A tropical country with mountains and long seacoasts, Thailand’s rich history of stability, modern capital and vibrant rural areas contribute to a wide diversity of cuisine.
Thai cuisine is characterized by hot, spicy flavors and has been influenced by China and India, sometimes through the filter of the surrounding countries of Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia. As a result, there are interesting regional differences, as well as variety due to geography and social group. As with Chinese and Japanese cuisines, balancing flavors, textures, colors and cooking methods to complement one another is important. The Thai staple is rice, with shorter-grain varieties preferred in the north and longer-grain in the south. There is a wide diversity of cuisine in this tropical country, which boasts mountains and long seacoasts; a long, rich history of stability; a large, modern capital; and vibrant rural areas.
Known for assorted curries, Thai cooking includes a broad range of seasonings: many citrus flavorings, such as turmeric (orange-flavored spice), lemongrass or fresh fruits; coriander; galangal (very pungent type of ginger); dill; mint; anise-scented basil; scallions; chile peppers; garlic; and fish sauce (nuoc mam).
Typical accompaniments are rice, rice noodles, wheat noodles and mung bean noodles (threads), also called cellophane noodles. Garnishes include straw mushrooms, ground peanuts, curries and different kinds of bananas. Thickened cornstarch sauces are not used; rather, dry foods, with the cooking liquid as the accompaniment, are passed with rice. Thai cooking utilizes all cooking techniques.
There are four staples of Thai cuisine, which can be discussed in four distinct categories: rice and noodles; fish and seafood; vegetables and fruit; and meat and poultry.
The Thai people have cultivated rice since the earliest days of their history, and, although Thailand contains many jewels, no gem can rival the pearly white rice that is produced in abundance through much of the country. It has even staved off famine throughout Thai history. It is the staff of life, the yardstick by which all well-being is measured. A Thai will not ask, “Have you had lunch?” But, he or she will ask, “Have you eaten rice?”
In May, led by the king’s symbolic example, Thai farmers go to the fields to weed and clean in preparation for plowing. As soon as the first rains fall, usually in May, the rice is sown in smaller nursery fields and carefully tended. The shoots grow quickly in the monsoon season, and young plants are removed from the nursery to be replanted in the fields. Harvesting is in January. The government has now set up an efficient irrigation network, which gives a second harvest in some areas.
Among the many varieties of rice, Thailand boasts a particularly fine, long-grain type, called Jasmine rice, which is often destined for export. Rice is cooked in water without salt, to balance the spiciness of the accompanying dishes. The secret of perfect rice lies in the quantity of water used; the level of water in the pan should be at one knuckle above the rice. All the water should be absorbed during cooking, leaving the rice firm and fluffy.
Shorter-grain, glutinous rice, also known as sticky rice, is a favorite of the hill people and of the Issan group that lives in the northeast. Elsewhere, it is generally used in desserts. The Thai usually cook more rice than is necessary for one meal. The remainder is used in a wide variety of khao phad (fried rice) dishes, mixed with chicken, ham, prawns (shrimp), eggs, etc., and flavored with garlic, onion and basil. The ingredients can be chopped, sliced, ground or crushed, before being mixed with khao phad.
The best utensil for frying rice is a wok (a deep, conical pan), which can easily be obtained in Asian shops. Strong heat is needed, and the rice must be tossed vigorously with the seasoning ingredients. This can lead to splashes and penetrating smells. In Thailand, the kitchen is sensibly located in a small, open-sided wooden outhouse, and the breeze carries away strong smells. In the West, an efficient extractor fan in the kitchen would be a suitable alternative. Khao phad makes a meal on its own, while plain rice is served with a selection of meat, fish and vegetable dishes.
Thailand, like other Asian countries similarly influenced by the Chinese, has many noodle dishes using a wide variety of types of noodles. Mung bean noodles, rice noodles and wheat flour noodles, with or without egg, all find their way into delicious recipes–cooked in various ways and combined with different ingredients.
The love the Thai have for fish and seafood is born from nature’s bounty. The coastline along the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand is long; large rivers full of fish traverse the country from north to south; and a maze of canals crisscross the plains. Fishermen can be seen everywhere, as they cast, haul in and lift their nets for cash and subsistence. Farmers view their klongs (irrigation and transport canals) as important sources of protein to augment the rice they grow. Thai fishermen put out to sea all along the coast and through the maze of small islands that dot much of the coast. Shrimp farming is big business in southern Thailand.
In Thailand, people eat far more fish than meat. In fact, the produce of the sea and rivers is second only to rice in importance. An old Thai saying, “There is rice in the fields and fish in the water,” sums up how the Thai measure happiness and illustrates how they appreciate natural good fortune. Inland, freshwater fish is available throughout the country. Sea fish is often preserved by smoking, salting or drying. In the markets, highly aromatic dried fish and cuttlefish are displayed in bamboo boxes or hung from wires. Both fish and seafood are made into delicious curries and wonderful soups. In addition, they are the main ingredients of those two basic Thai condiments, nam pla (fish sauce) and kapi (shrimp paste).
Any discussion of Thai food would be lacking, if fish sauce were not discussed in greater detail. It is a fundamental flavor component found in every Thai kitchen, right next to the sugar. For this reason, nam pla should be on any shopping list for Thai ingredients. Not only is it an essential ingredient in finished dishes, it appears as a condiment on the dining table at nearly every meal, by itself or mixed with chiles or lime juice. A prime source of salt and rich in protein, B vitamins and minerals, this clear, brown liquid is to Thai cooking what soy sauce is to Chinese and Japanese cooking. It is a brew made by fermenting anchovies in sea salt and water.
Nam pla’s odor can be overwhelming. When used in cooking, its fishiness lessens dramatically, as it dissipates and blends in deliciously with aromatic flavor ingredients. If its odor does not diminish satisfactorily, consider switching brands, because some are more mild and likable to the uninitiated. Most Thai prefer a sauce with a mid-range of fishiness, but keep a few varieties on hand for various purposes. An uncooked dipping sauce for the table fares better with a milder blend, whereas rich curries, spicy soups and seafood dishes are enhanced by a stronger sauce.
It is advisable to stick with one brand to ensure consistent results. A recommended brand is Tra Chang (scale brand), identified by a red label depicting a weighing scale with a fish on one end balanced by “100%” on the other. Another very flavorful brand, Golden Boy, pictures a chubby baby holding a bottle of fish sauce, rather than a milk bottle. These two premium brands are not yet widely distributed in the U.S., so look for them in Thai and Southeast Asian markets. More readily available is Tiparos, a brand that has been around in Western markets for a long time. Aside from these three, there is a wide range of other brands. Though some show pictures of shrimp, silver pomfret fish or squid on the label, these are only identifying logos; all nam pla is made from anchovies. Gourmet specialty markets have started to carry fish sauce along with other convenience Thai food items, specially bottled in Thailand with English names and labels, for the affluent Western cook. Usually in much smaller bottles, these brands carry a hefty price tag–about six times the price of those offered in Asian markets. Fish sauce does not need to be refrigerated after opening, but it does evaporate and darken over time, getting stronger.
Vegetables play an important part in Thai nutrition. The Thai do not all practice the vegetarianism preached by Buddhism, and they eat meat in small quantities, as long as non-Buddhists sacrifice the animals.
Nature produces many vegetables, in a temptingly wide variety of colors and shapes, including tomatoes, cucumbers, shallots, crispy lettuce, pure white cauliflower, green beans, peppers, zucchini and pumpkin. New species are regularly introduced to satisfy the Thai’s enjoyment of variety. They grow in the irrigated market gardens around Bangkok, as well as on the hill slopes of the north. The Thai also consume many tropical and regional vegetables unknown in the West. These include aquatic plants, such as phak bung (water cabbage); creeping plants, like tam lung; and rhizomes, such as white turmeric, bamboo shoots and lotus stems.
Fruit is often used in salads. Particular favorites are papaya and grapefruit, and a great number of salad and vegetable dishes include fish, seafood or meat. Salads are refreshing in the hot, humid climate of Thailand and appear at most meal-times in one form or another, from a simple dish of raw beans or assorted vegetables with a spicy dip, to a complicated restaurant showpiece.
Vegetables are not served at any particular moment during the meal. They come with all the other dishes, and people nibble at them while eating curries or other hot courses. Sometimes, they can be meals in themselves. Oil and vinegar are rarely used to prepare dressings for salads. The most common dressing recipes include lemon juice, chiles, fish sauce and shallots. Papaya salad is served with a dressing of pounded peanuts, fish sauce, garlic and chopped chiles with dried prawns. Another popular salad dressing is made with hard-boiled egg yolks, mashed in tepid water with sugar and lemon juice. As with other sauces, the Thai create a wide range of salad dressings from different combinations of all the available ingredients.
For the most part, Thai dishes contain fairly small quantities of meat. Killing animals does not lie easily on Buddhists’ consciences, and the sight of a Thai butcher is rare. This job is left to the Chinese, who specialize in pork, and to the Muslims, who deal with beef, mutton and chicken. These days, poultry is often sold in pieces. Meat is set out on stalls in the open air. Most Thai people distrust frozen meat, which is not widely available anyway, and will often go to market twice a day.
Chicken is the most popular sort of poultry, as it is relatively cheap. Its bland flavor goes well with a variety of spices and sauces, and it is useful in making a stock base for soups. Rich and poor alike eat chicken. Thailand has a modern poultry industry alongside family farm production; country roads are full of scratching chickens. Chicken can be skewered and grilled over charcoal, or sautéed with spices and vegetables. Duck breeding is an increasingly common sight along rivers and canals. The Chinese are particularly keen on this bird, and Peking duck is a gastronomic delicacy. The whole bird is eaten, from the delicately roasted skin cut into strips, to the stock made from the carcass.
The choice of meat varies according to religious beliefs and habits. Muslims refuse to touch pork, which the Chinese like so much; Indians cannot bear the idea of eating beef; and the Thai generally hate the smell of mutton. Buffalo is popular in country areas and can be tenderized by suitable cooking. Veal is rarely found in Thailand. Meat is usually well-done and, except when dried, is accompanied by vegetables and spices. Certain restaurants specialize in game, such as venison and wild boar. In memory of harder times, it is not unusual to find protein in the form of insects, rodents and reptiles, particularly in restaurants specializing in northern Thai cuisine.
In the mountainous north, where borders are shared with Burma and Laos, the cuisine is as distinctive as the handicrafts for which the region is noted. Here, the earliest people of Thailand settled on their migration southward from China, forming first a group of small city-states, and then a loose federation known as Lanna, with Chiang Mai as the principal city. The impact of Burma is apparent in dishes that use aromatic spices, like cinnamon and cardamom, also found in northern Indian dishes. These include the popular khao soi, a curry broth with egg noodles and chicken, pork or beef, as well as gaeng hang lay, a pork curry seasoned with ginger, tamarind and turmeric. Of Laotian origin are nam prik noom, a complex dipping sauce with a strong chile-lime flavor, and ook gai, a red chicken curry with lemongrass. The northeast region is characterized by highly seasoned dishes making use of unusual wild plant and animal foods, which reflect the historical poverty and uncertain harvest of the region.
Nicholas Gervaise, a Jesuit missionary, noted that kapi, the popular, fermented shrimp paste, has such a pungent smell, it nauseates anyone not accustomed to it. He also wrote perhaps the first general recipe for a typical Thai condiment based on kapi: salt, pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, garlic, white onions, nutmeg and several strongly flavored herbs mixed in considerable quantities of shrimp paste.
The presence of cloves and nutmeg is evidence of trade with the East Indies. Other influences may come from Chinese, Japanese, Malays and Indians who once lived in the old Thai capital of Ayutthaya. None of the early writers mention chiles, but they were probably already in use–either brought directly by the Portuguese, who opened relations in 1511, or having come via Malacca or India. The indigenous black pepper is called Thai pepper, while later arrivals, capsicum chile peppers, have more colloquial local names. The Portuguese also introduced a number of popular Thai sweets based on sugar and egg yolks, and possibly corn and the tomato, which are also of New World origin.
A more refined type of cuisine prevailed in royal and aristocratic houses. Sometimes referred to as “palace cooking,” these elaborate dishes called for great skill at blending numerous deluxe ingredients to achieve the most subtle nuances of taste. The dishes were then presented with carved fruits and vegetables in a wide variety of decorative forms. The women’s quarters of the Grand Palace were the center of such skills, and many daughters of aristocratic families were sent there to prepare them for future life. The current Queen of Thailand has been instrumental in reviving many of these traditional culinary and craft art forms, so they may be enjoyed by future generations.