Indeed, despite the fact that Thai food uses many of the same core ingredients as other South East Asian countries – chilli, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, fish sauce, palm sugar and lime juice – it manages to retain a unique flavour all of its own.
The essence of Thai food is all about balance – achieving the perfect harmony between sweet, sour, hot and salty. Pungent fresh herbs, such as lemongrass and galangal, tone down overpowering spices, while salty sauces are tempered with sugars and offset by acids, such as lemon and lime.
Thailand’s various regions all have their own complex cooking styles, flavours and unique dishes. For example, in the north of Thailand steamed glutinous rice is preferred to the soft-boiled rice of the central region and curries tend to be thinner, without the coconut milk and cream that is widely used in central and southern cooking. The influence of neighbouring Burma and Laos are also more apparent in northern Thai cooking.
Southern Thailand sees greater rain and has many coconut and banana plantations and a strong fishing industry. As a result, seafood dishes are highly popular here and the richness of coconut is tempered with sour fruits and hot chillies – southern Thai food is the hottest in the country.
The food of the central plains is perhaps the most complex of all, with the influence of Royal Thai cuisine being most strongly felt here. These sophisticated dishes, which use many ingredients, represent the type of Thai food that foreigners tend to be most familiar with.
Rather than being served in courses, a Thai meal is presented all at once, so that diners can enjoy the juxtaposition of contrasting flavors. Rice is an integral part of every meal; such is the role its cultivation has had upon the country’s development that a Thai meal without rice is unthinkable. Typically on the table there will also be soup, a couple of curries and some side dishes. With the beautiful variety of tropical fruits available in Thailand, fruit is popular for dessert but there is also a wide variety of colourful Thai sweets.
The Thai have a saying, gan gin gan yu, that translates to “as you eat, so you are”, which is reflective of how integral food is to Thai culture and identity.
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Cha om is a herb-like vegetable with a very strong, somewhat unpleasant smell that disappears once it is cooked. You can find it Asian supermarkets.
In North Eastern Thailand, beef is traditionally cooked over charcoal and it is the juices running off it that give this dish its name. In this recipe, the tender beef strips are spiked with spicy, pungent flavours and served with a cooling salad of cucumber, lettuce, mint and a little fresh chilli. The Thai way to eat this is with your hands, gathering up all the ingredients so you have a taste of everything in each bite.
Some people swear by making fresh coconut milk every day! If this sounds a bit extreme, you can always do what Sujet Saengkham does before he starts this recipe, which is to boil tinned coconut milk for 5 minutes to rid it of the "tinned taste". The curry is finished with Thai basil, which you should always add after you’ve turned off the heat to stop the leaves turning black.
This is a wonderful combination of noodles, prawns and crunchy fresh veggies, coated in a distinctive sweet and tangy sauce. Little dried shrimp and preserved radish, with its soft but chewy texture and unique flavour, are two of the essential ingredients.
This recipe is for one of the favorite dishes of the Thai people and make sure you use holy basil, as it goes especially well with pork.
A lovely dessert and an impressive one to make at home. Try to grate your own fresh coconut for the true Thai flavour!
This is a wonderful Thai recipe which combines the deliciously rich and creamy texture of the banana flower with crunchy cashew nuts, the heat of roasted chilli and all the other ingredients. Banana flowers are the buds of the banana plant, which are soaked and shredded for use in salads. They are also available preserved from Asian grocery shops; soak in cold water for 10 minutes and rinse before use.