The Cuisine of Thailand
Northern Thailand, bordered by Burma to the west and Laos to the east, existed primarily as a separate kingdom until the 18th century; as such, this region has always had a strong regional identity that is distinctively different from the rest of Thailand. Composed of rivers, mountains, and forests, several types of agriculture are possible in the North, such as wet-rice farming in the valleys. Further, the cooler climate of the hills means that many types of European fruit grow well there, and so peaches, apples, and strawberries can be found growing alongside lychees. Non-indigenous vegetables, such as asparagus, snow peas, and corn, are also cultivated. However, unlike the South, there are no coconut trees; hence, coconut milk is not heavily featured in any of the region’s dishes. Seafood is also not heavily featured as the region has limited access to the sea.
Many of the region’s specialties have Burmese influences, in particular the curries. Made without coconut milk, Northern Thai curries are fiery and thinner in consistency. Kaeng hanglay muu, Chiang Mai pork curry, is the most famous with Khao soi, featuring soft and crispy egg noodles plus beef, chicken, or pork in a curry, also quite popular. Naam phrik, spicy chili dipping sauces, are common, served with cooked or raw vegetables and crunchy pieces of deep-fried pork rind. While red meat of all kinds is common here, pork is most popular, eaten both in its natural state and made into sausages. Many dishes are always served with Khao niaw, sticky rice; though, it is not necessarily eaten as a dessert (like in other regions). Noodles are also featured in this region’s cuisine, with Khao sawy, flat egg noodles with curry; Khanom jiin and Kuaytiaw (types of rice noodles); and Wunsen, mung bean noodles, being popular.
Also known as Isaan, this region is a high plateau divided from the rest of Thailand by the Phetchabun Mountains with the Mekong River delineating much of its northern and eastern borders. With poor soil and droughts common, many foods found throughout Thailand are not native to or readily available in this region. Yet, the crop most suited to the infertile lands of Isaan is sticky rice, which is preferred in the countryside with the standard long-grain variety preferred in the region’s cities. The Mekong River also provides a host of freshwater fish, such as its well-known, gigantic catfish.
Isaan cuisine overlaps much with that of Laos and Cambodia, and features such dishes as Laab, a mixture of minced meat (beef, pork, chicken, duck, and even water-buffalo) or fish, herbs, and lime; Som tam, a green papaya salad with chilies, peanuts, cherry tomatoes, and dried shrimp (sometimes crab as well); and Kai yang, grilled chicken on a skewer. Clear curries are also popular in this region and will typically include preserved fish and a variety of vegetables. Soups are either of the hot and sour variety, Tom, or spicy, Sukii. (Sukii are served in steamboats and each person dips in and cooks their own set of ingredients).
The Central Plains
Central Thailand encompasses the plains north of Bangkok; to the East it stretches to the Cambodian border, and to the West as far as Burma. Originally, this region was a swamp, and, with its vast network of rivers and canals, it is still prone to flooding during monsoon season. However, this abundance of water also allows for easier rice production. Indeed, this region is known as one of the great “rice-bowls” of Asia. While paddy fields cover most of the area, fruit, sugar cane, corn, peanuts, and taro are also cultivated on a large scale. In fact, many vegetables grow easily due to the region’s fertility and include Thai eggplants, Cha-om (acacia, a bitter green vegetable), bamboo shoots, and snake beans as well as European vegetables like tomatoes. Vegetables grown in or alongside the waterways include Phak bung (water spinach) and lotus shoots. Further, the waterways provide a host of freshwater fish, prawns (shrimp), and crabs; crabs and fish even live amongst the paddy fields.
Many of the dishes originating from this region use Gati, coconut cream, and/or chilli paste as a base to which vegetables, herbs, and seasonings are added; the use of palm sugar makes many recipes sweeter than their southern counterparts. Curries include red, green, and phanaeng; and will often include a meat or fish. Popular soups are Tom khaa kai, a spicy soup with coconut milk, galangal, and chicken; Tom yam, a hot and sour soup, usually served meat, seafood, or chicken; and Kaeng jeut (“bland soup”). One of the lesser known delights of Thai cuisine is Yam, the general name for any type of sour salad; Yam wunsen, a variation made with glass noodles, and Yam pla, made with chopped deep-fried fish, are quite popular. Noodles, introduced to Thailand by the Chinese, also play a large role in the dishes from this region. The most famous of all is Pad Thai, a delicious combination of rice noodles, egg, tofu, and spring onions, sprinkled with ground peanuts and lime, and often served with shrimp.
The brash, bold gateway to Thailand, Bangkok is quite possibly the country’s biggest culinary center. Indeed, if one were to visit Bangkok, it would seem that the city revolved around food. Everywhere there are indoor and outdoor eateries, as well as food vendors on many a street corner. Not only is food from every region of the country represented, but from around the world as well. With such a strong presence in the city, dating back to the founding of Bangkok, the Chinese have exerted the most influence; one can find Thai versions of sweet-and-sour dishes, stir-fries, noodles, chicken-rice, and various other traditional Chinese meals. It is also noteworthy that one of the hallmarks of Thai cuisine – the chilli pepper – was actually introduced by the Portuguese.
In addition to playing host for the integration of foreign cuisines into traditional Thai dishes, Bangkok is synonymous with what is known as Thai Royal Cuisine, recipes traditionally served to Thai royal families. In addition to a more refined flavor than Thai home cooking, what set royal cuisine apart was the artistic preparation and presentation of dishes; dishes were decorated with carved fruit and vegetables, usually in the form of flowers. No longer confined to the kitchens of the Royal Court, the culinary and artistic techniques of palace-style cooking have helped define Thai cuisine as one of the world’s most unique.
The South (including the Gulf of Thailand)
The region south of the capital forms a long peninsula that joins with Malaysia. A long mountain range follows the peninsula from north to south, flanked by beautiful beaches and a plethora of islands lying just off the western side. With two long coastlines, the region is known for fishing as well as the large-scale production of Fish Sauce, one of the most important ingredients in Thai cooking. It should come as no surprise that seafood and fish are the predominate features of Southern cuisine. The South is also the land of the Palm Tree. Coconut and Oil palms line the beaches of both coasts as well as are grown on plantations; sugar palms are also grown for their sap.
Aside from putting a greater emphasis on seafood, Southern Thai cuisine displays a noticeable Malaysian and Muslim aspect as one nears the border. Southern markets often serve Khao yam for breakfast or lunch, a salad of dried cooked rice, dried shrimp, and grated coconut served with sweet sauce. There are many types of Roti, a pancake, to choose from. Curries are abundant; some are tempered and enriched by the addition of coconut milk or cream, others substitute shrimp paste for fish sauce. Two of the most distinctive are Kaeng luang, a yellow curry featuring fish, turmeric, pineapple, squash, beans, and green papaya; and Kaeng tai pla, a combination of roasted fish or fish stomach with potatoes, beans, pickled bamboo shoots, and turmeric.
Some Thoughts About Thai Chili
Chilies are used generously in nearly every Thai dish and will even be found, cut up, in a number of sauces. Thailand’s most famous chili pepper is the Phrik khi nuu (“mouse-dropping” or Bird’s Eye chili), a small but intensely hot variety found throughout Southeast Asia. These peppers turn from a deep green to a bright red when they ripen. Green ones are commonly used and have a strong, immediate kick whereas the red ones have a kick that slowly builds, the more you eat.
Besides phrik khi nuu, there are several other kinds of chilies used in Thai cooking for their unique flavors. These include Phrik khi nu suan (“garden mouse-dropping” or Dragon’s Eye chili), which are smaller and hotter than phrik khi nu; Phrik khi faa (“sky-pointing” or Long chili), a mildly spicy pepper used in stir-fries, salads, and curry pastes; Phrik leuang, an orange/yellow chili not as hot as the phrik khi nuu, but provides good flavor; and Phrik yuak (banana chili), a large fat yellow/green chili with mild flavor, used like a vegetable in stir-fries and salads. Further, ripe long and bird’s eye chilies can be dried and used (Phrik haeng); the seeds can be removed to reduce the heat.