In a world increasingly concerned with healthy living, Thai food offers light, nutritious yet still flavoursome food. Nevertheless, the only way to truly experience Thailand’s gastronomic culture is to hit the streets of Bangkok or Phuket and get stuck in.
Thai cuisine focuses on balance; blending sweet, sour, spicy and salty flavours harmoniously. Thai food is indebted to the the unique flavours created by the influence of neighbouring countries and regions; Burma, Yunnan (China), Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia. What is more dishes are simply and quickly prepared.
The ingredients that are synonymous with thai food are lemongrass, garlic, chilli, ginger , kaffir lime leaves, and not forgetting fermented fish sauce which, included in nearly all Thai food, arguably gives Thailand’s national cuisine its distinctive flavour.
However, Thai cuisine is not as uniform as it may seem. Food in Thailand varies from region to region, reflecting the diverse geography of the country. It can be loosely divided into four categories: Northern, North-eastern, Central and Southern.
Northern curries are generally milder than those found in other regions. An area famous for its rice growing, glutinous, sticky rice is favoured and is often served with soups. The influence of nearby Burma is seen in dishes containing tamarind and turmeric. The local speciality is a spicy pork sausage called naem.
Sticky rice is also a staple food in the Northeast of Thailand. However, here the local cuisine is influenced by Laos, and is rarely sweet.
The fertile land of the central plains means almost anything can grow in this part of Thailand. This is the home of fragrant jasmine rice and the famous green curry. Though the region also offers other coconut based curries like kaeng phet and kaeng phanaeng of varying degrees of spiciness. Tom yam, that ubiquitous hot and sour soup also comes from the central region.
Coconut also plays a large part in the cooking in the south of Thailand, cooling the heat of the abundant chilli in almost all curries and soups. A predominantly Muslim area, the influence of Indian ancestry can be recognised. Pan-fried roti is served with massaman-style curry, and there is yellow rice coloured and flavoured with turmeric. Its coastline also means that southern Thai food includes much seafood. The food here is heavier and more intense than elsewhere.
Thai Royal Cuisine
There is also what is commonly described as Thai Royal Cuisine. However, don’t be fooled, it is not that dissimilar to normal Thai food. The differences can been seen in the preparation and presentation of the food.
Thai Royal Cuisine is very subtle and does not have any extreme flavours. The preparation of fruit and vegetables in Thai Royal Cuisine is meticulous, everything is deseeded, peeled and carved decoratively into small pieces and the bones are removed from fish and meat for ease of eating. Moreover, Thai Royal Cuisine is not served ‘family style’ where numerous dishes and rice are shared, rather everyone is presented with their own food on individual plates.
Eat like the locals
The appeal of Thai food also extends to the unique eating habits. Most noticeably, breakfast in Thailand is indistinguishable from other meals. The same food is eaten at all times of the day, so rice for breakfast is totally normal. There are, however, some breakfast dishes like chok, a rice pudding and nam taohu consisting of soya milk with sweet jellies.
Many people in Thailand do not have kitchens at home which is reflected in the street food culture. Eating out is cheap and an opportunity to socialise, mealtimes in Thailand are very informal occasions. Those who do have kitchens will rarely have an oven, houses with an oven installed are solely for western expatriates moving to the country.
Once upon a time all food in Thailand was eaten by hand and even then just the right hand. Nowadays, it is customary to use a fork and spoon, however, there is no need for a knife. Thai Buddhist beliefs mean than large chunks of meat are not permitted so your food will already be in bite size pieces.
It is also customary to add sugar to soup instead of salt and in Thailand the bar snack of choice is insects deep fried with chilli, garlic and kaffir lime leaves.
However, as the world cements its love of Thai food, Thailand continues to move towards a more Western attitude to food. With chains like 7-Eleven introducing Tom Yum pizza there is a huge demand for quick and convenient food to fit in with a busy modern lifestyle.