Thai cuisine is really better described as four regional cuisines corresponding to the four main regions of the country. The cooking of Thailand has been influenced by China and India while maintaining a unique taste of its own. Like Vietnamese food, Thai food uses fresh (rather than dried) herbs and spices as well as the ingredient found in almost all Thai dishes and every region of the country: nam pla, a very aromatic and strong tasting fish sauce.
The first people came to Thailand from southern China, forming a federation of city-states known as Lanna, with Chiang Mai as its center. Chiang Mai remained remote from the rest of the country until the railroad was built in 1921. Therefore the north still retains much of its native culture, including its crafts and its food. Anthropologists believe that rice may have originated in northern Thailand, but even the rice here is different: northerners prefer steamed, glutinous rice, rolled into small balls and dipped into delicious sauces. At a traditional kantoke dinner, you sit on the floor around a bamboo table and help yourself to a selection of continuously replenished dishes. The menu might feature naem (pork sausage that can be eaten plain or mixed into various dishes), also called sai oua; khao soy (egg noodles with chicken, coconut cream, and crispy garlic) and gaeng hang lay (spicy curry with pork and tamarind flesh) from neighboring Burma, now called Myanmar; and steamed baby prawns. The meal might be accompanied by nam prik noom (chili-lime sauce) from Laos, rice wafers encrusted in sesame seeds and black mushrooms; and succulent longan fruit which grows everywhere.
Isaan (or Isan) is the Thai word for the northeast. Infertile soil and devastating droughts led the people of Isaan to eat anything they could, such as grubworms, grasshoppers, ant eggs, snail curry, and pungent fermented fish. But other, less unusual, dishes have recently grown in popularity throughout Thailand. Laab is a spicy salad of minced beef, pork, chicken, or fish; the meat is usually served raw or barely-cooked in Isaan, but fully-cooked in northern Thailand. Other dishes include som tam (spicy green papaya salad), gay yang (barbecued chicken with pepper sauce and garlic), and haw mok (ground fish curry custard steamed in a banana leaf). Many residents migrated from across the Mekong River in Laos, and they brought khanom buang (a crispy crepe stuffed with dried shrimp and bean sprouts), a popular dish on festive occasions. The Isaan people are geniuses at combining simple ingredients, such as tam muang—an unlikely but delicious blend of crushed unripe mangoes with sugar, powdered chilies, and fish sauce.
Phuket is an island of southern Thailand, which itself is a long, slender peninsula, with one coastline facing the Gulf of Thailand and the other on the Indian Ocean. Thousands of boats bring a plentiful supply of lobsters, squid, prawns, and other seafood for local consumptionand export. On land, coconuts grow abundantly and provide milk for soups and curries, oil for frying, and grated coconut as a condiment. The lush climate even allows two rice harvests instead of one in the north. Seafood is prepared in many ways, sometimes simply grilled, sometimes as part of tom yam (soup with lemongrass and chilies). From adjacent Malaysia came fish curries, from nearby Indonesia came satays with peanut sauce, and from traders with India came gaeng mussaman (curry with cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and chicken or beef). A local vegetable is sataw, which looks like a lima bean but tastes bitter. The south was the birthplace of a national breakfast food, khanom chin (minced beef stewed in red sauce served atop rice noodles). Half the population in the south is Muslim, so less pork is eaten here. One Muslim dish is khao mok gai (roast chicken on saffron rice with crispy fried ginger).
When King Rama V reigned, the Grand Palace was home to 3,000 people, and the women learned complex techniques for preparing foods and carving fruits and vegetables so they would look like flowers, leaves, and abstract designs. Some dishes include foi thong (a silky, golden nest made out of egg yolks and sugar), look choop (imitation handmade fruits), and mee grob (crisp rice noodles and shrimp in sweet and sour sauce). These recipes were considered secrets not to be known outside of the court, but in recent decades the art of Royal Thai cuisine has been rediscovered by a few chefs, primarily in Bangkok.
from Kate's Global Kitchen
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This page modified January 2007
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