Thai Cuisine

Hot, Sweet, Salty, Sour and Bitter
Variety in Flavor, Ingredients, Color

“Food is eaten not just for nourishment. For a Thai, it is an art, a topic of conversation, a source of pleasure.” — Kreesnee Ruangkritya [1]

Deva sculpture, Thailand 15th century

Deva, Thailand, 15th cent.

The core concepts of Thai cooking are hot, sweet, salty, sour and bitter.  A well-designed meal offers a variety in flavors, preparation methods, ingredients, and color.

So if a Red Curry is the main dish, the cook would offer contrasts.

These contrasts might include a clear soup made with Pork, Tofu and Fresh Greens, a salad of Bamboo Shoots and Lime, Mung Bean Sprouts sauteed with Pork, and a Steamed Egg dish topped with Coriander leaves and crispy Garlic.

Seasonings include:

Cooking with lemongrass

Lemongrass

  • Coconut Milk
  • Galangal
  • Lemongrass
  • Shrimp Sauce (Shrimp Paste)

Also —

  • Coriander
  • Hot Red Chilies
  • Nam Pla Fish Sauce
  • Tamarind
  • Thai Lime Leaves
Tiparos Fish Sauce

Tiparos Fish Sauce,
Nam Pla

he Hot Red Chilies are now thought of as essential and typically Thai.  But they only came to Thailand about 350 years ago, via Latin America, during the time when the Pacific was essentially a Spanish Lake. Before then, Thai cooks relied primarily on Black Pepper for the hot taste.

Major cooking methods are stir-frying.  Steaming fish with ginger is also popular in Thailand. Other cooking techniques —

  • Boiling
  • Steaming
  • Roasting
  • Sauteing
  • Grilling
  • Pan-Frying
  • Deep-Frying
  • Stewing
  • Drying
  • Pickling

Baking is one technique not used in traditional Thai cooking.

Some major foods used every day include:

  • Garlic

    Thai Pickled Pink Ginger

  • Onions
  • Scallions
  • Ginger
  • Lime

Other common ingredients in Thai cooking include —

  • Cherry Tomatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • Eggplant
  • Fresh Bamboo
  • Fresh Mint
  • Green Beans
  • Green Papaya
  • Tofu
  • Water Chestnut
  • Kale and a wide variety of lettuce-like greens.

Thai White Eggplant

 

The range of fruits is great, including —

  • Bananas

    Mangosteen

  • Guavas
  • Mangosteen
  • Papayas
  • Pomelo
  • Rambutan

Thai Food and Street Food: Because excellent, tasty street food versions of many Thai standard dishes are so readily available at cheap prices, many Thai housewives have abandoned real cooking for buying ready-made dinners purchased on the go from street vendors.

Foods on offer from these hawkers include:

  • Crab fritters
  • Sausages
  • Steamed or grilled balls made of tapioca, wrapped around savory pork filling, and a huge array of steamed and fried dumplings.

Thai meals are organized around Rice, and the other dishes are supporting players. Rice and soup probably will begin a meal, followed by remaining dishes, which appear in no particular course order, but basically all at the same time. There may be one or more curries or stir-fried dishes with meal, poultry, or fish. Emphasis is not placed on the crisp texture of stir-fried dishes as in Chinese cuisine.

Breakfast normally consists of a plate of plain Rice together with a few small dishes served as accompaniments.

Head of Buddha, Thailand

The majority of Thai people eat plain long-grain Rice boiled without salt or seasoning, called Kao Jao.

Thai cooks uncover the Rice pot during the cooking process to stir up the grains and release steam. The resulting fluffy Rice is eaten from a plate, not a rice bowl. The typical utensils, if used, are a spoon and fork.  Chopsticks are used to cut noodle dishes and some Chinese dishes.

In the Northeast of the country, reflecting the Laotian influence, Sticky Rice or Kao Neow, is popular. The Glutinous Rice grains are soaked overnight and steamed in unique covered baskets.  Sticky Rice is finger food, rolled into small balls and used to scoop up accompaniments such as Dried Salted Fish and Pickled Greens.

The cooking of the capital Bangkok is typically sweeter in taste than that of other regions.  Especially in Bangkok, restaurants often employ women to carve beautiful sculptures — vegetables caved into beautiful flowers or other shapes and used to garnish the dishes.

In the far South of the country, Pork is rarely served, reflecting the large Muslim population in that region.  Southern Thailand excels in curries, and the hottest dishes are typically served in this region.

Thai Custard, an important Thai dessert

Thai Custard

Desserts are typically fresh tropical fruits or sometimes Coconut custard or Tapioca.  Desserts combining Glutinous Rice with fruit such as Mangoes are also popular.

Classic Thai noodle dish Pad Thai

Pad Thai

Important Dishes: Some famous Thai dishes available in all Thai restaurants would include Pad Thai, a noodle dish; Tom Yum Soup, a spicy citrusy soup; often with Shrimp or other seafood added; and Basil Chicken, a dish of finely chopped chicken flavored with Thai Basil.
Mussel Soup

An everyday Chicken dish typically could be Curried Chicken and Potato Ragout.

Thai Tom Yum Soup

Tom Yum Soup

Although every restaurant seems to offer them, the difference is in the individual preparation styles.

Thai pork dumplings

Thai Pork Dumpllings

Other popular dishes include various forms of Egg Roll, Satay, popular as appetizers.  Satay is commonly served with a Peanut Sauce and with a fresh pickle made with sweet and sour Cucumbers.

Again, in the Egg Roll and related pastry and appetizer category, there are enormous range and variety.

Another common and easy dish is Thai Omelet.

Thai Steamed Chive Dumplings

Steamed Chive Dumplings

Although Ginger is an important cooking aromatic, sometimes it gets treated as a vegetable, and can be stir-fried, by itself, or with addition of other Vegetables, Bean Curd, or Meat.

Thai Fried Ginger -- with Vegetabes

Fried Ginger – with Vegetables

Thai dish Penang curry

Penang Curry

Also, the famous Muslim curries from the South, with a Beef variety justly famous, and also one made with Duck.

Fish and seafood preparations are famous, such as Whole Fish deep-fried in a way similar to some Chinese styles, but with a unique Thai flair, and often accompanied by a variety of vegetable garnishes.  It has been said that Thai cooks have raised their version of Pla Tod, or Fried Fish, to an art form.

Deep-fried Whole Fish is a standard of Thai cooks and starts with the freshest Fish available. The cleaned Fish si scored and then deep-fried, either in a wok or deep fryer.  The cooked Fish is topped with a variety of vegetable garnishes and a sweet and aromatic Fish Sauce and Pork gravy.  This is typically finished with Hot Chili Peppers.  The resulting combination is unique.

And there are Thai-inspired Fusion dishes like Eggplant Sandwiches. or Barbecued Beef Thai Style.

Head of Buddha, Thailand

For Further Information:

Jennifer Brennan, Thai Cooking (London: Jill Norman, 1981)
Taw Krititikaya, M.L., and Pimsai Amrangand,M.R., Modern Thai Cooking (Bangkok: Dang Kamol, 1977)
Krasnee Ruangkritya, Adventures in Thai Food & Culture (Bangkok: Jongjit Ruangkritya, 1984)
Vacharin Bhumichitr, The Tastes of Thailand
“Thai cuisine,” article, Wikipedia

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