Thailand is a Southeast Asian country, with Bangkok as its capital. It’s known for tropical beaches, opulent royal palaces, ancient ruins and ornate temples displaying figures of Buddha. Thailand is known throughout the world, especially for its food. Thai restaurants and foods can be found in almost every nation and are patronized by people who may never have set foot in Southeast Asia.
Why Thai cuisine is so special? Traditional Thai cuisine loosely falls into four categories: tom (boiled dishes), yam (spicy salads), tam (pounded foods), and gaeng (curries). Thai cooking places emphasis on lightly prepared dishes with strong aromatic components and a spicy edge. Thai cooking has unique taste, color, and texture, with influences from Asian neighbors, over the course of many centuries. The blending of these different cuisines have created something that is truly special.
While Thai food has a reputation for being very spicy but taste can varies depending on the region. Thai cuisine is more accurately described as five regional cuisines, corresponding to the five main regions of Thailand:
Bangkok: Cuisine of the Bangkok metropolitan area, with Teochew and Portuguese influences. In addition, as a capital city, Bangkok cuisine is sometimes influenced by more dedicated royal cuisine. Tastes and looks of food in Bangkok have changed somewhat over time as they have been influenced by other cuisines such as Asian, European or Western countries.
Central Thai: Cuisine of the flat and wet central rice-growing plains, site of the former Thai kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, and the Dvaravati culture of the Mon people from before the arrival of Siamese in the area. Coconut milk is one of major ingredients used in Central Thai cuisine.
Isan or Northeastern Thai: Cuisine of the more arid Khorat Plateau, similar in culture to Laos and also influenced by Khmer cuisine. The best-known ingredient is probably pla ra (fermented fish).
Northern Thai: Cuisine of the cooler valleys and forested mountains of the Thai highlands, once ruled by the former Lanna Kingdom and home of Lannaese, the majority of northern Thailand. This cuisine shares a lot of ingredients with Isan.
Southern Thai: Cuisine of the Kra Isthmus which is bordered on two sides by tropical seas, with its many islands and including the ethnic Malaysia, former Sultanate of Pattani in the deep south. Some food base on Hainanese and Cantonese influence.
Thai food was traditionally eaten with the hand while seated on mats or carpets on the floor or coffee table in upper middle class family, customs still found in the more traditional households. Today, however, most Thais eat with a fork, spoon or even chopsticks.
Some common dishes for someone new to Thai food might be Pad Thai or Phad Thai – stir-fried rice noodle dish, typically made with rice noodles, spuds, chicken, beef or tofu, peanuts, a scrambled egg, and bean sprouts, and vegetables, Gai Pad Med Mamuang Himmapan – made with chicken fried with onions, cashews and mild red peppers, Gai Haw Bai Toey – seasoned chicken roasted in Pandan Leaves, Pad Namman Hoey – slices of beef cooked in oyster sauce, the famous Tom Yum Goong – mildly spicy, sweet and sour shrimp or chicken soup, and Khao Tom Mud – banana leaf sticky rice with coconut milk, sugar, and sweet black beans. These favorites are usually available in any proper Thai restaurant anywhere in the world.
In most Thai restaurants, diners will have access to a selection of Thai sauces (nam chim) and condiments, either brought to the table by wait staff or present at the table in small containers. These may include: phrik nam pla/nam pla phrik (fish sauce, lime juice, chopped chilies and garlic), dried chili flakes, sweet chili sauce, sliced chili peppers in rice vinegar, Sriracha sauce, and even sugar.
Thai food is known for its enthusiastic use of fresh (rather than dried) herbs and spices. Common flavors in Thai food come from garlic, galangal, coriander/cilantro, lemon grass, shallots, pepper, kaffir lime leaves, shrimp paste, fish sauce, and chilies. Palm sugar, made from the sap of certain Borassus palms, is used to sweeten dishes while lime and tamarind contribute sour notes. Meats used in Thai cuisine are usually pork and chicken, and also duck, beef, and water buffalo.
A wide range of insects are eaten in Thailand, especially in Isan and in the north. Many markets in Thailand sell deep-fried grasshoppers, spiders, crickets (ching rit), bee larvae, silkworm (non mai), ant eggs (khai mot) and termites. Edible insects, whole or in chili paste and as ingredients in fortified products, are common in Thailand. Some claim that Thailand is the world leader in edible insects. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that there are about 20,000 cricket farms alone in 53 of Thailand’s 76 provinces.
Sweets may follow, but desserts are not as commonly ordered in Thailand as in the west. Thai sweets are generally made from some combination of rice, coconut and fresh fruits, but the variety is nothing short of amazing. Unfortunately, Thai sweets all do tend to taste a bit alike, and a better choice is a platter of fresh fruit. With its semi-tropical climate, Thailand has some kind of fruit always in season. Oranges are available year round, and Thai pineapples and mangoes are noted for being among the best in the world. Papayas, tangerines, bananas, and pomelos (sort of a sweet grapefruit) will also be available most of the year, along with more exotic and seasonal fruit such as rambutan, mangosteen, jackfruit, dragon fruit, guava, and durian.