Even though reading the title of this post may have gotten you singing along in your head with the Spice Girls–“People of the world, spice up your life! Every boy and every girl, spice up your life! Aawww–yeah!!”–this chapter is actually all about the FOOD and FLAVORS of Thailand. (Ok…maybe it was just me who had the Spice Girls earworm.) While this post is chock-full of food photos, I will elaborate in writing on some of the dishes, customs, and concepts that have influenced Thai culture and have made Thailand a culinary marvel of the world.
When I first discovered Thai restaurants in the United States, I wasn’t really sure how or what to order, but it quickly became a favorite type of cuisine because everything I tasted was so fresh, healthy, and delicious. Over the centuries, Thailand chefs, who could easily be referred to as culinary artists, have mastered the integration of the five taste bud zingers–spicy, savory, salty, sweet, and sour–into practically every dish. Each bite proffers an explosion of flavor in your mouth, earning Thailand a well-deserved reputation that has spread far and wide.
Meals and Table Preparation
As far as breakfast, lunch, and dinner go, I wouldn’t say that there are any specific dishes for a certain time of day as I have seen all food served and available all day long. Breakfast can be based around eggs and toast or it can be simply fresh fruit and a coffee or tea. I have seen omelets, smoothies, pancakes, bacon, and noodle dishes–but again, any of this is available throughout the day. For heavier meals during the rest of the day, the main dish is typically served with a noodle base or rice on the side. (The noodles and rice also help curb the spiciness of some dishes.)
Table settings and manners are simple. All tables usually have a canister of toothpicks and small, less-than-paper-thin napkins (or a roll of toilet paper used in place of napkins). That’s about it. Chopsticks are the main utensil used, although forks and spoons are becoming more common. If a meal has any kind of soup or liquid involved, a ladle-like spoon will be served with it. Sometimes condiments such as chili sauce, soy sauce, salt, and sweet red sauce will be served automatically, but usually they are available by request. In most places, people sit at regular tables and chairs to eat, but in a few places, I have seen that people remove their shoes, then sit around tables that are low to the ground on mats or cushions on the floor to enjoy their meal.
Fruits, Vegetables, and Fresh Markets
Markets are amazing and I wish we had more of them in the United States. Everything is so fresh when it comes from the market and there is so much to choose from. Markets are busy and can be dirty, but markets are where things happen–some people grocery shop, others make money from selling their goods, some people come for the social interaction, and others can’t wait to get out of there. In any case, markets hold the key to anyone’s stomach.
Because Thailand is located in the tropical and sub-tropical regions of the globe, it produces many fruits that cannot be found in other parts of the world. Bananas and mangoes are plenty along with papaya, coconuts, melon, and pineapple. In Thailand, durian is the “king” of the fruits, large and spiky with a delectable, velvety “meat” inside, and mangosteen is the “queen,” smaller and round, about the size of a tomato and plum-colored–when it is broken open, sweet juicy and tangy pods are exposed that can be eaten whole. Dragonfruit and rambutan are also fun and delicious tropical fruits.
The vegetable scene is just as diverse as the fruit world with green leafy vegetables, unbelievably long green beans, several types of eggplant (purple, green, baby eggplant), multiple varieties of chilis, root vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, and practically anything else one could imagine. Most of the vegetables retain their nutritional content when used in cooking because they are rarely boiled and almost never overcooked, but slightly steamed or stir-fried for only a few minutes.
Lastly, the marketplace is where people can get their fresh meats and fish. In some places I saw the fish literally swimming around in buckets, oblivious to their pending doom. Fish and meat will be cut up and prepared right out in the open so its the freshest one can find. Or it is available already cooked and ready to eat. The marketplace is famous for having great street food and snacks, especially fried food like fried chicken or fried bananas.
Herbs, Spices, & Oils
I think the secret to Thai cooking is in the herbs, spices, and oils that are used. Typically the oils used for frying are not that strong. For example, soy oil, used for lightly frying spring rolls, adds just a small touch to the rolls so as not to diminish the flavors inside. Some other sauces used in cooking are usually made from a combination of several ingredients such as oyster sauce (savory), soy sauce (salty), palm sugar (sweet), chili oil or actual chilis (spicy), and lime juice or rind (sour). Another common ingredient in Thai cooking is coconut cream (or coconut milk); this both tapers off the spice from other ingredients and creates a smooth, creamy consistency.
There is a variety of herbs and plants used in Thai recipes that enhance the dishes–some ingredients that one might not ever expect. For example, the leaves from a Kaffir lime tree are often added to soups and curries. (I found out in my cooking class in Chiang Mai that you are not supposed to eat the leaves; they are just there for added flavor. I thought I was supposed to eat everything in the bowl so since I’d been in Thailand, I’d chomped more than once on the tough leaves; I’m relieved to know I can just push them to the side now.) Other popular plants used for cooking include lemongrass, which adds a refreshing twist, ginger, and Thai basil.
In addition to universal beverages such as water, soda, coffee, and beer (Thai local beers are called “Chang” and “Tiger”), Thailand has a handful of unique beverage options. Fresh fruit juices and smoothies are very common, but no fancy ingredients or protein powders are added; most fruit drinks consist of real pieces of freshly cut fruit, maybe a splash of simple syrup, and either water (for juices) or ice (for smoothies). Tea is also very common as it is in many Asian countries. Green tea can be found anywhere and lemongrass tea is great for a post-meal drink as it is good for digestion. In addition, people often drink the coconut milk straight out of a fresh coconut sold practically right off the tree and cut open with a machete.
A Thailand specialty is Thai Iced Tea. Now this is a treat! I don’t even know what all is in it, but all the spices and things that are mixed together turn it to a burnt orange color as it is heated, then poured over ice and topped off with a drizzle of condensed milk. This is the perfect beverage to enjoy on a hot afternoon, but be prepared for intense sweetness!
Small Plates and Appetizers
Most people are familiar with Thai finger foods and appetizers. Spring rolls are a popular and pretty healthy little starter as they are filled with fresh veggies–such as carrots, cabbage, and bean sprouts, clear skinny noodles, and an optional ground up meat. They can either be wrapped in clear rice paper (which is common in Vietnamese restaurants), or wheat-based pastry-like paper, then lightly fried until they are golden brown and slightly crispy. Spring rolls are complemented with a sweet and sour chili dipping sauce.
Another favorite appetizer is chicken (or pork) satay which is made by putting thin strips of marinaded meat on a stick and grilling them, then serving them with a lightly sweet but savory peanut sauce to dip it in. So many flavors together in one bite! Some other types of appetizers I have seen include small portions of spiced up shrimp or other seafood served on rice crackers.
Noodles and soups or broth-based dishes can be found in every restaurant, household, or street market anywhere you turn in Thailand. The well known soups that many people have gotten used to being on menus are hot and sour soup and lemongrass chicken coconut soup. Soups are prepared with a big pot of boiling broth (meat or coconut base) with herbs and spices, then adding prawns/egg/meat and lots of vegetables such as mushrooms, tomatoes, basil leaves, carrots, etc. In some cases, noodles will be what the soup is composed around and the noodles will either be “dipped” in the boiling broth for a quick cook or served as the bulk of the dish like in the traditional khao soi soup from northern Thailand. In general, soups and broth-based dishes are both healthy and full of flavor.
Curries seem to come in all colors and varieties across Asia. Based on the curry spice, curries are a type of stew that is filled with meat and big chunks of vegetables, usually served with rice. Thai curries can be very very VERY spicy, however, the actual curry flavor is not strong as it tends to be in Indian curries. In Thailand, I have seen green curry, yellow curry, red curry, massaman curry, and panang curry. A curry can be on the thicker side or more like a soup, depending on the ratio of coconut cream (thick) versus coconut milk (thin) that is used in preparation. Starting with a pre-prepared curry paste (mixed with any variety of other spices) blended into oil in a pan, a curry dish is created and made spicier with chilis or tamer and creamier with more coconut cream. In Thailand, the curries tend to be served in a bowl like soup, whereas in other parts of the world, curries come thicker in stew form.
At home, I am usually safe ordering a green curry that comes in coconut broth with lots of green veggies. I made the mistake in Bangkok not once, but twice, of ordering green curry dishes that ended up being way hotter than I could handle. This is a different kind of burn than Latin American spiciness; this burned to the core, set fire to my lips, and made my stomach churn. Apparently to Thai people, “mild spicy” is actually meant to turn you into a fire-breathing dragon. And the rule of thumb with chilis is that the smaller it is, the bigger punch it packs! Interestingly enough, the spiciness level actually varies by region: southern Thai dishes on on the extreme heat meter, whereas dishes in northern Thailand are tamer, milder, easier on the stomach and lips. No more “mild spicy” for me in southern Thailand…
Other yellow and red curries have slightly different flavors from the green curry and tend to complement the vegetables that are added to it; some typical vegetables that are found in curries include eggplant, baby eggplant, green beans, pumpkin, carrot, onion, peppers, and potatoes. Massaman curry (a Persian style curry) is orange and mild with potatoes, onions, and meat. Panang curry is probably my favorite because of the creaminess and character it is known for: based on a red curry, the paste is blended with nutmeg then cooked with whichever meat and vegetables that are desired, usually carrots and green beans, at least.
Fried Rice, Noodles, & Stir Fry
This is a big category because there are so many dishes that fall into this category. Continuing with the “healthy” theme of Thai cuisine, most of these meals have tons of vegetables mixed in. In addition to every kind of fried rice you can find mixed with egg, diced veggies, and sometimes meat, some famous noodle dishes are pad-thai (egg noodle base) and pad-see-ew (wide, flat noodle base, sometimes called “fried noodle”), both cooked in a frying pan with a mixture containing oyster sauce with some palm sugar. In pad-see-ew, common veggies include carrots and green leafy vegetables like kale; fried egg plus meats like chicken or pork are usually added to this dish. Pad-thai traditionally includes bean sprouts, shredded carrots, ground peanuts, fried egg, and prawns. Pad-thai seems to be a favorite dish for many people who enjoy Thai food.
Other stir fry dishes are cashew chicken, ginger chicken, and sweet and sour chicken, among others. (Any of these dishes can be prepared with other meats or seafood such as beef, pork, or prawns.) Sweet and sour has been my go-to dish here because it’s hard to mess it up. I always know I’ll get my veggies because in Thailand, this dish is composed of tomato, cucumber, peppers, and pineapple plus whatever meat is thrown in with the sweet and sour sauce. And as with all stir fry dishes in Thailand, cooking time is minimal–toss all the ingredients in a pan for a few minutes and dinner’s ready.
It seems that dessert is not always an assumed part of a meal as it is in other places in the world, and to be honest, it doesn’t seem necessary in Thailand as many of the dishes have an element of sweetness to them already. The most common after meal treat that is served is fresh fruit. Going slightly fancier, in the markets and on the street, I have tasted dessert creations revolving around bananas such as “rotees” which are sort of like crepes and are usually filled with cooked egg and banana (again, mixing flavors/items that are uncommon to see together) then topped with Nutella; also, there are ladies who prepare “fried bananas” wrapped in a tasty battered pastry before being deep-fried.
Last, but not least: mango with sticky rice. The best dessert EVER!! In my cooking class, I finally learned that the secret is in the sauce. Well, mango is good any time any place in my opinion, but the sauce that is poured on the sticky rice is made from a coconut cream base with a little added sugar and a pinch of salt. Next time you’re in a Thai restaurant, save room for this tasty mango treat! It’s worth it.
As I have been moving through Southeast Asia, most of the food I have seen and eaten is a spin-off of either Thai food or Vietnamese food. Same same, but different. Because Thai cuisine is so freakin’ delicious and there is so much variety, this will likely be the only time I write about food, unless I come across something unique in one of the other places I go. After one month of traveling so far, the thing I miss the most is cheese (and wine!); cheese is avaiable here but I have been eating mainly local food which doesn’t include cheese very often. But as I was writing this chapter and preparing the photos, my taste buds were buzzing and now I can’t wait to get back to Thailand for more Thai food. And if ever YOU find yourself in Thailand, hopefully you know now to take advantage of where you are and eat your heart out!!
TRAVEL TIP: When traveling to place where the food or meal customs are different from what you know, make friends with a local and ask them teach you or show you. During my cooking class in Thailand, the instructor, “A,” took us on a field trip to the market where she introduced us to many new types of foods and educated us on how to cook with them or eat them. I was so grateful to her for that! Sometimes new foods or exotic fruits can be intimidating because you just don’t know what to expect, but you can make it really fun by showing a little curiosity and asking for some “eating lessons.” And you’ll try something new which can be fun and exciting. Also, take a stroll through a local market just to see what’s there. You will learn a lot about what you might find in your food if you see where it comes from first! For example, if you see frogs and bugs being sold, you might know to double check every time you order to make sure you’re not getting something you might not have the desire to consume. Or who knows? You just might get to inclination to munch on some giant ants with garlic, salt, and lime!