine, wines from Europe and the New World are widely available. Thai vineyards are also starting to produce acceptable varieties. The local spirits, Mekong and Sang Som, are very palatable when mixed with ice and soda.
Coffee and tea While not traditional Thai drinks, excellent varieties of both are now grown in the northern hills.