Thai food is internationally famous. Whether
chilli-hot or comparatively bland, harmony is
the guiding principle behind each dish. Thai
cuisine is essentially a marriage of
centuries-old Eastern and Western influences
harmoniously combined into something uniquely
Thai. The characteristics of Thai food depend on
who cooks it, for whom it is cooked, for what
occasion, and where it is cooked to suit
all palates. Originally, Thai cooking reflected
the characteristics of a waterborne lifestyle.
Aquatic animals, plants and herbs were major
ingredients. Large chunks of meat were eschewed.
Subsequent influences introduced the use of
sizeable chunks to Thai cooking.
With their Buddhist background, Thais shunned
the use of large animals in big chunks. Big cuts
of meat were shredded and laced with herbs and
spices. Traditional Thai cooking methods were
stewing and baking, or grilling. Chinese
influences saw the introduction of frying, stir
frying and deep-frying. Culinary influences from
the 17th century onwards included Portuguese,
Dutch, French and Japanese. Chillies were
introduced to Thai cooking during the late 1600s
by Portuguese missionaries who had acquired a
taste for them while serving in South America.
Thais were very adapt at 'Siamese-ising'
foreign cooking methods, and substituting
ingredients. The ghee used in Indian cooking was
replaced by coconut oil, and coconut milk
substituted for other daily products.
Overpowering pure spices were toned down and
enhanced by fresh herbs such as lemon grass and
galanga. Eventually, fewer and less spices were
used in Thai curries, while the use of fresh
herbs increased. It is generally acknowledged
that Thai curries burn intensely, but briefly,
whereas other curries, with strong spices, burn
for longer periods. Instead of serving dishes in
courses, a Thai meal is served all at once,
permitting dinners to enjoy complementary
combinations of different tastes.
A proper Thai meal should consist of a soup,
a curry dish with condiments, a dip with
accompanying fish and vegetables. A spiced salad
may replace the curry dish. The soup can also be
spicy, but the curry should be replaced by non
spiced items. There must be a harmony of tastes
and textures within individual dishes and the
Fruit in Thailand
not surprisingly, is a cornerstone of the Thai diet. Thais don’t generally sit
down to their three square meals a day, but tend to nibble from the time they
get up until they pack it in at night. (They must have the most well-toned jaw
muscles in the world.) Much of the time this snacking style of eating involves
In keeping with this fruit obsession, many areas of the country
hold annual fruit festivals during the month of May, when many of the Thailand’s
fruits come into their peak season. The festival includes cooking contests,
parades, farm tours, and of course, beauty contests (where a young girl gets to
hold the dubious title of “Miss Durian” for a whole year!).
Unlike most westerners, Thais often eat fruits before they are
fully ripe and like most Thai cuisine, combine the sweet, sour and savory. A
prime example of this is the famous dish somtam, which is shredded green
papaya pounded in a mortar with chillis, peanuts, lemon juice, fish sauce (and
other ingredients which vary regionally), and eaten with sticky rice. Most
people from the northeast eat this spicy concoction every day.
are another fruit that most Thais prefer to eat while still green, dipping it
into a mixture of salt, sugar and chillis. There is an exception though – mango
and sticky rice, which may well be the most delightful yet simple dessert ever
concocted. Sweet, delicate ripe mangos like the smiles of angels are laid over
top of sticky rice and drizzled with sweetened coconut milk. If you get a chance
to try this one, seize it with both hands – it is gorgeous.
Fruit has even moved into the realm of art in Thailand. Fruit
carving is a long-standing tradition that has reached such a high level that the
country’s countless cooking schools offer courses in the subject – popular with
tourists on learning vacations.
While there are many fruits you may already be familiar with,
there are some exquisite ones that many Westerners have never seen or heard of –
so there are some pleasant surprises in store.
The more familiar ones on the list are strawberries (grown in
the cool air of the northern mountains), watermelons (very sweet), grapes,
pineapples, papayas, bananas (in more shapes, colors and sizes than you might
have thought possible), mangos, and coconuts (technically a nut, not a fruit,
but it goes so nicely on a fruit platter).
Some of the more “exotic” fruits you’ll encounter during the May
large, hard, spiky fruit looks more like a weapon than something edible – and
some say its pungent aroma is something of a weapon as well. Though it gives off
the smell of a compost heap, the soft, slightly fibrous flesh inside the vicious
exterior is very creamy (and high in calories, by the way). Though this one
isn’t for everybody, those who take to it tend to love it with a passion,
regarding it as the king of fruits.
Sweet, juicy fruit inside a hard, red peel. Favorite in Thailand and Asia.
Though it originates in China, Thailand has mastered a juicy version that is
sweet with a pleasant tartness. For those who haven’t encountered it, the
lynchee has a thin, brittle red skin that peels off easily to reveal a huge
grape-like flesh surrounding a smooth brown stone. These ones can be a little
pricey, but well worth it.
This dark purple fruit is rarely found outside the tropics, because it doesn’t
travel well. It has a thick, dark purple bitter skin, which breaks open easily
to reveal a white-segmented flesh that looks something like a little brain. The
taste is indescribable, but in my experience, everyone who tastes it for the
first time enjoys something resembling a religious experience. It is sweet and
tangy and tongue smacking. Trust me – try one, it won’t be your last.
occasionally see these in Chinatown markets in western countries, but it’s
unlikely you’d recognize them as a fruit. About the size of an egg, they are
covered with a thick skin with hairy soft spikes – when ripe the main body is
red and the spikes are green. They look a bit like an unhusked chestnut. When
cut or split open the inside is grapelike, similar to a lychee, but the flavor
is quite different. They are sweet, mildly flavored and highly addictive – you
can work your way through a small mountain of them in a single sitting. Because
the rambutan tree has such a high yield, at peak season in May and June, they
are so cheap as to be virtually free. You can eat them until you are blue in the
face for less than a dollar.
So if you happen to visit Thailand in May, don’t miss out. With
all that fiber and vitamins, it could be the healthiest holiday you ever had.
Eating Thai Food
Thai food is eaten with a fork and spoon.
Even single dish meals such as fried rice with
pork, or steamed rice topped with roasted duck,
are served in bite-sized slices or chunks
obviating the need for a knife. The spoon is
used to convey food to the mouth.
Ideally, eating Thai food is a communal
affair involving two or more people, principally
because the greater the number of diners the
greater the number of dishes ordered. Generally
speaking, two diners order three dishes in
addition to their own individual plates of
steamed rice, three diners four dishes, and so
on. Diners choose whatever they require from
shared dishes and generally add it to their own
rice. Soups are enjoyed concurrently with rice.
Soups are enjoyed concurrently with other
dishes, not independently. Spicy dishes, not
independently. Spicy dishes are "balanced" by
bland dishes to avoid discomfort.
The ideal Thai meal is a harmonious blend of
the spicy, the subtle, the sweet and sour, and
is meant to be equally satisfying to eye, nose
and palate. A typical meal might include a clear
soup (perhaps bitter melons stuffed with minced
pork), a steamed dish (mussels in curry sauce),
a fried dish (fish with ginger), a hot salad
(beef slices on a bed of lettuce, onions,
chillies, mint and lemon juice) and a variety of
sauces into which food is dipped. This would be
followed by sweet desserts and/or fresh fruits
such as mangoes, durian, jackfruit, papaya,
grapes or melon.
These can be hors d'oeuvres, accompaniments,
side dishes, and/or snacks. They include spring
rolls, satay, puffed rice cakes with herbed
topping. They represent the playful and creative
nature of the Thais.
A harmony of tastes and herbal flavours are
essential. Major tastes are sour, sweet and
salty. Spiciness comes in different degrees
according to meat textures and occasions.
A sweet and sour dish, a fluffy omelette, and a
stir-fried dish help make a meal more complete.
Dips entail some complexity. They can be the
major dish of a meal with accompaniments of
vegetables and some meats. When dips are made
thinly, they can be used as salad designs. A
particular and simple dip is made from chillies,
garlic, dried shrimps, lime juice, fish sauce,
sugar and shrimp paste.
A good meal for an average person may consist
simply of a soup and rice. Traditional Thai
soups are unique because they embody more
flavours and textures than can be found in other
types of food.
Most non-Thai curries consist of powdered or
ground dried spices, whereas the major
ingredients of Thai curry are fresh herbs.
Asimple Thai curry paste consists of dried
chillies, shallots and shrimp paste. More
complex curries include garlic, galanga,
coriander roots, lemon grass, kaffir lime peel
Complete meals in themselves , they include rice
and noodle dishes such as Khao Phat and Phat
No good meal is complete without a Thai dessert.
Uniformly sweet, they are particularly welcome
after a strongly spiced and herbed meal.
Preparing Thai Food
A simple kind of titbit is fun to make. You need
shallots, ginger, lemon or lime, lemon grass,
roasted peanuts and red phrik khi nu chillies.
Peeled shallots and ginger should be cut into
small fingertip sizes. Diced lime and slices of
lemon grass should be cut to the same size.
Roasted peanut should be left in halves.
Chillies should be thinly sliced. Combinations
of such ingredients should be wrapped in fresh
lettuce leaves and laced with a sweet-salty
sauce made from fish sauce, sugar, dried shrimps
and lime juice.
Mixing crushed fresh chillies with fish sauce
and a dash of lime juice makes a general
accompanying sauce for any Thai dish. Adding
some crushed garlic and a tiny amount of roasted
or raw shrimp paste transforms it into an
all-purpose dip (nam phrik). Some pulverised
dried shrimp and julienned egg-plant with sugar
makes this dip more complete. Serve it with
steamed rice, an omelette and some vegetables.
Salad dressings have similar base ingredients.
Add fish sauce, lime juice and sugar to enhance
saltiness, sourness and sweetness. Crushed
chillies, garlic and shallots add spiciness and
herbal fragrance. Lemon grass and galanga can be
added for additional flavour. Employ this mix
with any boiled, grilled or fried meat. Lettuce
leaves, sliced cucumber, cut spring onions and
coriander leaves help top off a salad dressing.
Soups generally need good stock. Add to boiling
water crushed peppercorns, salt, garlic,
shallots, coriander roots, and the meats or cuts
of one's choice. After prolonged boiling and
simmering , you have the basic stock of common
Thai soups. Additional galanga, lemon grass,
kaffir lime leaves, crushed fresh chillies, fish
sauce and lime juice create the basic stock for
a Tom Yam.
To make a quick curry, fry curry or chilli paste
in heated oil or thick coconut milk. Stir and
fry until the paste is well cooked and add meats
of one's choice.Season with fish sauce or sugar
to taste. Add water or thin coconut milk to make
curry go a longer way. Add sliced eggplant with
a garnish of basil and kaffir lime leaves. Make
your own curry paste by blending fresh
(preferably dried) chillies, garlic, shallots,
galanga, lemon grass, coriander roots, ground
pepper, kaffir lime peels and shrimp paste.
Single Dish Meals
Heat the cooking oil, fry in a mixture of
crushed chillies, minced garlic, ground pepper
and chopped chicken meat. When nearly cooked,
add vegetables such as cut beans or eggplants.
Season with fish sauce and garnish with kaffir
lime leaves, basil or balsom leaves. Cooked rice
or fresh noodles added to the frying would make
this a substantial meal.