I started my love affair with Thai food several years before I had even visited the Kingdom of Thailand. My first experience was a very early Marks & Spencer Thai Green Chicken Curry back in the late 1980’s, after which it became my “TV dinner” of choice !!.
It was also around that same time that I started regularly frequenting the local Thai restaurant, which was as you would expect a much more sophisticated affair than the ready-meal, and of course I believed that it was a true reflection of “real Thai food”, how wrong I was !.
And then in 1998 I went on my first holiday to Thailand ,and was shocked at just how much better the authentic Thai food was, whether it was freshly cooked by a street vendor, roadside palm-leafed covered “shack”, or at a swanky hotel restaurant the attack on my taste-buds was just incredible !!.
In all good Thai cooking you can really taste the subtle blend of herbs & spices, which when added to the meat & vegetables creates textures & tastes that make Thai food such an experience in itself .
Another aspect of Thai cuisine that is not widely known is that there are distinct differences in style, presentation & tastes found in many of the various provinces, these subtle differences can be split down into four regional styles.
Occasionally you can also find foreign influences in the cooking style that have come together over the centuries and melted “seamlessly” into the distinct Asian regional flavour.
In the Northern parts of Thailand, not only is this area unique in its language & customs but also in its food. It has evolved its own cultural identity over the centuries following intermittent periods of being ruled by both Burma (now Myanmar) and sometimes by the ancient Kingdom of Ayuddhya which not only attracted adventurers and traders, but also added indelible influences to its culinary tastes .
So, for example in the Chiang Mai area you get glutinous sticky rice that is moulded between your fingers into bite size portions and then used to mop up the more liquid curry dishes .The Northern regions chillies are also far less “harsh” on the Western palette than the fiery offerings from other parts of the country, and you can find other specialities such as spicy pork sausage or crispy fried pork rind which when dipped into Nam Prik Noom (a Northern chillie paste) makes an absolutely delicious snack.
In North-East Thailand, in Issan Province as it is popularly called, you get your food highly seasoned, spicy & hot. Some of the most popular dishes include Som Tam (Papaya Salad) which the locals eat in large quantities on a daily basis, including the addition of Pla Ra (fermented fish), which most Westerners find to be an incredibly pungent smell. Larb Moo(Spicy Pork Salad) which is a hot and spicy ground meat or Kai (chicken) salad, and the flavoursome charcoal grilled chicken .
Like the Thais in the North, they LOVE their sticky rice, and tend to eat it with every meal of the day including using it as the basis of a sweet dishes as well. Sticky rice with mango & my personal favourite, sticky rice mixed with fresh coconut milk, sugar & red bean, sold & served in sections of bamboo trunk – absolutely to die for !!.
The Central region of this “foodie’s paradise” is where the most popular Thai dishes that you will have heard of come from. This areas dishes are often called “Royal Cuisine” as they were influenced by the Kings who resided within this region before Bangkok became the capital city.
Native spices such as garlic, black pepper and fish sauce were over time complimented with coriander, lime and tomato. The chillie pepper, without which a Thai meal wouldn’t be a Thai meal, was introduced from South America.This is interesting because these peppers are now essential in Thai cooking.
Delicious local fruits also play an important role in any Thai menu,you will often receive a dish containing a selection of mango, durian, pommelo,pineapple and water melon after your main course, these are supplied to help refresh your palette.
As you travel down to the shores of Southern Thailand, there are further subtle changes that take place,the influences of Malaysia can be tasted in the food of this region. As this area also faces the sea on both its eastern & western sides, there are always plenty of excellent freshly caught seafood available. Lobsters, crabs, squids, scallops, mussels & shrimp all have their place in a Thai meal.
The Southern region utilizes heavily coconut milk to enhance the flavour and cool down the spicy Thai dishes . Coconut oil is used for frying, and the flesh you eat as a condiment . There are also many places that grow cashew nuts , and the locals make a really great dish which you may know as chicken and cashew nut.
The most popular dishes from this area tend to be Kaeng Phaenang Gai(Penang Chicken Curry), which is quite a “fiery” curry & the more “sedate” Kaeng Matsaman (Massaman Curry-Muslim), which is seasoned with cloves, cardamom and cinnamon and reminds me a little of an Indian curry.
My love affair with Thai Food & Thailand has never ended, in fact it’s actually got stronger & stronger over the years, aided by the fact that I was fortunate enough to be able to emigrate here around 5 years ago, so I live & taste the dream EVERDAY !.