When discussing Thai cuisine, foodies frequently fire out the noun, ‘harmony’ when waxing lyrical about it. When first introduced to Thai food, and especially watching a cook in action, most people can be mistaken to believe that it is simply a mixture of thrown-in flavours that produce a jumble of tastes and experiences once hitting your tastebuds. It is the complexity of these flavours and the balance, which is, demonstrated in the dish that Thai people delight in.
A particular dish or the whole meal will be built upon three or four fundamental tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter, yet the dish can taste rather different based on who is cooking it, where it is being cooked, for whom and why. Add to this equation that the country’s cuisine and character changes from each location in the Kingdom.
This versatility and variety that can be found in Thai food is another significant reason why it is often found at the top of food polls across the planet. For many things Thai, the adage that “there’s something here for everyone” is never more true when it comes to Thai food and cooking.
What makes Thai food?
Like most countries in this region, Chinese migration had a considerable impact in numerous ways. This happened in Thailand about 1,400 years ago. Before that time, Thai food was baked, boiled or grilled. The Chinese introduced stir-fry and deep-fry cooking methods.
Just a few centuries ago, the introduction of Indian and Muslim food came to Thailand via the boats and individuals that were involved in the trading routes from Europe to the far East. Colonising countries in the region brought with them new recipes and flavours. The chilli, for instance: the scourge of the uneducated palate and commonly blamed for ruining a perfectly good meal was introduced in the 17th century by Portuguese missionaries that developed a fondness for them while in South America.
Thai people were quick to test, assume and assimilate many cooking styles and ingredients; substituting some and wholeheartedly adopting others.
Fresh Herbs & Spices
Thai food is known and hugely appreciated for its keen use of fresh rather than dried herbs and spices. All of these now grow in Thailand, but they were not all native.
There are numerous varieties of coriander, Pak Chee that are used throughout Thailand. As in other dishes, coriander is used as a garnish but it is indispensable for Tom Yam soup. There is also a popular Pak Chee Farang which is usually found in Northern spicy soups and curries. This herb came all the way from the Caribbean and was introduced to Thailand by Europeans, hence the generic endearing name. A Vietnamese basil Pak Phai is used extensively in Isaan for the raw meat dish, Lab Lu. Pak Chee Lao, which translates as ‘coriander from Laos’ is what we call Dill and unsurprisingly, is used lovingly in Isaan dishes.
There are a number of basils used too: sweet, anise-flavoured basil Horapha, can be served in a separate dish to eat or add to food, it is also used in Thai red and green curries. Perhaps the most loved is the Kraphao, or Holy Basil. I’ve you’ve ever eaten stir-fried minced chicken, beef or pork served with rice and basil leaves, possibly with a fried egg on top, then these are they, and that dish is named Phad Kraphao. The Holy aspect presumably comes from the connection between this herb and Hindu worship. This plant is itself worshipped and can be found in holy gardens and planted near Hanuman temples. Lemon basil is another popular variety, used extensively from the Northeast of Africa, throughout Thailand and Laos and it is the almost solely used basil throughout Indonesia. Here it is called Maenglak, and can be found mostly in curries.
Popular leaves used in Thai cookery are Kaffir lime leaves Bai Makrut; the versatile Pandan leaves, Bai Toie are used to wrap chicken, desserts and to stuff fish in order to impart their distinct, sweet flavour. One will see these leaves used everywhere in South East Asia and beyond. If you have not already, try Pandan Chicken. The leaves can be woven into a basket type receptacle and used to hold and steam rice – this flavour is also unforgettable. The leaves are also a natural cockroach repellent.
Fresh roots also give Thai food its personality. At the time of the introduction of spices from the trade routes, Thai cooks began to use less pure spices and opted to use the subtlety and finesse of roots such as Galangal, Lemon Grass, Turmeric, Fingerroot, Coriander Root and Ginger: these roots have widespread use in many curries and spicy soups, some can be presented raw as condiments and can be boiled down and extracted as herbal remedies with mild medicinal properties mostly from Chinese influence. It is the use of these herbs and roots rather than powerful and sometimes overpowering pure spices that give spicy Thai dishes their fresh and fiery but brief attributes, whereas spicy curries from other countries linger on the palate.
Red Hot Chilli & Peppers
And so, to chills and peppers: the widest used throughout the region and certainly in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia is the Prik Kee Nu or Mouse Dropping Chilli is known to a wider audience as the Bird’s Eye Chilli – it is around 2-3cm long and packs an eye-watering punch. Like all of the world’s chilli, their origins are traced to Central and South America and were spread by missionaries, colonists and traders of Spanish and Portuguese ilk.
Slightly smaller but way hotter is the Prik Kee Nu Suan, or Garden Mouse Dropping Chilli. You are likely to come across these presented among other raw condiments such as garlic and ginger in noodle restaurants. They’re often green and rarely more than 2cm in length. Best advice is to keep away from them for it will be an encounter that you will neither win nor forget. The cleanliness of a chills burn, however, meant that it is brief, so if you are adventurous and must try to tick it off your list, one way is to add it to your noodle soup, break it up and give it a stir. The climb in fiery Fahrenheit will be distinct and most likely too hot. Should you wish to tackle it head on, either due to a bet or some other sinister malevolence, have plain rice, cucumber or some fresh fruit at hand to eat soon after. This may provide some slight alleviation to the furnace that you are about to unleash.
Prik Chi Fa is the larger the most common Capsicum; a native of Northern America and known widely as the Chilli Spur Pepper, it is probably the most used in the world and is added to Thai stir-fry food as a vegetable rather than for its spicy characteristics. Prik Yuak is a larger and milder chilli still: they are large, pale-green peppers that are used in soups and curries or superbly served stuffed with minced pork or chicken and deep fried. Their texture and appearance has given them the name, Wax Pepper.
Last but by no means least is the ubiquitous Krathiam: Loved by everyone, used in cookery for several thousand years but not so popular when it is smelled on other people, especially by the famously fabled Vampires.