The cuisine of Thailand is as rich and varied as the history of the country itself. The country is the only Southeast Asian nation that has never been colonized, though it’s cooking shows many different influences, especially Chinese and Indian. Utilizing that important combination of fresh and local, Thai cuisine has a distinct taste profile that is hard to describe but highly addictive.
The protein is usually from some sort of seafood. The vegetables and spices are generally fresh and indigenous to the area. Common ingredients that can be found in the United States include:
- Chili peppers
- Bok Choy
- Water Chestnuts
- Bamboo Shoots
- Green Onion
Thai meals are also known for their balance in the use of the five fundamental taste senses: spicy, sweet, sour, salty and bitter.
Five Types of Cuisine
Thai cuisine is actually divided into five major types:
Northern Thai cuisine is often influenced by its proximity to Laos, and makes use of Laotian favorites, such as sticky rice which is eaten by hand. One of the more popular dishes in Northern Thai cooking is Young Jackfruit Curry, which is made from the unripe fruit of the jackfruit tree mixed with curry and eggplant. Some popular appetizers are Crispy Pork Rinds and Steamed Ground Pork.
As with Northern cuisine, the Northeastern area also shares a border with Laos, and glutinous rice is important. But Northeastern chefs prepare highly seasoned foods. Because meat is often scares in local villages, cooks have learned to make seafood and vegetable dishes, often with the use of coconut milk. Some of the more popular dishes of the Northeastern area are Laab (made with cabbage, spinach and Thai basil), Som Tam (green papaya salad), and Gai Yang (barbecued chicken).
One of the most famous dishes in Thai cooking originated in the Central part of Thailand… tom yam gai soup is made with chicken stock, lemon grass and roasted Thai chili paste, among other things, and is used the same way Westerners would use chicken soup. Also, because Bangkok is the heart of culture in Thailand, Central Thai cooking is often referred to as “classic Thai cuisine.” It is also worth noting that there is a large population of Chinese in this area of Thailand, so its cuisine also reflects Chinese influences.
Southern Thai cuisine tends to be pungent, rich and intense. Turmeric is a spice that is often found in the dishes of this area and some of the meals reflect Indian influence. Famous dishes from this region include kanom jeen – a rice noodle, kao yum – a rice salad made with shredded vegetables and pad ped sadtaw which is a curried shrimp stir-fry.
Royal Thai Cuisine
Royal Thai cuisine can be traced back the the thirteenth century. The foods are usually lightly prepared and aromatic. The style of cooking is still the preferred by the Royal family of Thailand today.
It is also known for its hot spices. Pla nueng mana is steamed fish with lime sauce and is one of the more popular Royal Thai dishes. More recognizable dishes from this style of cooking are Toong Ngern Yuang (shrimp and crabmeat wrapped in bean curd sheets) and Tom Yam Pla Chon which is a fish head soup made with lemongrass. Also notable in Royal Thai cuisine is the use of an unusual protein: insects. They are often deep fried with herbs and offered in markets as snacks.
Thai cuisine is varied in texture, color, and flavor. It, like many Asian cuisines,is not difficult to make with the proper tools and instruction. Some recipes may call for ingredients that are not available at your local grocers but these are easily found online.
These cuisines are generally healthy as well, full of fresh vegetables. Try a few Thai dishes, they are quick to make and you may find that you have a new weeknight favorite.