Five fundamental tastes are identified in Thai cuisine – spiciness, sourness, bitterness, saltiness and sweetness – and diners aim to share a variety of dishes that impart a balance of these flavours, along with complementary textures. Lemon grass, basil, coriander, galangal, chilli, garlic, lime juice, coconut milk and fermented fish sauce are just some of the distinctive components that bring these tastes to life. A detailed food and drink glossary can be found at the end of “Contexts”.
Curries and soups
Thai curries (kaeng) have a variety of curry pastes as their foundation: elaborate blends of herbs, spices, garlic, shallots and chilli peppers ground together with pestle and mortar. The use of some of these spices, as well as coconut cream, was imported from India long ago; curries that don’t use coconut cream are naturally less sweet and thinner, with the consistency of soups. While some curries, such as kaeng karii (mild and yellow) and kaeng matsaman (“Muslim curry”, with potatoes, peanuts and usually beef), still show their roots, others have been adapted into quintessentially Thai dishes, notably kaeng khiaw wan (sweet and green), kaeng phet (red and hot) and kaeng phanaeng (thick and savoury, with peanuts). Kaeng som generally contains fish and takes its distinctive sourness from the addition of tamarind or, in the northeast, okra leaves. Traditionally eaten during the cool season, kaeng liang uses up bland vegetables, but is made aromatic with hot peppercorns.
Eaten simultaneously with other dishes, not as a starter, Thai soups often have the tang of lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves and galangal, and are sometimes made extremely spicy with chillies. Two favourites are tom kha kai, a creamy coconut chicken soup; and tom yam kung, a hot and sour prawn soup without coconut milk. Khao tom, a starchy rice soup that’s generally eaten for breakfast, meets the approval of few Westerners, except as a traditional hangover cure.
One of the lesser-known delights of Thai cuisine is the yam or salad, which imparts most of the fundamental flavours in an unusual and refreshing harmony. Yam come in many permutations – with noodles, meat, seafood or vegetables – but at the heart of every variety is a liberal squirt of lime juice and a fiery sprinkling of chillies. Salads to look out for include yam som oh (pomelo), yam hua plee (banana flowers) and yam plaa duk foo(fluffy deep-fried catfish).
Noodle and rice dishes
Sold on street stalls everywhere, noodles come in assorted varieties – including kway tiaw (made with rice flour) and ba mii (egg noodles) – and get boiled up as soups (nam), doused in gravy (rat na) or stir-fried (haeng, “dry”, or phat, “fried”). Most famous of all is phat thai (“Thai fry-up”), a delicious combination of noodles (usually kway tiaw), egg, tofu and spring onions, sprinkled with ground peanuts and lime, and often spiked with tiny dried shrimps. Other faithful standbys include fried rice (khao phat) and cheap, one-dish meals served on a bed of steamed rice, notably khao kaeng (with curry).
Many of the specialities of northern Thailand originated in Burma, including khao soi, featuring both boiled and crispy egg noodles plus beef, chicken or pork in a curried coconut soup; and kaeng hang lay, a pork curry with ginger, turmeric and tamarind. Also look out for spicy dipping sauces such as nam phrik ong, made with minced pork, roast tomatoes and lemon grass, and served with crisp cucumber slices.
The crop most suited to the infertile lands of Isaan is sticky rice (khao niaw), which replaces the standard grain as the staple for northeasterners. Served in a rattan basket, it’s usually eaten with the fingers, rolled up into small balls and dipped into chilli sauces. It’s perfect with such spicy local delicacies as som tam, a green-papaya salad with raw chillies, green beans, tomatoes, peanuts and dried shrimps (or fresh crab). Although you’ll find basted barbecued chicken on a stick (kai yaang) all over Thailand, it originated in Isaan and is especially tasty in its home region. Raw minced pork, beef or chicken is the basis of another popular Isaan and northern dish, laap, a salad that’s subtly flavoured with mint and lime. A similar northeastern salad is nam tok, featuring grilled beef or pork and roasted rice powder, which takes its name, “waterfall”, from its refreshing blend of complex tastes.
Aside from putting a greater emphasis on seafood, southern Thai cuisine displays a marked Malaysian and Muslim aspect as you near the border, notably in khao mok kai, the local version of a biryani: chicken and rice cooked with turmeric and other Indian spices, and served with chicken soup. Southern markets often serve khao yam for breakfast or lunch, a delicious salad of dried cooked rice, dried shrimp and grated coconut served with a sweet sauce. You’ll also find many types of roti, a flatbread sold from pushcart griddles and, in its plain form, rolled with condensed milk. Other versions include savoury mataba, with minced chicken or beef, and roti kaeng, served with curry sauce for breakfast. A huge variety of curries are also dished up in the south, many substituting shrimp paste for fish sauce. Two of the most distinctive are kaeng luang, “yellow curry”, featuring fish, turmeric, pineapple, squash, beans and green papaya; and kaeng tai plaa, a powerful combination of fish stomach with potatoes, beans, pickled bamboo shoots and turmeric.
Desserts (khanom) don’t really figure on most restaurant menus, but a few places offer bowls of luk taan cheum, a jellied concoction of lotus or palm seeds floating in a syrup scented with jasmine or other aromatic flowers. Coconut milk is a feature of most other desserts, notably delicious coconut ice cream, khao niaw mamuang (sticky rice with mango), and a royal Thai cuisine special of coconut custard (sangkhayaa) cooked inside a small pumpkin, whose flesh you can also eat.