The flavours in a bowl of Thai food jump out at you all at once, and then one by one – sweet, sour, salty and pungent – dancing on your tongue in a cadence choreographed by history, geography and tradition. The jeweled colours of the freshest ingredients and the accompanying notes – crunchy, crispy, smooth, slippery and creamy – create a symphony of vibrant taste and texture in every mouthful.
The keynote flavours of Thai food are provided by lemongrass include lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaves, coriander leaves and roots, mint, basil and galangal – a ginger-like rhizome and red, green and yellow chillies. Added to a dish, they build upon the flavours of shallots or onions, ginger and garlic, which form the base of every dish, usually sautéed in peanut or sesame oil to start off. Ground turmeric, coriander and cumin add colour and woody notes, while tamarind pulp and Kaffir lime juice provide the tang for which palm sugar makes the perfect accompaniment. Fish sauce – nam pla, soya sauce and shrimp paste – kapi, add saltiness and echoes of the sea, bringing to the fore the myriad accents that were present before. Finally, coconut milk adds richness and texture, rounding off flavours off a curry, or dessert, with its silky smoothness.
Thai curries rival Indian curries in their popularity. Every Thai kitchen has its own special recipe for the green and red curry pastes. Spicy and aromatic, they capture the essence of Thai cuisine and are used liberally, not only in the curries that bear their names, but also to flavour vegetables, soups and snacks. The third popular curry after the red and green, is Masamman curry, a fiery red, beef or lamb stew which gives the nod to it’s Muslim origins.
Trade and colonial conquest have played a part in shaping the culinary landscape of Thailand. The art of the wok (stir-frying and deep-frying) is a gift of the Chinese, who are also credited with sharing their fondness for noodles. The Portuguese contributed the chilli, and Indians, the idea of curry. Who can imagine Thai food without nam prik, the chilli-based condiment that accompanies every meal?
Everyone has a favourite Thai dish, but few know that Thailand has at least 5 very distinct cooking styles, ordained more or less, by the ingredients grown in the regional locations. The central plains are the ‘rice bowl’ of the country, producing the scented Jasmine rice that accompanies many a Thai curry, and rice noodles that form the basis of the ever-popular Pad Thai – stir-fried noodles with vegetables, prawns, chicken or meat. The North – the area around Chiang Mai, is the home of sticky, glutinous rice or khao ton, a beloved item amongst all Thais as basic, comfort food. Farmers in the area carry their palmyra-leaf wrapped with bundles of this soul-satisfying grain, which they eat with a spicy sauce or curry for lunch. No coconut and seafood curries here in the Northern part, as it is far from the coast.
The North East is perhaps the poorest region in Thailand, although it has provided the Thai table with one of its most favoured dishes – som tam, the refreshingly spicy, green papaya salad, eaten here as a poor man’s accompaniment to sticky rice. The South and coastal regions are the richest, from a culinary point of view. The silky coconut-based curries, flavoursome seafood dishes and fish sauce, an integral ingredient in the cuisine, originate in this region. Bangkok, along the coast, and a popular tourist destination, is a microcosm of Thai cooking, with every type of food available there. Street food in Bangkok, especially along the sois or side streets around the main shopping areas, has attained iconic status with stir-fries, barbecued foods, such as Thai satay, fish cakes and every other Thai dish available, heaped in steaming bowls.
Bangkok is also home to the centuries-old Thai Royal cuisine – a unique imperial style of cooking that is the epitome of Thai culinary excellence. A far cry from the everyday Thai cuisine eaten in homes and on the street, this is culinary refinement on a plate! Fruit and vegetables are intricately carved, meat and fruits are served without bones or pits and elaborate food presentation is taken to an ethereal level.
Thai home cooking, on the other hand, is simple, hearty, flavoursome food, that is built around sticky rice, or in some cases, noodles. It mainly contains thinly sliced aromatic vegetables, seafood, tofu or meat broths, curries flavoured with fresh spices and aromatics pounded in a mortar and pestle and stir-fries tossed in smoky heat, to barely cook the ingredients, leaving them crunchy and tender all at once. There are no ‘courses’ in a Thai meal – the food is served in bowls all at once, on a tray called kan toke in the North, accompanied by sundry condiments and sauces to complement the meal. Unlike other Far Eastern countries, forks and spoons are used instead of chopsticks, the food being conveniently cut into small bite-sized pieces, to make the use of knives unnecessary.
Fresh vegetables and fruit are de rigeur at every meal. The pea-sized green eggplants and the golf ball-sized green or white eggplants, a variety of mushrooms including straw, wood ear and shiitake, green beans, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, bamboo shoots and bean sprouts are particular Thai favourites. Tropical fruits like the sour-sweet mangosteen, rambutan, the odorous but delicious durian, mangoes, bananas, papayas and lychees are eaten raw, or turned into delicious desserts, paired with Thailand’s famous black
rice and sticky rice, coconut milk and palm sugar.
Thai cuisine-exotic, tongue-tickling, aromatic, enticing, searing, luscious, fresh – where every sense comes alive in a crescendo of tantalizing sensations, harmonious yet distinct!
Global Palate Food Consultant: Rita D’Souza