Thailand used to be one of our most-visited Asian countries during the late 1990s to early 2000s, traveling there a number of times each year as part of our former work. One of the things we appreciate about the country is its cuisine. It’s one of the major reasons why we always look forward to a visit to the Land of Smiles.
Thai food has long been known for being hot and spicy. But Thai cuisine is more than chili-spiked food and is a balance of sour, sweet, salty and hot tastes. As with other Asian countries, Thai cuisine varies according to region and, since there are over 40 distinct ethnic groups in Thailand, Thai food is extremely varied. Here are some of the Thai dishes that we encountered.
The most famous Thai salad and our favorite is som tam or green papaya salad made with peanuts, dried shrimp, palm sugar, and shredded unripened or green papaya. The result is a rich combination of four tastes – sour, sweet, spicy and salty (especially when fish sauce or nam pla is added to the mix).
Leo also enjoys yam talay or seafood salad, usually made with any combination of squid or cuttlefish, prawns, mussels, scallops or crabmeat. Added to this seafood mix are tomatoes, shallots, lime juice and Thai celery.
Rice and Noodles
Like other Southeast Asian countries, rice is a staple part of Thai cuisine. Jasmine rice is popular for its fragrance. An interesting rice variety common in north and northeastern Thailand is sticky rice. This is usually shaped into small balls by hand and then dipped into viands or side dishes before being eaten. Leo’s first opportunity to try this was with a group of Iranian friends who invited him to try it at a market stall in Bangkok. Khao pad or fried rice is made with eggs, onion and Thai basil with tomatoes and cucumber on the side.
Rice also comes in the form of noodles either as a type of noodle soup or stir-fried with a wide array of vegetables and meat. Phad thai is a popular example. It’s a fried noodle dish which is usually made with shrimp or chicken although the vegetarian option is popular too. Pad thai is available on almost every street corner and is a cheap and tasty meal.
While pad thai is made with relatively thin noodles, 2 other popular stir-fried noodle dishes – pad kee maoand pad see ew – are made with wider, flat noodles. Pad kee mao is literally translated drunken noodles since these spicy noodles are meant to be eaten with ice cold beer or is a cure for a hangover (the spiciness of the noodles is guaranteed to wake you up). The more popular pad see ew gets its primary sauce flavor from soy sauce, is slightly less sweet than pad kee mao and is more complex in its flavor.
When it comes to soups, tom yam is easily the most popular. This is a sour soup with a spicy kick made with generous servings of lemon grass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, shallots, dried chilies and lime juice. When made with prawns it is referred to as tom yam kung (goong) and with chicken as tom yam kai.
Normally you would have an idea of the degree of spiciness of a tom yam just by observing its color (the more reddish, the hotter). But the hottest tom yam we had was an otherwise innocent-looking colorless version that we tried in Bangkok several years back. The first sip was truly devastating as it nearly obliterated our sense of taste. Finishing that dish was an exercise in masochism but we somehow ended up treasuring the experience.
A close relative is the tom kha kai – a mild to spicy sweet and creamy soup made with coconut milk, galangal, chicken and sometimes mushrooms. The combination of sweet, creamy and spicy makes tom kha kai one of our personal favorites.
We’re fond of curries from almost every culture and Thai curries are no exception. These are made from curry paste, coconut milk or water, meat, seafood, vegetables or fruit, and herbs. There are unnumerable varieties of Thai curries but the most popular ones are as follows:
Gaeng keow wan or green curry is the spiciest of all but also has a balancing sweet taste from the added coconut milk. Green chilies, eggplant, ginger, shallots, garlic, lemongrass, coriander (cilantro) and a choice of meat complete this dish. This green curry is considered the most popular curry in Thailand.
Gaeng phet or red curry includes red chilies to obtain a red color and make it spicy hot. Sometimes tomato sauce is used. This curry utilizes coconut milk in the sauce along with the curry paste, which includes garlic, spices, galangal, and shrimp paste along with the red chilies.
Gaeng lueang or yellow curry includes turmeric as one of its major ingredients, giving the curry its typical golden-yellow hue much like traditional Indian curries. Some of them actually resemble Indian curries but are distinctly Thai in flavor. Besides turmeric the relatively mild gaeng lueang utilizes curry powder, coriander seeds, cumin, lemongrass, galangal or ginger, garlic, and yellow or red chili. Thai yellow curry chicken is a common dish, and the paste is often combined with coconut milk and used in fish stews.
Panang curry, Leo’s favorite, is a mild, creamy type made with beef, chicken, pork or seafood. It is made with a type of curry paste, palm sugar, fish sauce, chili and kaffir lime leaves and is sometimes topped with coconut cream. It’s so nice we often end up sipping the sauce after finishing the meat. Incidentally the name panang comes from Penang, Malaysia where this dish is thought to have originated.
Massaman curry is one of the more unique Thai curries thanks to Persian influence. It originated in southern Thailand near the border with Malaysia and is a thick sauce with a mild, slightly sweet flavor. Massaman curry dishes distinguish themselves by the inclusion of several whole spices and peanuts, otherwise uncommon in a Thai curry.
Stir-/Deep Fried Dishes
A popular comfort food, pad kaprao usually is made using minced pork or chicken (it’s also great with tofu) which is stir-fried with Thai basil and plenty of chili. This dish is served with rice and fried egg. We usually have this for breakfast but also order it for lunch or dinner whenever we fancy it. Because of our plant-based diet nowadays we would go for the tofu version.
Nothing beats our favorite Thai fried dish of chicken with cashew nuts – actually a Thai-Chinese version of kung pao chicken, a Sechuan style fried chicken. Its Thai name is kai phat met mamuang and is stir fried with soy sauce, honey, onions, chilis, pepper and mushrooms, sometimes with vegetables added. The best version of this sweet and flavorful dish that we encountered is at a guesthouse in Din Daeng, Bangkok, made by their cook from Isan.
Sometimes used as a side dish, pak boong (morning glory) is a spinach-like vegetable that is typically fried and seasoned with soybean paste, soy sauce, garlic, chilis and more. Like many other Thai dishes, it is salty, spicy, sour and crunchy all at the same time making for a satisfying meal. This dish is often made with oyster sauce. However, the vegetarian option can easily be prepared.
As we’ve mentioned earlier Thai cuisine is extremely variable depending on the region. On a visit to Hat Yai and other cities in the southern part of the country close to the Malaysian border, we were able to sample dishes obviously influenced by Malay cooking. A group of Pakistani friends who otherwise found it hard to adjust to typical southeast Asian cooking felt very much at home here.
The most interesting dishes in Thailand, however, are those reserved for the culinary adventurer. Multi-legged offerings such as grasshoppers, crickets, worms, termites, beetles, scorpions and ants abound in the country, most of them originating from Isan (in the northeast) and from the north. Most are also deep fried and often eaten as snacks. Leo was able to try the deep fried locust which was crunchy and tasted okay. We could only go so far, however. There were huge deep fried 4-inch long water bugs that looked like cockroaches that we wouldn’t even dare touch.
If you do get to try the little critters don’t forget to wash them down with creamy cha yen or Thai iced tea, a drink made from strongly brewed black tea and sweetened with sugar and condensed milk. (Thais normally use beer for this purpose.)