Thailand has become one of the world’s favorite destinations. Aside from the friendly people and the beautiful beaches, the one thing most often raved about with respect to Thailand is the food. Her superb cuisine has put Thailand on the global culinary map, often at the very top of the list.
For example, CNNGO.com recently released their “World’s 50 Most Delicious Foods” list, and in the number one spot is Thailand’s own Massaman Curry. The article writes that Massaman “is the king of curries, and perhaps the king of all foods.”
Despite Thai food’s reputation as being hot and fiery, there are many dishes that are not so; rather, the underlying principle of a perfect Thai dish is one of balance and harmony, much like the culture from which it springs. A good cook of Thai food is a cross between a botanist, an herbalist, a conductor, and a passionate chef.
Indeed, Thai food has been greatly influenced by both Thai culture and the predominant religion of the country: Buddhism. The vast majority of Thais lived - and still live - in the countryside, and are farmers, mostly of rice, but of many other crops and animals also, including fish, shrimp, and other seafood much loved by the Thai people.
Accordingly, one finds within even the most common Thai dishes a symphony of flavors and a subtle fusion of distinct herbs, spices, and vegetables, often with very little meat. The classic dish exemplifying this principle is the ever-popular Tom Yum Koong, or Hot & Sour Soup with Shrimp. This succulent dish came in 8th in the aforementioned CNNGO Top 50 Foods list.
Throughout much of the world, meat is not available in the quantity it is in the most developed countries; thus the Thais developed a great knowledge of nature, which was reflected in their cuisine: lots of rice - white or sticky; many fruits and vegetables; all types of seafood, fresh and salt water varieties; and homemade garnishments and condiments such as fish sauce, fermented fish paste, pickled vegetables, and of course, a liberal sprinkling of chilies to spice things up.
Over the years, Thais observed and learned from the various foreigners and their cuisines that were passing through the Kingdom as trade increased from the 17th Century onwards. They picked up on new techniques and incorporated new ingredients used by the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and Japanese. Chilies actually came via Portuguese missionaries by way of South America, where they had previously served.
Likewise, other foreign cooking methods, techniques, ingredients, and even etiquette were selectively absorbed into Siamese culture over the centuries. For example, Indian ghee was replaced by the always popular coconut milk, preferred over dairy products. Strong, pungent spices were toned down and reduced, and then enhanced by preferred fresh herbs such as lemon grass and galangal.
Added to the pot are the diverse contributions of Thailand’s four distinct regional cuisines, each of these having been affected by its neighbors, be it the Chinese and Burmese in the north, or the Malay and Indian in the south. Added to these two regional cuisines are the Isan dishes of northeast Thailand - with its sticky rice, fresh papaya salads, and minced meat dishes - such as the amazing Nam Tok Moo, or Spicy Grilled pork salad (number 19 on the CNNGO list - and the widely popular national dishes of Bangkok and central Thailand; think Tom Yum Koong (Sour & Spicy Shrimp Soup), Tom Kha Kai (Thai Chicken Galangal and Coconut Milk Soup), Kaeng Keaw Wan (Thai green curry), and the world-famous Phad Thai.
A typical Thai meal will combine many tastes, textures, and flavors: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter; hot - in both senses of the word - and cold; strong and weak. For instance, there will usually be a soup, a curry dish, a plateful of cold, crispy vegetables with a selection of dips, a large fish dish, and several vegetable dishes. The goal is to create a perfect harmony of tastes and textures, both within each individual dish and throughout the meal as a whole.
The Thai dining experience itself takes foreigners a little getting used to. This is a social experience as much as a culinary one; that is, the food is a shared, communal ritual with its own specific cultural behaviors and characteristics. In this way, many dishes are served at once, and are for the whole table, with each individual having their own plate of rice to serve as the foundation and staging ground for the meal.
Diners take spoonfuls of the different dishes as they wish, blending and mixing according to their taste. Respect is shown to one’s elders as they are served first, and are given the select parts of special dishes. Nowadays, a fork held in the left hand is used to put food on the spoon, which is the primary utensil used to eat, and which is held in the right hand.
The meal is eaten slowly amidst many conversations and often much laughter. After all, this is what everyone has been working for: to enjoy good food with good friends and family. This is why food is at the heart of most social rituals and occasions the world over. It is pleasurable, gives life, and bestows health.
The great, added bonus of Thai food is that it not only tastes so good, but that it is so good for you as well. All those tasty herbs and spices, fruit and vegetables, lightly fried small pieces of meat, and steamed seafood are increasingly recognized as being incredibly healthful.
Thai food is indeed a pleasure you need not feel guilty about; on the contrary, it is one of the world’s most healthy diets. So when visiting Thailand, take the time to enjoy a variety of Thai foods, and consider taking a Thai cooking class so you can share this wonderful cuisine back home. Your body - and your friends - will thank you for it.