Harmony is the guiding principle behind Thai food. Chefs aim for a balance of spicy vs. non-spicy, salt vs. sweet, and a mix of textures within individual dishes and for the entire meal.
Original Thai cooking methods were stewing, baking or grilling, but techniques and flavours from other cultures have added variety and complexity, including influences from China (stir frying and deep-frying), Portugal (chili), Holland, France and Japan.
A traditional Thai meal consists of a soup, a curry dish or spicy salad with condiments, and a dip with accompanying fish and vegetables.
Thai cuisine is divided into distinct regions, each one influenced by the traditionally available food, the soil, and the climate.
Southern Thai dishes feature fresh herbs and leaves such as kaffir lime and coriander, as well as garlic, galangal, lemongrass, turmeric and/or finger root, blended together with chillies to make curry paste. Think hot and sour or lemon/lime flavours such as Tom Yum and Chicken Larb salad.
The abundance of fish, seafood and coconuts is reflected in many dishes that use fish sauce, seafood and coconut milk.
Pla Kra Bok Tod Khamin is delicious – white mullet marinated with crushed garlic, turmeric and salt, then deep-fried, served piping hot and crisp.
For a lighter option try Khao Yum, a salad of steamed rice, ground dried shrimp, ground toasted coconut, pomelo fruit, chopped string beans, bean sprouts, winged beans, cucumber, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, served with a sweet dressing called Nam Budu.
In the north, steamed sticky rice (kôw nêung in the local dialect) from several different rice varieties is included as a main meal rather than a dessert.
The region’s characteristics and the climate means no fish and fewer coconut trees, so shredded red meat, salads and dry curries or roasted foods are more common here. Lap – a salad of meat, onions, chilli, roasted rice powder and mint, or Mu Ping – marinated, grilled pork on a stick – are two traditional recipes.
Northern Thai cuisine can be found mainly in the larger cities, including Chiang Mai, and from street sellers.
Try Gaang Hang Lair, a traditional festival curry of pork belly, mild spices, fresh ginger and garlic. Kôw soy is a Chinese-influenced wheat and egg noodle dish in a curry sauce served with pickled vegetables and a squeeze of lime.
Nam Phrik Num is a green, spicy dipping paste served with steamed or blanched vegetables and sometimes pork sausage.
The Northeast, known as Isaan, is poor; the climate is hot and droughts are frequent.
The inhabitants cannot afford to waste meat, so beef tongue, stomach, intestines, heart and liver are used, as are all parts of chicken, pork and boar.
The cuisine features Pla Ra, fermented fish used as a season-all in many dishes. Clear curries are popular in Isaan cuisine, as is Green Papaya Salad.
Isaan food is found at street stalls all over Thailand – try Gai Yang, crispy chicken grilled over a charcoal fire with lemongrass and garlic or as a variation, Tom Sab Kai Yang Hed Ruam, grilled lemongrass chicken served in a clear spicy soup with plenty of mushrooms.
For something unusual try Moo Dad Diew, small pieces of pork marinated in dark soy sauce, oyster sauce, garlic, pepper and palm sugar, dried in the sun in a similar fashion to beef jerky, then grilled and served with Nam Jim Jaew, a sour and spicy chilli dip.
Central Thai cuisine employs a complex blend of tastes – sour, sweet, salty and spicy – harmoniously combined for taste and presentation.
The low-lying fertile central plains of Thailand are the country’s ‘rice bowl’ and dishes featuring jasmine rice, such as Pad Thai with beef, chicken or fish, are common, as is Massaman curry. Because of frequent flooding, aquatic animals are readily found, so you will find dishes with shrimp, crab, fish and vegetables in addition to rice and pork.
Desserts with banana and mango are popular.
Omelets feature in central region dishes, either plain served with sweet chilli sauce, with oysters added, or filled with ground pork, tomato and onion (Khai Yat Sai).
For a special occasion, try Gaaeng Gathi Saai Buaa Bplaa Thuu Neung – mackerel and lotus stem quickly steamed in a simple coconut curry with white peppercorns, shallots and fermented shrimp paste, giving it a balance of sour, salty and sweet flavours.
In Bangkok, all regions are represented in the cuisine, as well as ‘palace food’ – dishes more refined in flavour than Thai home cooking, with intricately carved vegetables decorating each dish.
Chinese influences are strong here with stir-frying and Thai variations of sweet and sour dishes. Street food is very popular, especially for snack type food such as spring rolls, fish cakes or satay sticks.