Eating is something we all do. It can be one of life’s greatest pleasures. And often it is intrinsically tied to the culture of where it is from. In this second installment of a new series which examines Asian food and how it defines local cultures, we’re going to look at Thai cuisine.
Thai food is renowned around the world for its unique tastes. Thai cooking places emphasis on lightly prepared dishes with strong aromatic components and a spicy edge. Thai chef McDang characterises Thai food as demonstrating “intricacy; attention to detail; texture; color; taste; and the use of ingredients with medicinal benefits, as well as good flavor”, as well as care being given to the food’s appearance, smell and context. Australian chef David Thompson, an expert on Thai food, observes that unlike many other cuisines, Thai cooking rejects simplicity and is about “…the juggling of disparate elements to create a harmonious finish”.
Thai cuisine and the culinary traditions and cuisines of Thailand’s neighbors have mutually influenced one another over the course of many centuries. Regional variations tend to correlate to neighboring states (often sharing the same cultural background and ethnicity on both sides of the border) as well as climate and geography.
Thai cuisine is more accurately described as five regional cuisines, corresponding to the five main regions of Thailand:
- Bangkok cuisine of the Bangkok metropolitan area, with Teochew and Portuguese influences.
- Central Thai cuisine of the flat and wet central rice-growing plains, site of the former Thai kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, and the Dvaravati culture of the Mon people from before the arrival of Siamese in the area.
- Isan or northeastern Thai cuisine of the more arid Khorat Plateau, similar in culture to Laos and also influenced by Khmer cuisine.
- Northern Thai cuisine of the cooler valleys and forested mountains of the Thai highlands, once ruled by the former Lanna Kingdom and home of Lannaese, the majority of northern Thailand.
- Southern Thai cuisine of the Kra Isthmus which is bordered on two sides by tropical seas, with its many islands and including the ethnic Malay, former Sultanate of Pattani in the deep south. Some food base on Hainanese and Cantonese influence.
From Food Fit For a King to Street Food
Thai food is rich and varied and is made for all sorts of tastes and for all sorts of audiences.
Thai royal cuisine was originally referred to the food that was cooked or prepared by people living in the palace. Thai royal cuisine has become very well known from the Rattanakosin Era onwards.
Typically, Thai royal cuisine has basic characteristics that are close to the basic food prepared by general people. However, Thai royal cuisine focuses on the freshness of seasonal products. Other than that, it is crucial that the way in which Thai royal food is cooked, should be complex and delicate.
La Loubère, an envoy from France during the reign of King Narai the Great, recorded that the food at the court was generally similar to villager food. Ways that make Thai Royal cuisine different food was the beautiful presentation. For example, they served fish and chicken with the bones removed, and the vegetables were served in bite-sized portions. In addition, if beef is used, it should be tenderloin only.
There are many types of Thai royal cuisine such as ranchuan curry, nam phrik long rue, matsaman curry, rice in jasmine-flavored iced water or khao chae, spicy salad, fruit, and carved vegetable.
The quality and choice of street food in Thailand is world-renowned. Bangkok is often mentioned as one of the best street food cities in the world, and even called the street food capital of the world. The website VirtualTourist says:”Few places in the world, if any, are as synonymous with street food as Thailand. For the variety of locations and abundance of options, we selected Bangkok, Thailand, as our number one spot for street food. Bangkok is notable for both its variety of offerings and the city’s abundance of street hawkers.”
There is scarcely a Thai dish that is not sold by a street vendor or at a market somewhere in Thailand. Some specialize in only one or two dishes, others offer a complete menu that rival that of restaurants. Some sell only pre-cooked foods, others make food to order. The foods that are made to order, tend to be dishes that can be quickly prepared: quick stir fries with rice, such as phat kaphrao (spicy basil-fried minced pork, chicken, or seafood)or phat khana (stir fried gailan), and quick curries such as pladuk phat phet (catfish fried with red curry paste).
Regardless of where you eat across Thailand, you’ll definitely be treated to the variety and uniqueness of many types of dishes of Thai cuisine.