Thai Food –Taste In The Extreme
French cuisine is marked by refined and subtle flavours. Japanese palates lust for the essence and purity of fresh ingredients. Indian curries are intricate webs of spice developed over millennia (and simmered almost as long). In the Thai kitchen, however, taste rules supreme.
What is Thai Food?
The Thai culture and language migrated into the region that is now Thailand roughly 1000 years ago, bringing with it rice-growing technology developed in China and perfected in the Chao Phraya River basin. Alas, man cannot live on rice alone! As experts in growing this staple food, Thai people needed to develop the colours that would decorate that plain white canvass, so Thai salty is really salty, sweet is very sweet, sour is positively puckering, and spicy is an inferno!
Thai food is therefore food to go with rice, or in Thai gap kao. This can include stews (often called curries, but different from Indian curries), stir-frys, deep-fried items, salads, soups, chilli sauces and other dips. Alternatives to gap kao are noodle dishes, typically fried or soups.
But that’s not all, not even close.
Gap kao is what you eat for a meal, but Thai people are the ultimate grazers, snacking and nibbling their way through the flavours of the day. Thus the idea of gin kao (eat rice) means take a meal, while gin len (eat play) means to snack. And snack food is available everywhere; from street vendors, on trains and buses, at sports meets, at parties of all sorts, and just about everywhere else. Thai people often take along snacks or fruit as quick and easy gifts when meeting friends or (heaven forbid) to grease official wheels. At any time of day or night, snack foods like fried meats, fruits of all descriptions, meat on a stick, and freshly made desserts are easily had in any location where 5 or more people might meet or at least happen by.
Returning to the idea of things to eat with rice, gap kao, Thai meals can really be placed into 3 categories:
Fast Food – Restaurants in Thailand line the roads of all towns and cities, and it usually takes less than 5 minutes to pop in, order a dish, and have it plopped down in front of you. Phad gaphrao (stir-fried holy basil), called the ‘thoughtless meal’ by Thais is by far the most popular dish ordered at most fast restaurants. It’s made by frying meat with chillies and then tossing in holy basil to create a nice smelling, spicy topping served over rice. Other popular dishes include phad thai (Thai-style fried noodles with a characteristic taste produced from peanuts, pickled cabbage root, and tamarind juice), phad si-iu (wide, flat noodles and Chinese broccoli fried in soy sauce), phad phrik gaeng (meat and veggies fried in spicy curry paste).
And let’s not forget the ubiquitous kao kai jiow (Thai deep-fried omelette over rice), which is a default when ordering multiple packed meals for take-away. Noodle soup, called kuai tiow comes in many different forms (different noodles and broths to choose from) and is a popular late-night choice, as is kao tom (bland rice soup) served with an array of side dishes.
As something between a meal and a snack (depending on whether or not your dieting), som tam, spicy green (under-ripe) papaya salad, is an absolute favourite. Tam thai includes shrimp and peanuts, while tam lao will be black and stinky with pickled whole crabs (pu dong) and/or plaa raa, preserved, somewhat fermented fish paste.
Thai meals don’t really differ between breakfast, lunch, and supper though you may find more kao tom and jok (rice porridge) is available in the mornings.
Family Meals – Inside the typical Thai home, meals are sometimes similar to those found on the street, but more often several dishes are prepared and shared. The family sits in a circle around these dishes and each person takes only a spoonful of one dish at a time, rather than loading up a plate of food like Westerners often do. Meals are eaten with plain boiled rice, kao suay (rice beautiful) or kao niaow (rice sticky) which is more popular in the North and Northeast regions. Sticky rice is a different, highly glutinous variety of rice that is soaked and then steamed. It sticks well to itself so it’s rolled into a ball and then dipped into shared dishes, pinching up a small bit of gap kao to flavour each mouthful.
So what do families eat with their rice? Stews like gaeng kiow waan (curry green sweet) are popular and so are soups like tom yam goong (boiled spicy/sour with prawns) and tom ka gai (boiled galangal chicken – a beautifully scented coconut soup). All of these dishes take longer than stir-frys and so aren’t usually found in fast food joints. Families still stir-fry an amazing array of ingredients, especially if they live in rural areas where they will eat seasonal vegetables.
One of the most popular things for families eat is nam phrik (water chilli), chilli sauce or salsa that can be made in over a hundred different ways. Most are spicy dips for rice, fresh or boiled veggies, and fish.
Fancy Feasts – No, nothing to do with cat food! Meals out at more-upscale Thai restaurants involve designer dishes and mom’s cooking done up to the extreme. Curries (stews) and soups are still popular, as well as something stir-fried, and then something deep fried, and then… A real Thai feast should be balanced with dishes representing different preparation methods and covering all the major tastes in the artist-chef’s palate. Whole fish splendidly prepared with accompanying sauces or salads are usually the centerpiece of the meal.
Fresh vegetables, meats, eggs, and vegetables are easy to find all over the country. Thai people don’t eat a lot of preserved foods, with the exception of fish products which develop a tang when left to, er, age, and they don’t use dairy in their cooking except in a few soups to make coconut milk even richer. Here’s a breakdown of some distinctly Thai ingredients:
Bergamot / Kaffir Lime Leaf – Called bai magroot in Thai, this citrus leaf imparts a fresh aroma to many dishes.
Lemongrass – Again a bright, citrus smell, Ta-krai is used in soups, stuffed into fish, or chopped and added to salads and curry pastes.
Galangal – Related to ginger, this root called ka is added to soups and curry pastes to give a rich, unique flavour not found anywhere else.
Eggplants / Aubergines – Thais have dozens of varieties of ma-keua to choose from, from pea-sized to whoppers, of all colours and shapes, though most dishes will call for a specific variety.
Cha-om – A unigue and unforgettable vegetable, cha-om is the stinky, thorny new buds of a jungle plant. Diner beware – your urine will carry a smell and colour to remind you of your meal for up to 24 hours afterward.
Herbs – holaphaa (sweet basil), gaphrao (holy basil), salanae (mint), and a host of other un-translatable herbs are used in handfuls, tossed into stir-frys and curries, or chopped into spicy mincemeat laap.
Beans – Thai food incorporates soy beans and bean products (soy sauce, tofu) into most everything. Thua of other sorts are eaten boiled or roasted, but especially in sweets.
Meat and ‘Alternates’
Eggs – Thai people probably consume an average of 3 chicken eggs per day, but who knows what keeps their cholesterol levels down! Other eggs include kai nok gataa (quail eggs) and kai mot daeng (red ant eggs). Eggs can be boiled (kai tom), fried (kai dao), omleted (kai jiow), salted (kai kem), or preserved in… hmm, not sure what they preserve horse-piss eggs (kai yiow maa) in!
Meats – Chicken (gai) and pork (muu) are the most common meats found here, though beef (neua) is used in some cases. Neua is often really water buffalo meat.
Seafood – Shrimp/prawns (goong) and squid (pla meuk) are popular around the country, but especially around the coast all manner of shellfish (hoi) are also eaten in abundance.
Fish – Fish (pla) gets its own category as a pillar of Thai cuisine. Often pounded with salt and fermented (pla som, pla ra, pla dek), stinky fish is added to salads and curries to give more “body”. Fish of an indescribable variety are eaten by Thais, usually whole including bones, either steamed (pla neung), deep-fried (pla thawd), or roasted (pla phao).
Alternates – People in the Isaan region are known for eating anything that moves, but in most areas of Thailand people collect and eat all sorts of animals including frogs (gop), insects (maleng or meng) of over 100 types, wild birds (nok), snakes (ngoo), bats (kang kao), and yes even wild rodents (noo) that look an awful lot like rats. Though many of these were only eaten in times of drought, several have evolved into common snacks, like tak tae (boiled silkworm larvae) and gop yang (barbequed frogs).
There are too many to name, but here are a few of the most recognizeable:
Durian – The English name comes from the Thai thoo-rian. This is the king of fruits, a huge spiky shell covering a creamy and pungent yellow fruit inside. Be careful where you open one up, as many hotels post no-durian signs!
Long-Gong – Lacking an English name, these round, yellow sweet-to-tart fruits are segmented into 4-6 segments inside and have a taste something like a grape. Lang-sat is a similar fruit with a sticky sap in its skin – the fruit is just as good but the sap can be quite bitter if you accidently eat it.
Mangosteen – A new health craze in the Western world, mang-geut is sometimes called the queen of fruit in contrast to durian. She’s a round, purple queen with extraordinary white segments inside.
Bananas – Yes, you know what they are, but did you know there are umpteen varieties with some the size of your thumb (gluay kai), some that turn purple when cooked into sweets (gluay nam wa), and many others from peanut to plantain size.
Rambutans – If you have a banana, you need a couple of ngaw as well. These bizarre fruits are red outside and covered in red and green ‘hairs’ extending from their peels. Inside is a colourless ball of sweet goodness.
Dragonfruit – The Thais call this one the dragon’s crystal (gaew mongon), and it’s even stranger than the rambutan. Growing from what looks like a dragon’s tail, the shocking pink flowers develop into pink-skinned fruit. The inside is white speckled with little black seeds and is not unlike a kiwi (fruit!) in taste and texture.
There are far too many ingredients to name and dishes to describe, and even the tastiest words are no substitute for putting it in your mouth. To discover the true depth and taste of Thai food, you’ll simply have to drop by for a meal.