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Thai cuisine is considered by many to be among the world's most delicious foods. Thailand is a small country in Southeast Asia, sharing a peninsula with Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Like all local and national cuisines, the food of Thailand tells us about the country, its political history, its trade, and its geography. Although Thai food is influenced by the cuisines of both India and China, Thailand's food, like her people, has maintained its own distinct identity.
Thai food like other cuisines of Southeast Asia do not have pre-defined courses. Like most cooking of the region, the Thai meal is based around rice. Southern Thai people eat long-grain rice, while the northerners favor short-grain or 'sticky' rice. Noodles, probably introduced from China, also play a role in Thai cooking. Rice is the main course, not a side dish. Curries and other hot dishes are eaten by the Thai more as sauces than entrees, flavoring the cool rice. Meat is very expensive, and Thai beef or pork-based recipes use less meat than countries such as America or Europe.
Because Thailand forms a crescent around the Gulf of Thailand and the country is lined with hundreds of miles of rivers and canals, fish is a staple of the Thai diet. Fish sauce (nam pla) and/or shrimp paste (kapee) appear in nearly every recipe. The other distinct flavors of Thai cooking come from the indigenous spices and produce: coconut milk, lemon grass, tamarind, ginger, black pepper, galangal, garlic, cilantro, basil, palm sugar, turmeric, cumin, shallots, and green onions. Last but not least is the Chile, a late influx into Thai cooking, having arrived with Portuguese traders early in the 16th century. The Chile has become a major ingredient in Thai cooking and is responsible for a dish being potentially very spicy hot!
Both sides of the Southern peninsula have an extensive coastline, which leads to many wonderful Thai dishes using seafood. Southern-style tamarind prawns is a popular dish, as is crispy fried fish smothered with a sweet-and-sour Chili sauce. Just about every kind of seafood is tossed on the charcoal grill, fueled with coconut husks, and served with hot-and-sour Chili dipping sauces. Coconuts, another major agricultural crop of the region, provides the rich coconut milk that is used not only for curries, but as a base for stewing various kinds of vegetables, including jungle leaves and vines from the lush rainforests.
Thai food is typically prepared in a wok. It is either stir-fried or steamed. Some foods are grilled, but due to a lack of fuel, few dishes are baked. Chilies and other spices are ground into powder or paste and added to a Thai dish. Thai food is eaten with a spoon, fork and knife. In Southeast Asia, only the Vietnamese eat with chopsticks.
Essential Spices and Produce Used in the Preparation of Thai Cuisine
Thai Cuisine offers a unique blend of tastes: hot / spicy, sour / piquant, sweet, and almost always highlighted with flavors of citrus, usually, lemongrass and lime. In order to prepare Thai food properly, one must understand the various mixes and tastes of the ingredients. Following is a list of some basic ingredients essential in the cooking of Thai Cuisine:
Southern and Mainstream Thai Cuisines
Fresh Thai Tamarind offers exotic sour flavors. It grows on beautiful large trees, and comes in small pods. The outer skin is a thick paper-like material, you simply peel and eat the flesh inside.
Fresh Green Papaya is excellent in preparing Thai Papaya Salad, known as "Som Tum".
Thai Betel Leaves used to make miang kham, a delicious Thai recipe.
Lemongrass, or citronella root, is the reason Thai and Vietnamese dishes often have a compelling flavor that's not exactly lemon, but a subtle lemon perfume. It is sold by the stalk, which resembles a green onion. Serving tips: Use the portion of the white base up to where the leaves begin to branch. If slightly dry, soak in warm water to rehydrate. Shred or finely slice and add to soups, curry dishes, and sauces for seafood.
Thai Basil, or "horapa" in Thai, has a unique flavor unlike other traditional basil such as Italian. The aroma is stronger, has a sweeter, peppery flavor and comes with hearty purple stems. Often eaten fresh, a great garnish to eat fresh with anything!
Kaffir lime leaves add a unique and refreshing taste essential to many Thai soups & curries. The combination of lemongrass and lime leaves adds a wonderful flavor to Thai dishes. The leaves have a strong fragrance and flavor that cannot really be substituted. To experience the wonderful aroma, sliver the leaves with a knife or scissors. Kaffir lime leaves grow in doubles. Sizes vary, but the average individual leaf is approx 2" long. Harvesting is done by hand and it's difficult because the branches have long thorns, so they tend to be expensive and not easily found in supermarkets.
Thai Chile peppers (Prik ki nu). Thai Chile peppers are used in many Thai soups and curries.
Fresh galangal (kha) This root has a shiny, thin skin and is a relative of ginger but with a much more pungent and fiery flavor. Galanga is native to the cuisines of Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. It is an important ingredient with lemon grass, Chile peppers, shallots, and garlic for Thai curry pastes and soups. Use it sliced and minced to add flavor to stir-fry dishes. Use galangal sparingly since it has a very strong flavor and can overpower the taste of a dish.
Turmeric is an essential ingredient in many Southern Thai dishes. A well-known Southern specialty is yellow rice with chicken (kao moek gkai), brightly colored and flavored with turmeric, spiced with roasted dried spices and served with a sweet-sour Chili sauce. Fried fish in this region is flavored with chopped fresh turmeric, garlic and ground white pepper. There are also soups flavored with turmeric and almost all curries, whether coconut-milk-based or broth-based, are laced with turmeric.
Southern Thai Cuisine tends to be heavy, rich, pungent, intense and very hot and spicy. Although ninety percent of Thailand's population is Buddhist, many of the Southern provinces are predominantly Muslim and therefore southern Thai food is often similar to Indian food. In Thailand, fresh rhizome is used instead of the dried powder.
It is common practice in Southern restaurants to have a large platter of vegetables (fresh, pickled, and cooked in coconut milk), aromatic and pungent herbs and the astringent and bitter leaves, flower buds and seeds of large edible trees placed on each table as part of the table setting. These vegetables accompany many of the pungent and spicy sauces in Southern dishes. Among them are the very astringent, young cashew leaves, plentiful in the South since cashews are a major agricultural crop of the region.
Unlike mainstream Thai curries in which herbs and pungent roots are the primary ingredients, many Muslim-influenced Southern curries are characterized by the roasted fragrance of dry spices more familiar in Indian cooking. Roti is also made sweet, sprinkled with sugar and sweetened condensed milk, or stuffed with bananas; these sweet versions are now commonplace street foods all over Thailand, though the savory roti served with curry is really to be enjoyed only in Southern Thailand. Southerners also eat a variety of large seeds from forest trees and especially prized is sadtaw – a green, beanlike seed that comes in large, bright green and wavy seedpods sold in bunches in just about every Southern market. A favorite way to serve these seeds is in a very pungent and spicy stir-fry with shrimp and a red curry sauce (pad ped sadtaw).
Many years ago, utensils and equipment used in the preparation of food were very basic. Pots, pans, and woks didn't exist. The only metallic utensil used in cooking was the knife. Cooking techniques were limited in the early stages of Thai food.
The art of cooking Thai food has been developing over the years in accordance with the outside influences, especially from the west. With the advent of modern kitchenware, new ideas and techniques have been further enhanced. However, typical methods of cooking Thai cuisine still remain the same as they were in the past. This includes grilling - Grilling food is derived from Thailand's abundant supply of natural wood that can be applied to set the fire and cook food. Thai people normally grill meats and fresh seafood and eat them with dips (locally called as 'Nam Phrik'), which has sweet-and-sour flavors so that they become tastier. Another popular Thai cooking method is 'Yam' basically a kind of salad.
Influences on Thai Cuisine
As mentioned above, cultural influences from countries such as China, India, and even Western Europe, influenced Thai styles of cooking. The Chinese introduced quick frying methods reflected in a large choice of stir-frying entries available on Thai menus. Another influence from the mainland, resulted in an extensive use of noodles in Thai recipes.
Many monarchs were educated in Europe and brought back styles of western cooking. During the reign of King Narai, which coincided with the reign of King Louis XIV of France, Thai food incorporated many new styles of cooking. Foreigners and trades arrived in Thailand bringing new ways of cooking as well as new ingredients. Thais did not originally use coconut milk in their food. Westerners often used milk in their food and lent the idea of adding coconut milk to Thai curries. Eventually, the use of coconut milk in Thai curries became the standard.