Thailand is known for its cuisine. The crown for the best gourmet city in Asia belongs to Bangkok. The many restaurants and the high concentration of top hotels guarantee a wide choice and a healthy competition. The result is a great variety in oriental cuisine, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Korean, Malaysian, as well as Italian and French, also mid-European style. There is an unbelievable selection in every price category. Here you are not offered the fashionable crossover cuisine as in Europe. Thailand is a melting-pot of world cuisine, creating amazing food, which mirrors the ethnic variety, a fusion of great tastes.
However, the indigenous cuisine remains the best choice. The diverse Thai cuisine is closely related to Indian, Chinese and Ceylonese. With the great variety of different herbs, spices and ingredients, cooking evolved into the typical Thai character and has gained worldwide popularity. Scientists have discovered that ingredients like lemongrass, coriander and mint produce an attractive body odour. The wide selection of ingredients and the different methods of preparation always lead to new discoveries, however many times you have eaten Thai food. As only the freshest produce is used, and just lightly cooked, the famous gastronome D’Hommat called it ‘The healthiest and tastiest diet, a culinary aromatherapy for your taste buds!’
A typical balanced meal consists of soup, cooked rice, two or three dishes with fried meat, fish or chicken, a curry, a Thai salad and steamed vegetables, followed by fresh fruit. Do not be afraid that everything will be too spicy for you. Many dishes are sweet or sour, deliciously combined with lemon grass, coriander, garlic, shallots, basil or ginger. Instead of salt and pepper seasoning, there is fish sauce with chopped chilli (‘prick nam pla’). Then there are other tasty sauces for different dishes. You will notice that in Thailand you also feast with your eyes. Most dishes are beautifully decorated, often with carved fruit or vegetables, so an onion becomes a lotus flower, a piece of papaya a nice leaf, a simple tomato a beautiful rose.
Chopsticks are only used for noodle soup, otherwise the spoon and fork are used. Thais eat with a spoon, the fork is only used to load the spoon. To them, putting a fork in the mouth is as bad-mannered as licking a knife would be to Westerners. For the Thais, meals are a communal social occasion, and it is unthinkable that anyone would order a dish for their individual consumption. It is the custom that every person has their own plate of rice while all the other dishes are in the middle of the table to be shared.
The dishes are usually served all at once as there are no courses apart from the dessert. In some places Thai food is served like Western style in courses. This culinary nonsense is only made to please the customers, who have not understood the basics of Thai food at all. The combination of many different dishes is absolutely essential to make sure that the balance of hot, salty, sour and sweet in these dishes is maintained with the occasional chilli providing the punch. That’s why Thais want to sample several dishes, including soups, at the same time.
Rather than heap your plate full, it is polite to take only small portions of the shared dishes onto your plate, and later replenish it, as you desire. Food is served warm, not hot. To start with a spoon of rice is a gesture that the main element of the meal is rice. Taking a small piece of meat, vegetable and a bit of rice on your spoon is the usual way, and lets you decide just how mild or spicy you wish the mouthful to be, making each spoonful a different combination of flavours. Finally you may come to understand what somebody means when he says he is ‘im jai’, full heart, an expression that combines total culinary satisfaction with general contentment.
Water, beer, wine
For drinking, the choice is water, lemon juice, ice tea, beer or wine. A typical drink is the ‘Mekong’, a type of rum made mainly from rice and molasses. With coke and soda, mixed with a dash of lemon, it tastes wonderful.
We strongly recommend that you try wines made in Thailand. The Thai wine industry is a bit more than one decade old. Within only a few years Thai wine has become one of the most important representatives of the ‘New Latitude Wines’. The grapes are grown locally and wines are blended with the help of French and German experts. Vineyard locations range from cool heights (up to 800 meters) near the Khao Yai area through to Loei in the North-East and to the Central region. Thailand, possibly uniquely, has ‘floating’ vineyards in the West of Bangkok where the rows of vines are separated by narrow canals and are cultivated, pruned and harvested from boats. Thai wines are famous for their freshness and have a perfectly balanced acidity to match Thai food. Thai wines gained their credentials when they were served to world leaders during the Apec summit in Bangkok in 2003.
When you eat outside, remember that white wine and rosé are more suitable to accompany your meal, as they are ice cool. Red wine is only recommended in air-conditioned rooms, as elsewhere it gets warm too quickly.
Wine and Thai food pairing is as challenging as exciting. When eating, Thais strive for variety and contrast. Some dishes are bland, others spicy, some sour, some sweet, some sweet and sour and some hot and sour. A few of the food is steamed, some deep-fried, some stewed and others not cooked at all. The table is a riot of colours, aromas, tastes and textures. Following the traditional guidelines for matching food and wine, several bottles of wine would have to grace the table and they would have to be drunk simultaneously. As there is no universal palate, we recommend a very personal and pragmatic approach. Eat the food, try a couple of wines and you will soon develop a list of matches that works well for you and your taste buds. Most people seem to agree that Gewuerztraminer or an acidic fruity Sauvignon Blanc goes well with spicy food. Others recommend Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc for grilled pork or roast meats and a Shiraz with curries but not a tannic Cabernet which may only exacerbate the heat of the peppers and chillies. In any case it is essential that you drink the wines you enjoy. Lifting the veil on old habits can shed new light on the pleasures on the palate that wine brings to Thai food.
Brewing beer in Thailand began in 1934. Locally produced Thai beers face competition from major international brands, but have successfully found their own niche in the Thai market and abroad. Thai beer is typically lager. The oldest and most popular Thai beer in Thailand and abroad is Singha, brewed by Boon Rawd Brewery who produces also Leo and Kloster Beer. Singha has been challenged by Chang beer, made by Thai Beverages. Chang is noted globally for its sponsorship of Liverpool’s Everton football club, as its name and logo have appeared on the team uniform since 2004. Tiger beer is a beer brewed by Asia Pacific Breweries in partnership with Heineken.
Thai cuisine is now enjoying great popularity, although it has taken time to become known in western countries. In the beginning it was mainly the colonial powers that introduced the new cuisines to the west; the British introduced Indian, the Dutch brought Indonesian, the French brought Vietnamese. Only more recently, with the growth of tourism in the seventies, did the Thai cuisine become known elsewhere, and now you can find Thai restaurants in nearly every city world-wide. However, there is much more to Thai food than what one can find in restaurants overseas. The culinary background of Thailand encompasses a plethora of tastes and flavours. Each of the regions has its own distinctive cuisine. People who seek out the various types of food eaten in Thailand will be richly rewarded.
There is an inscription on a 13th century stone tablet thought to be a saying from King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai (the ruler of the first independent Thai kingdom) “there is fish in the water, there is rice in the fields”. This indicates not only the abundance of nature, but also that these were the two most important staple foods, as they remain today.
The cultivation of rice goes back to the earliest settlers, long before the Thais arrived in this region, there was a great variety of fruit and vegetables, and fish was plentiful not only in the many inland rivers and waterways but also in the sea. Apart from this, little is known about cookery in the Sukhothai period. The chilli, originating from Central America, and now so ubiquitous, was not then known. However, we have more information about the Ayutthaya period thanks to the French visitors of the 17th century who wrote about Siam and gave quite detailed accounts of the culinary habits of the people. From these reports it is apparent that the simple Thai food becomes enriched by the introduction of a greater variety of new ingredients. Trade with the East Indies brought nutmegs and cloves for example, and the fact that many Chinese, Japanese, Malaysians and Indians lived in Ayutthaya also indicates different influences on food. The Thais have taken these other ingredients and cooking methods and adapted them harmoniously into their own cuisine. The stir-fry and quick cooking time are methods taken from the Chinese. For example, with the preparation of water-spinach (pak bung fai daeng): Chopped shallots, chilli and garlic are put into the wok, then the cook adds the dripping wet spinach. If water gets into the hot oil it quickly expands, evaporates and oil droplets are attracted onto the spinach, the cook keeps the pan lightly over the fire so that the oily spinach instantly ignites and the lance-leaves of the water-spinach burn momentarily on their peaky ends, become caramelised, and give an incomparable flavour with a bit of bite zesty bite.
The difference between Indian and Thai cooking is the Thais substitute palm oil and coconut milk where the Indians would use oil and ghee. Strongly spiced food was made milder by the use of fresh ingredients such as lemongrass, mint or galangal. The Portuguese were responsible for the import of chillies and the tomato from central and South America. There are wide variations in the dishes from one region of Thailand to another. In the central plains, with its many fruit and vegetable plantations, they also cultivate the best scented and pearl-white rice. The dishes in this area, however, are rather more plain, although still very tasty. In the hilly north of the country, the influence of the neighbouring countries, Burma and Laos, is noticeable. From Burma comes the favourite Khao Soi, a curry soup of egg-noodles with chicken pork or beef, also Gaeng Hang Ley, a pork curry flavoured with ginger and curry paste. From Laos comes Nam Prik Noom, a sauce with a distinct chilli-lemon flavour and Mok Gai, a red chicken curry with lemongrass. Instead of the normal boiled rice of the central region, the steamed sticky rice is preferred here. The curries of this area tend to be a thinner consistency as they are prepared without the coconut milk used in the central and southern regions.
Another northern speciality is Nam Prik Ong, a sauce made of chopped pork, tomatoes, chilli, garlic and shallots, served with cold lightly steamed vegetables and pork crackling. Another favourite is the pork sausage Sai Oua which is eaten with rice or other dishes, also Pakuud, lightly cooked tender fern leaves. Favourite fruits are juicy Longan and Lychees. The traditional way of serving food in the north is known as ‘Kantoke’, kan meaning a bowl and toke meaning a low round table made from woven bamboo, around which the guests sit on the floor and help themselves from the various dishes. Most of the dishes of the Isaan show the influence of Laos, which is on the other side of the Mekong River.
Chillies, lemongrass, fresh Thai mint, spring onions are used here more than in any other region. Other famous dishes are Somtam (green papaya salad), Laab (tangy well-seasoned minced chicken or pork) or Gai Yang (roasted chicken). The cookery of the south reflects not only the Malaysian and Chinese influences, but also takes influences from the past, when traders from India and Java visited Siam. The coconuts which grow abundantly here provide coconut milk for soups and curries, oil for frying, and dessicated coconut as an ingredient for many dishes. There is a huge variety of fish and seafood, which are either simply grilled, steamed or cooked in more elaborate ways.
Favourites are the soups Tom Yam Gung (prawns, lemongrass and chilli) and Tom Kha Gai (coconut milk soup with chicken), also Hor Mok Tale (steamed seafood served with coconut curry, in a banana leaf). The usual flavouring for Thai dishes (replacing salt and pepper) is the ubiquitous and tasty fish-sauce, Nam Pla. This is made from small fish put in layers with salt and left for 30 days, then the juices extracted are cooked until they become the sauce. In the restaurant the fish sauce is served with chopped chillies and garlic as an accompaniment.
Some 500 years ago the trade in spices was an incredibly profitable business and had been in the hands of the Venetians since the 11th. Next to nutmeg, pepper was one of the most desirable spices, and was worth its weight in gold, the peppercorns were sold singly. Christopher Columbus was searching for a route to India, also hoping to find the Spice Islands. He did not find India or pepper, but he found out how the people of the West Indies flavoured their food, with a little pod which he called ‘pimento’ after a Spanish word for pepper ‘pimienta’. Native to central and south America, the plant was used not just as a food but known for its healing properties, and he brought it over to Europe. At that time the monks made use of the plant not for culinary purposes but for their vibrant colour in the garden.
In the treaty of Tordesillas, 1493, the world was divided up between the two main seafaring nations so that they did not get in each others way when they made their discoveries and the resulting exploitation of new colonies. The Spaniards received the western hemisphere, and the Portuguese were allocated the eastern side of the world, from Pope Alexander VI., the father of Cesare and Lucretia Borgia. The border was what is known now as 49° longitude. This left Portugal with the eastern area of South America, between the mouth of the Amazon and present day Sao Paolo, and Spain with the rest. Whether the Spice Islands, on the other side of the world, were belonging to Spain or to Portugal was anyone’s guess. The Spaniards set off westwards from South America, and it was supposed that the chilli came to south-east Asia on one of the galleons trading through Manila from Acapulco. But it seems more likely that it was the Portuguese who, in the 16th century, on their way to the spice islands stopped in India and then conquered Malacca, which was the main trading port for the spice trade, eventually brought the chilli to Thailand where it is now indispensable in Thai dishes. For the Thais chilli was a welcome addition. The Pepper (Prik Thai) was already extensively used, and because chilli was used in a similar way it was called ‘Prik’.
Chillies come in different colours, shapes and sizes. The large peppers are relatively mild but the smaller they are the more devilishly hot they become. In Thailand there are 135 varieties, in Mexico 200. The Catholic Church saw the devil’s work in the chilli plant, and so in European cooking only the larger and milder peppers are mainly used, and the stronger small chillies are more rarely used. Contrary to popular opinion, the hot flavour comes from the pith not the seeds. With your first bite you experience a new world of the senses; on the lips, on the tongue and in the whole mouth there is a searing inferno, in the gullet a glowing heat, in your chest a warming glow, and in the stomach a last burning. The heating effect helps the body to cool slightly through sweating, and makes the hot humid climate more bearable. Some people have a short feeling of euphoria eating chilli, due to the ingredient Capsaicin, an alkaloid, a substance which is colourless and tasteless but is sharp. The heat is not transferred through the taste nerve endings but through the heat receptors. If food is seasoned with pepper it gives a different taste than if Capsaicin hits the heat receptors of the nervous system. This gives the impression of localised burning. The brain sends pain-killing endorphins which, like morphium, stimulate body and soul. Water does not help a burning mouth at all, it only distributes the heat around the mouth and throat. However Capsaicin dissolves in fat and with a spoonful of rice and vegetables the burning sensation is alleviated. With frequent enjoyment of chilli the nerves become accustomed the heat, but this does not mean your sense of taste is damaged, rather the opposite. Although the sense of burning dominates for the first few moments, it has been discovered that shortly afterwards this there is a high sensitivity to other aromas leading to an increase in taste.
The heat effect can be measured in units of “Scoville”, named after the pharmacologist Wilbur L. Scoville. In order to dose Capsaicin based cold-, pain-, and circulation medicine in precise quantities, Scoville thinned one unit of Capsaicin repeatedly with water until even the finest most sensitive tongue could not sense the hotness. In this process of thinning he established the heat ratio. Tabasco sauce, well-known in Europe, and for many the quintessence of spicy seasoning, measures around 3,500 Scovilles. This means that if you dilute 1 part Tabasco to 3,500 parts of water, you will not taste any more heat. The sharpest chilli, ‘Habanero’, measures about 300,000 Scoville, and pure Capsaicin around 15 million Scoville.
Compared with lemon, chilli has nearly double the amount of vitamin C (up to 180 mg/100g). This important vitamin protects and strengthens the immune system, helps to cleanse the body of metals and stabilises the blood circulation. Chilli has a number of other positive effects on the body and is in any case a hot topic.