Thai food is a pleasure to be indulged in when visiting Thailand, and though Thai cuisine has exploded into the international market in recent years there is nothing better than sampling authentic Thai food cooked on home ground, if only because it's much cheaper! For Thai people, eating often seems to be the most important thing of the day, rather than eating just to keep fuelled for the rest of the day, their day seems to be based around thinking about, preparing and eating Thai food, and one of the commonest phrases Thais will ask each other when meeting is "gin cow leaung?" meaning "have you eaten already?".
Unlike the way western meals are served, with one course allocated to each person, in Thailand the food is all shared, so everybody can sample a little of each dish. Thai food is served as and when it is cooked and you may sit at a Thai restaurant with a group of Thais whilst one dish after the after is brought to your table, everybody taking a spoonful or two, and it will be a lot of dishes as well!
There is not so much as a starter dish, main dish, dessert, as a lot of main dishes and dessert. Main dishes consist of soups, salads rice dishes, curries, noodles and fish, and the salads may be a mixture of vegetables as well as noodles. Desserts in Thailand are traditionally healthier than you may expect in other countries, usually being fresh fruit, including mango, mangosteen, banana, pineapple, watermelons and lychees. Thai desserts will often include sweet coconut and sticky rice.
Thai food is an intriguing blend of different cultures that have all influenced Thailand at one time or another, mainly Burmese, Chinese, Malay and Indian, and different foods from different regions have their own distinctive tastes and dishes.
North Eastern (Isaan) Thai Food
In North Eastern Thailand, or Isaan as it is called in Thai, the people hold very traditional attitudes to their food. Similar to the North and reflecting their Lao neighbours Isaan people prefer the sticky rice, both sweetened or steamed and again eaten with the hands. Traditionally this rice is served in a wicker basket called a Katib.
Much of their food is very spicy, with the ever popular Spicy Papaya Salad (Som Tam) being a favourite Thai dish worldwide. This salad is made from raw papaya, dried shrimp, crab, lime juice, garlic, tomatoes, green beans and chillies and may also be complimented in the traditional style with fermented fish.
The Isaan people of North East Thailand are well known for their use of fish and fish sauces in cooking with specialities such as stuffed fish, Pla Som, Pla Ra and Pla Daek.
Fish is a very popular ingredient in Isaan food, as many times meat has been scarce in the area and fish plentiful, so suitably the Thai dishes have adapted to its surroundings. It is no surprise therefore that many Isaan dishes include all manner of available fare, such as lizard, snake, bat and rats and most often these are fried.
Some other famous North Eastern Thai foods include Lap which is minced chicken or pork meat cooked in seasoned dried chillies, and Isaan Sausage, a stuffed mixture of intestines which is left to ferment.
North Eastern Thai food is often very hot and spicy so be warned when sampling Isaan food, you may order something to hot to handle!
Northern Thai Food
Northern Thai food is a cuisine influenced by the Burmese, and one of the first things you’ll notice is that Northern Thai people eat sticky rice instead of the plain rice of and Southern Central Thailand, which is traditionally kneading into a ball and eaten with the hands.
The influence in the cooking from the Burmese is evident using spices such as turmeric, tamarind and ginger. Traditional Northern Thai dishes are Nam Prik Ong, Nam Prik Num, as well as chilli soups like Gang Hangle, Gang Hoh and Gang Kae.
A popular noodle dish in Northern Thai food is Khanom Jeen Ngeow which comes directly from the Mon people in South Burma. There are many noodle dishes in Northern Thai food, and one of the most popular dishes is Khao Soi or Egg Noodles in Curry Sauce, which came from the Chinese and is unique to North Thailand. Different from noodle dishes in other regions Khao Soi has coconut milk added to the soup.
Another influence is the cool climate in the mountainous North, and curries are often cooked in fat rich coconut milk which gives people warmth. The curries are generally milder in the North of Thailand, and an interesting point to note here is that tomatoes which are used only for salads in other Thai dishes are often used in the curries in Northern Thai food.
Northern Thai people also dine on Mor Yor and Haem which are spicy pork sausages. Traditional Northern Thailand is called a "khantoke" dinner where everybody sits round a small table for their meal, often accompanied by traditional Thai Lanna dancing.
Thailand Southern Thai Food
Southern Thai food is another cuisine that is known for it's fiery dishes, perhaps the hottest in all of Thailand, and this is believed to be so to protect the people in this hot humid region from fevers.
Southern Thai curries are amongst the best with plenty of coconut milk producing creamy curries, and with the use of Cumin, Turmeric and aniseed which is a Malaysian influence. Massaman Curry is a famous Southern dish, strongly influenced by the Indians, with its many spices and roasted peanuts which the Southern Thai people use in many of their curries. Popular Muslim dishes in the Southern region are Khao Mok Kai, which is Saffron Rice with Marinated Chicken, and Tieo Khaek which is believed to have come from neighbouring Malaysia.
With one coast resting on the gulf of Thailand and the other side boasting the Andaman Sea, the abundance of fresh seafood in Southern Thai cooking is assured, with Phuket's famous Rock Lobster, fish, crabs, clams, mussels, squid and prawn being used in many dishes, whether they be barbequed, boiled or grilled.
Some of the more popular dishes include Gaeng Lueng (Spicy Coconut Shoot Soup), Gaeng Som (Tamarind Flavoured Soup), Poo Pad Pong Gari (Fried Crab with Yellow Curry) and Kaeng Phanaeng Kai (Savoury Chicken and Coconut Curry).
Three ingredients which are considered essentials in Southern Thai Food are the Sataw which is a green pod filled with green berries, the Med Riang which is like a large dark green bean sprout and the Look Niang, a round hard berry in a dark green skin.
Unlike the Northern regions, but similar to central Thai cuisine, Southern Thai people prefer their food accompanied by plain jasmine rice, and eaten with spoon and fork.