Thai food is famous the world over and will certainly be a highlight of your trip to Thailand, where you can sample authentic Thai cooking at unbeatable prices. Even if you’re not planning to visit Thailand this comprehensive guide to Thai food aims to give you a comprehensive insight into the spicy but delicious cuisine of Thailand.
The country spans a gap between the Near and Far East, as well as the southern Malay Peninsula, making Thailand culture a crossroads for Indian, Chinese, and Malay influences. Visitors are in for tasty treats that result from this coming together of cultures as they eat their way across the country. Over the centuries, the arrival of external ingredients, such as the fiery chilli, and the local’s appreciation for eating has contributed greatly to the emergence of Thai cooking as an international phenomenom.
The trend in Asian fusion food has seen all sorts of creative variations on traditional Thai dishes to suit the foreign palate, but in Thailand the locals stick to their time–honoured favourites like som tam papaya salad and tom yum goong curry shrimp soup.
Naturally they are far more spicy than food you would have eaten in a Thai restaurant abroad, while many of the less popular dishes you might never had heard of – certainly in the rural areas where a range of unheard of vegetables are used. Thai food also ranges from sumptuous slow–cooking curries in five star restaurants to the humble bowl of noodles, and they all have their place in the Kingdom. We encourage you to be adventurous and try all, and that way you’re certainly find something you love which you never would have expected.
Thai cuisine essentials
Thai food has a few essentials to its cuisine. Most already expect spicy food with ample flourishes of aromatics such as garlic and lemon grass. Also perfuming many dishes are kaffir lime leaves and cilantro, warmed through and releasing their essential oils Other ingredients frequently used in rich curry pastes, or in soup stocks are galangal, a member of the ginger family; bai thoey, which adds a light appetising smell to sweets and savories alike; turmeric, and, of course, creamy coconut milk.
One ubiquitous item in Thai cuisine is the chilli, of which the Thais prefer two varieties: prik kii nu (mouse dropping chilies), and prik chi faa (sky pointing chilies). Chilies came over form the New World about four centuries ago, before then Thailand was, believe it or not, chilli–less. Their curries still had heat though, as they had had black pepper of several varieties for centuries, called prik Thai dam and meaning ‘black Thai pepper’. This original Thai cuisine ingredient is still used in popular dishes such as shrimp fried with garlic and pepper (kung pat kratiem prik Thai dam) and water greens fried with chillies, garlic, and bean sauce (pak bung fai daeng).
The exotic nature of Thai food tends to scare many people with weaker constitutions away. It is true that many Thais eat spicy food all day long, and then douse it with their all–purpose condiment, prik naam pla (fish sauce with chillies) for an extra punch. But for those who absolutely have to hold back on spices and exotic ingredients, there are still plenty of Thai dishes that will please your palate and without stinging your tastebuds!
Eating like the locals
If you made it to Thailand, why not seek out the lighter side of Thai cuisine like khao man gai (chicken over rice)? Thai food rarely gets any tamer than this dish of plain boiled chicken over flavourful rice steamed in mild stock. Since Thais made it, however, you can bet it tastes amazingly delicious, despite its simplicity. Another unassuming dish that will delight the spice-wary is pad se–ew, a dish of fried noodles with egg, a meat–of–choice, some greens, and Thai soy sauce. It is a light, non–spicy stirfry that shos Thai food is not always spicy.
Thais love socialising over food, however informal, and will always invite you to join them. Please do take the time to indulge in this wholly Thai activity. The sights, smells, and flavours create the feeling that you really have arrived somewhere different, maybe even otherworldly on your adventures.
The herbs and spices more than tempt your taste buds, they are also part of long-held knowledge that food contributes to the diner’s health as well. Many ingredients in Thai cuisine have long been known to have medicinal properties, such as the ability of garlic and chilies to aid circulation and cleanse the blood.
Other ingredients like coriander and galangal aid in digestion of the thick coconut milk in curries. Be sure to adventure outside your comfort zone a little bit and experience the abundance and exoticness that Thai cuisine has to offer.