Pictured above: Thai Peanut Curry Chicken
Thai food has a reputation for being hot and spicy, but the intensity of the heat can be easily adjusted to personal taste without compromising the rich depth of flavor that is fundamental to the cuisine. As with other Asian cuisines, the Thai dishes we're familiar with in the western world are frequently the most popular selections from the various regions of Thailand.
The trademark traditions of unique taste and beautiful visual presentation make Thai cuisine an extrordinary culinary adventure.
All About Thai Food
Garlic, chilies, coconut milk, fish sauce and shrimp paste are common ingredients found in Thai food.
These basics are complemented by adding pungent flavor elements like basil, lime juice, lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaves, fresh cilantro, ginger, galangal (hot ginger), black pepper, tamarind juice and ground peanuts. Rice is a staple food in Thailand and is eaten at every meal with a variety of stir-fried meats and vegetables and curries.
Curry pastes, along with sauces and various condiments, provide the foundation for many Thai dishes. They are classified by the color they acquire from the variety of chili pepper that is used as a base.
Thai curry pastes are generally a moist blend of various chili peppers, lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaves, ginger, cilantro, garlic, shallots, cumin and anise. These ingredients are then ground into a thick paste using an old-fashioned mortar and pestle. When blended with broth or coconut milk and used to simmer meat and vegetables, the curry paste provides the basis for a unique and flavorful meal.
There are five basic regional styles of Thai cooking. The tropical climate in southern Thailand is known for growing the sweetest coconuts in the country. Southern Thailand is a peninsula with ocean on both sides, so fresh fish and seafood are plentiful.
Southern Thai chefs are famous for their rich, coconut-milk based curries and grilled and stir-fried seafood. Desserts are generally made from fresh fruits like pineapple and papaya that grow in the region.
The city of Bangkok, located in the central region, seems to be centered around food. It sports an amazing amount of restaurants and fast food eateries per square mile.
Here, dishes from all the other regions of Thailand are available from a myriad of street vendors. Many of the street vendors specialize in a single, complicated dish whose quality usually rivals that of a fine restaurant.
In addition to the street food, unique to Bangkok is what is called palace-style or Royal Thai cuisine. Palace-style foods are often popular regional dishes that are presented in a fashion that is nothing short of remarkable. Garnishes of vegetables and fruits are carved into elaborate flowers, fish and birds that constitute a feast for the eyes as well as the palate.
The wet central plains of Thailand largely comprise productive jasmine rice farms. Rice noodles are popular here and Pad Thai, perhaps the best known Thai dish in the western world, originates in this region. Beef, pork and chicken are commonly used in combination with rice noodles and a variety of condiments and spices. Bananas and mangoes are typical dessert fare.
The cooler climate in the north of Thailand is not conducive to growing coconuts like the south, nor is fresh fish abundant. Here, red meats are more common and sticky (or glutinous) rice is the daily staple.
Chiang Mai style cooking originates in this region. One of Chiang Mai's better known dishes is Khao Soi, a mild, yellow coconut-curry broth flavored with Kaffir lime, curry powder and turmeric and filled with thin egg noodles and beef. It is topped with a variety of condiments like fried garlic chips and chopped red onion at the table.
The food of the drought-prone northeast of Thailand is known as Issan-style. Similar to the cuisine of the north, red meats and sticky rice are commonplace. The curries from this region tend to be clear, meaning they don't use coconut milk.
Issan-style chopped meat salad (Laab) is a dish that is popular throughout Thailand. It is traditionally made with beef and flavored with lemon juice, lemongrass, mint, cilantro, fish sauce, brown sugar, scallions and Thai chili powder, topped with toasted rice powder and served over fresh greens.
What to Drink
The flavors of Thai cuisine pair well with lighter, slightly sweet white wines like Riesling and Gerwurztraminer or a light beer like Singha from Thailand or “33” from Vietnam. Traditional Thai iced tea is a strongly brewed red-leaf tea spiced with star anise, cinnamon and vanilla and sweetened with sugar. It is blended with evaporated milk before serving to give it a rich, smooth quality that balances hot and spicy foods quite well.