At this point in time, I believe there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Thai cuisine is one of the most well-known in the world. No matter where I go in the world, the first thing people tell me as soon as they find out I’m from Thailand is this: “I love Thai food!” But what is it that makes Thai cuisine stand out so much? What makes the taste so memorable to everyone?
Because I am your go-to cultural nerd, and also because it’s my home country’s food… In this post, I will attempt to explain to you all about Thai cuisine including the key ingredients and regional characteristics. The only warning I have for you is please, do not read this blog post after 10 PM. That would be a bad idea.
So, my fellow slow travel tribe (Come on. If you wanted to learn all the details of a culture, you ARE one.), have fun reading, and have fun learning!
Before we dive into regional technicalities, let’s look at the most basic information about Thai food.
The main and most important ingredient in Thai cuisine is RICE. There are three different types used depending on the region, but it’s very unlikely you’ll run into a Thai dish without rice.
First, the world-famous and aromatic Jasmine Rice is common in Central and Southern region dishes.
Plain sticky rice is the second type, common in Northern and Northeastern region dishes.
The last type is sweet sticky rice, which is basically sticky rice steamed with coconut milk. It is only used in dessert recipes. I know what you’re thinking… Mango and Sticky Rice… Hmmm…
There are 7 ways to prepare Thai food, distinctly separated by whether it was of Thai origin, or came along with the flood of Chinese immigrants in the 19th century.
- Tom (Boiled) is your good old soup. You bring the water to a boil, then throw in your ingredients.
- Yum (Mixed) is our version of a salad. Whether or not the ingredients are eaten raw or cooked, you mix them up in a bowl. When Thai people think of the word Yum (no puns intended, but it is yummy…), we tend to think of our basic spicy salad with fish sauce, lime juice, and red chilis. The balance of tastes in this dish is no joke.
- Tum (Pounded) is literally putting ingredients in a stone mortar and pounding them with a pestle. Considering this is how Papaya Salads are made, it should have been called “Pounded Papaya.” But hey, whatever works.
- Gaeng is a word that has no translation to English, and it is often confused with “Tom” even among Thais. It is bringing water to a boil and throwing ingredients in. However, what separates this method from “Tom” is that it involves pounding herbs into a paste BEFORE seasoning the soup itself with that paste. So, if you see a Thai soup with a colored or spicy base, it’s very likely a Gaeng and not a Tom.
FROM CHINESE INFLUENCES
The following methods are probably more familiar to most people.
- Tod means deep-fried. You see it with spring rolls and meatballs.
- Pad means stir-fried, like the world-famous Pad Thai!
- Neung means steamed. Despite the method coming from Chinese influences, steaming has earned its place in Thai cuisine. There are a lot of extremely Thai-tasting dishes that are prepared by steaming nowadays. Steamed squid in the spicy yum sauce is one of my all-time favorites.
The Key to the Taste
How do you tell if a Thai dish is well-made?
This may not apply to EVERY Thai dish, but it’s a good litmus test for most traditional menus prepared by Yum, Tum, and Gaeng. It needs to sit at the perfect balance point between sweet, salty, and sour.
The spiciness is the cherry on top, but it’s not one of the base flavors of Thai cuisine. But if you’re tasting a Yum, Tum, or Gaeng dish and it’s a perfect blend of these basic 3 flavors, with none of the 3 jabbing out at your taste bud, it’s a well-made Thai dish.
This also renders most Thai restaurants in America at a disadvantage… because most Americanized Thai dishes are so sweet they could have been desserts. Sorry, not sorry.
Thai Cuisine by Region
Here comes the fun part! Thai dishes from each region have their own distinct characteristics and I’ll be breaking them down to the best of my ability. Please note that our two tiniest regions, East and West, are considered part of the Central region, culinarily speaking.
The Central region food, or standard Thai food as the world knows it, has always been the most diverse of all the regions. Because it is home to the current capital city and all the historical ones, most of the foreign traders hung out in this region and brought their influences to the local food over time.
Standard Thai cuisine uses Jasmine rice, plainly cooked and eaten with one or multiple side dishes. A small distinction in the East would be its particular emphasis on seafood, given it’s a coastal region.
- Use of coconut milk in soups: South Asian influences
- Crispy pancakes (Kanom Bueang): Vietnamese influence
- Look Choop (Fruit-shaped mung bean dessert): Portuguese influence
- Thong Yod (Sweet egg drops): Portuguese influence
Royal Meal Influences
Many of the standard Thai dishes are also well-known for their meticulous and ornate presentation. This is influenced by the royal cuisine from inside the palace kitchen. Below are some main characteristics of a royal meal that can be seen in some standard Thai dishes today.
- Use of Jasmine rice
- Perfectly balanced taste
- Ornately carved vegetables and fruits
- All bones removed from the meat
Northern cuisine is characterized by the use of sticky rice and vegetables, fresh or boiled, eaten with a variety of chili pastes. The flavor is soft. The sweetness in northern dishes usually comes from steamed cabbages, fish meat, or other natural sources, but sugar isn’t normally used.
Descendants of the Lanna Kingdom, northerners are distinguishedly more delicate and politer than locals in the other parts of the country. This northern character comes through in the presentation of their dishes, which easily rival the standard royal meals.
The biggest region in the country, the northeastern cuisine is pretty clearly separated into 2 areas, the north-northeast, and the south-northeast.
Regardless of whether it’s southern or northern, the Northeastern cuisine can be characterized by the use of “Pla Ra” or fermented fish sauce and A LOT of herbs. The fermented fish sauce has a very distinct taste and smell which can make it a real hit-or-miss with foreigners. I personally think it’s delicious.
This is the more well-known northeastern food of the two, thanks to dishes like Papaya Salad and Larb that became well-known overseas. It is also safe to say that Northeastern Thai food IS Lao food… Just like how the Northeastern Thai dialect IS pretty much Lao as well, with the exception of some deeper Lao vocabularies that are not used in Thailand. We’re closely-related siblings.
Sticky rice dominates the dishes in the Northern part of this region. Another important ingredient is crushed toasted rice, added to the spicy salad dishes, giving them a distinctly Northeastern aroma.
As we move further south within the Northeastern region, sticky rice gives way to more Jasmine rice, and Khmer influences become more prominent. However, Northern food (considered the standard Northeastern cuisine) is still widely consumed in this area.
If you want to feel like you’re getting stabbed in the mouth by the food on your plate, Southern Thai food is the way to go. The flavors of these dishes are SO SHARP, you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. But don’t get me wrong, they’re delicious!
At first glance, southern food looks just like central region food. Mainly Jasmine rice, cooked and eaten with side dishes. But once you taste them, the spices will hit you like a train.
Both red chilis and white Thai peppers are on most menus, which gives the spiciness a big extra kick. A lot of strong-flavored herbs, like bergamot and lemongrass, are the usual as well. And lastly, coconut milk is NOT a thing in southern cuisine… so while most standard dishes had coconut milk to soften the flavors, that is not the case either with the southern menus. Strong stuff…
So there you have it! All you needed to know about the world’s most beloved cuisine. And now you probably know why… I strongly believe it’s the flavor balance that did it for everyone.
The next time you visit Thailand, or even a Thai restaurant around the corner from your house, try and guess which region the dish you ordered came from!