About the food of Thailand

Water buffalos in Thailand. Photo by Torikai Yukihiro

Water buffalos in Thailand. Photo by Torikai Yukihiro

From her thick, green mountaintops in the north, all the way past her flatlands, through her river basins and glittering skyscrapers, Thailand has it all.

And if you thought her landscape is stunning, you should taste the food.

There’s a zing to Thai food that keeps me coming back; at first I thought it was the sour notes, formed from hefty squirts of lime juice. I do adore a good burst of lime…But over the years I’ve realized Thai food is far more complex than that. There’s a dance going on in every bite, especially in the salads, like som tam (green papaya salad  [Recipe])… sure, there’s bright bursts of lime juice, but there’s also the smack of salty fish sauce, the brutal burn of Bird’s Eye Chili peppers, something sweet (usually palm sugar) and there, somewhere in the background, a hint of bitterness.

 The Plaza Athenee hotel (left) and All Seasons Place (right-center) in Bangkok, Thailand with China Resources Building. Photo by Mark Fischer.

The Plaza Athenee hotel (left) and All Seasons Place (right-center) in Bangkok, Thailand with China Resources Building. Photo by Mark Fischer.

In preparation for this week’s Global Table, we ate at My Thai Kitchen in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We covered the table with several selections, most notably the beef salad, the green curry (chicken swimming in a smooth coconut infused curry), Thai Iced Tea (holy sweetness!!) [Recipe], and, of course, a huge platter of Pad Thai.

Pad Thai, the owner informed me, is usually made wrong in America. Too sweet. Too much sauce. Instead, Pad Thai should be rather dry, but full of the deep roasted peanut flavor and celebrate whatever meat accompanies the dish.

Phi-Phi beach on a lovelly day in Thailand. Photo by Chris Scubabeer.

Phi-Phi beach on a lovelly day in Thailand. Photo by Chris Scubabeer.

 

Speaking of authentic Thai food, I have an extra special tip. If you want some Thai culture to rub off on you, you just might want to enjoy your meal in the company of a Siamese cat. Turns out they originally come from Thailand.

Win.

Many of the dishes use a small mountain of aromatics to amp up the flavor, from lemongrass to galangal, and from keffir lime leaves to Thai basil.

Cooking with these ingredients guarantees your home will smell like a fragrant Thai market.

Thank goodness for stovetop travel.

Maps and flag of Thailand courtesy of the CIA World Factbook.

Maps and flag of Thailand courtesy of the CIA World Factbook.

I’m curious – what’s your favorite Thai food? Is it curry? Some sort of noodles? Or perhaps a rice dish?

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Comments

  1. Stephanie says:

    Siamese cats come from Thailand because Thailand used to be called Siam. Also, that is why conjoined twins are called Siamese twins because the most famous conjoined twins were from Siam, now Thailand.

    Interested to see your menu from one of my favorite ethnic foods!

  2. it’s been about 16 years since i was last in Thailand (though we head that way for our honeymoon next spring!) and it’s changed. that night picture of bangkok is so different from the bangkok i knew, i hear they actually have a public transportation systems now!

    i adore their green papaya salad and a chicken dish called Khao Man Gai (that is very rarely served in restaurants). it’s their version of hainese chicken & rice, it’s very homey and rustic. i also like their drunken noodles, which is fat & flat rice noodle stir fry.

    my favorite cuisine is vietnamese (hopefully you’ll doing a culinary journey there!) but i will say that thai food is one of a few cuisines that is consistent, as in, how it tastes there is fairly close to how it tastes here in the states.

    • Jessica Bennett says:

      Yes, the sky-train was fairly convenient (I was there about 10 years ago). With the amazing amount of traffic congestion, that was one of the easier ways to get around.

  3. Trish Morgan says:

    I absolutely positive adore penang curry, preferably with chicken. I am nuts for almost anything with Thai basil. And I have just been experimenting with an amazing prawn salad with lemongrass. I can’t wait to see what you do!

  4. Brian S. says:

    I wanted to add some facts about Thai history, food, culture. Taken from something I wrote a few years ago. But I didn’t want to clutter up your page. But now several days have passed and everyone who will look at this page has already looked, so I will add this. It is informative (in my unbiased opinion lol).

    Some time before the year 1300, groups of tribal farmers from Yunnan in southwest China drifted down into the virgin untilled lands just east of Burma. They called themselves Thai and the land became Thailand. In the late 19th century, two Thai kings, Mongkut and then his son Chulalungkorn, ruled the land. Cast in the mold of the greater Roman Emperors, they modernized Thailand, fought off the foreign invaders who colonized the rest of southeast Asia, and pushed the Thais into adopting the best of European culture. Deciding that Thais should eat in Western fashion, Mongkut had the British ambassador demonstrate English cutlery to his brother. His brother picked the fork and spoon, and so today that’s what Thais use. You hold the spoon in your right hand and push the food onto it with the fork. Mongkut, by the way, was the king in “The King and I”, a most unfair and unflattering portrait but a fun movie nonetheless. Despite the Westernization, Buddhism permeates the land. You can become a Buddhist monk for a short time in Thailand, six months or less, and most Thai men do just that as part of their education. Thais think it’s unholy to show anger or bad emotion, and it works. You don’t find a land of simmering tension, you find a land of smiles.

    I spent many months in that golden land and I loved it. But I never tried the food! I’d been trekking the uncharted byways of Asia for years; I was so thrilled to find American style breakfasts in Bangkok that that was just about all I ate. That was a mistake. Thai cuisine is one of the greatest on Earth. I learned this years later when, on a narrow and forgotten side street in Queens, N.Y., I found a black door with Thai writing on it and entered to find a hidden restaurant filled with Thai families dining. And the food was a revelation. Each bite had fantastic, swirling flavors, spices I’d never tasted, sweet, salty, sour, hot, all in perfect balance. I ate at Sripraphai for years, never saw anyone who wasn’t Thai, and then the New York Times discovered it, and it was never the same.

    Let me quote that New York Times review, for it summarizes the ethos of Thai cuisine in one sentence: “The balance of sweet, sour, salty and hot is what is often praised about Thai cooking, which focuses on bold flavors in blissful harmony, on perfect proportion and perfect counterpoint, something tangy yielding to something soothing, a burst of cool mellowing a bit of fire.”

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