The cuisine is divided into 5 different regions of Thailand; Bangkok, Central Thai, Isan or Northeastern Thai, Northern Thai, and Southern Thai. The cuisine and its traditions had influenced by its neighbour countries, for sure and affected by its geographical location. For example, coconut milk and fresh turmeric are used generously in Thai cuisine, as well as Indian, Malaysian, and Indonesian cuisines. Lots of popular Thai dishes were derived from Chinese cuisine between 15 and 18th centuries with the migration of Hokkien and Teochew people. Cooking techniques such as deep-frying, stir-frying, and the usage of wok had been accepted during those years. Also, ingredients like tofu, soy sauce, some noodle types, and fermented bean paste were also introduced to Thai cuisine. Other than these, the most popular ingredient that influenced by the West (America) is chilli pepper. Tomato, papaya, corn, eggplant, pineapple, pumpkin, cashew, peanuts, and some other ingredients were brought to Thailand during the Columbian Exchange by Portuguese and Spanish people. By these influences and new products, Thai cuisine had created its own unique style at the end.
Traditionally, food was eaten by hand in Thai food culture. But now, most of the population prefer to eat with fork and spoon, but not a knife (except the ethnic Thai people). The fork is used for pushing and the spoon is used for bringing the food into the mouth. Chopsticks are generally used when having Chinese noodle soups.
A typical Thai meal has at least 5 elements; 1. A dip or relish for vegetables (khrueang chim), 2. A clear soup, 3. A curry or stew, 4. A deep-fried dish made from meat, fish, seafood or vegetables, 5. A stir-fried dish made from meat, fish, seafood or vegetables. Unlike some other cuisines, all dishes are served together, even the soup. Also, some of these dishes are for sharing, and some of them not.
It is important to mention that Thai cuisine could be one of the healthiest one among other cuisines. The flavours of Thai foods are coming from garlic, galangal, coriander, lemongrass, shallots, kaffir lime leaves, pepper, fish sauce, shrimp paste, palm sugar, and chillies. It is also known that herbs and spices are mostly used fresh, rather than dried. Commonly used meat products are pork, chicken, beef, duck, and water buffalo. Also, fish and some other seafood products have an important role in Thai food culture.
Rice (which is called Khao) is known as the staple product of Thai cuisine, like other Asian cuisines. Believe it or not, more than a thousand types of rice have been used until today. Mostly used jasmine type of rice is non-glutinous, and when cooked or steamed, it is called khao suai (beautiful rice). Sticky rice, Thai Red Cargo rice, and black sticky rice are other examples of commonly used rice types in Thailand.
What about noodles? Yes, they are also commonly used like rice in this specific kitchen. They are usually made from rice flour, wheat flour mung bean flour. Rice noodles which are adapted from Chinese cuisine can be wide flat noodles (sen yai), thin flat rice noodles (sen lek), and round & thin noodles (sen mi). Stir-fried noodles and noodle soups are generally served for each individual separately, and not shared.
The fish sauce (which is also called nam pla) could be the second staple ingredient of Thai cuisine. It is very aromatic and made from fermented fish. Of course, there are many variations depends on the preparation. For example, one could be fermented with shrimp and spices, while another one might have fish pieces in it. Another sauce that is commonly used is the shrimp paste. It is literally the mixture of ground shrimp and salt. This paste is one of the ingredients of nam phrik kapi (chili paste). It is used in rice dishes and famous Thai curry pastes. The third commonly used sauce is definitely the soy sauce which is originated from China. Black soy sauce, light soy sauce, sweet soy sauce, fermented whole soybeans (sauce), and oyster sauce are mostly used in stir-fried vegetables and meat products.
Vegetables, herbs, and spices also have a major role in the Thai kitchen. Except for all these, mostly used ingredients are;
Herbs & spices: Thai lime, Thai basil, coriander, spearmint, holy basil, ginger, turmeric, fingerroot, cilantro, Thai lemon basil, curry powder, peppercorns.
Leaves: Kaffir lime leaves, banana leaves, cha-om (leaves of Acacia pennata tree), banana flowers, neem tree leaves, Phak lueat (leaves of ficus virens), bai makok (leaves of Spondias mombin)
Chillies: Garden mouse-dropping chilli (hottest one), mouse-dropping chilli (second hottest), sky pointing chilli (less spicy), phrik yuak (least spicy), and phrik haeng (dried )
Oils: Coconut oil, palm oil, soybean oil, peanut oil
Vegetables: Eggplant, khana (instead of broccoli), yardlong beans, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, tomatoes, cucumbers, Chinese kale, Chinese cabbage, choy sum, sweet potatoes, squash, sato, winged beans, mushrooms, shiitake, white jelly fungus, and corn.
Fruits: Coconut, papaya, jackfruit, mango, langsat, pineapple, durian, Burmese grapes, pomelo, strawberries, apples, pears, and, peaches.
Unlike other cuisines, fruits do not usually be consumed as plain, but generally served with spicy dips, salads, soups, Thai curries, and Thai chilli pastes.
With all these fresh and nutritional food products, it is not overwhelming to apply a healthy diet in Thai cuisine. Since most of the dishes are easy to cook, it can be easily adapted for a healthy diet. The dealing part is only mixing and combining the ingredients. Pad Thai, the most famous and popular Thai dish, should be avoided or replaced with, in a healthy diet. It contains healthy ingredients as well but in the end, it is a stir-fried noodle dish. The main ingredients of this dish are noodles, eggs, fish sauce, palm sugar, garlic, shallots, and meat products like shrimp, crab or chicken. If you are vegetarian, you can always replace the meat with tofu. It still tastes delicious. It also may have vegetables like bean sprouts, radish or turnips, and usually served with red chilli peppers, lime, and roasted peanuts.
Being a vegetarian or gluten-free person in Thailand
Unfortunately, it is not easy. However, there is a Vegetarian Festival which takes place every year in Thailand. During this time, most restaurants and food stalls are prepared to serve vegetarian Thai foods as well.
Except for this period, if you are a vegetarian, the most suitable and easy way to find vegetarian food is by following the yellow vegetarian sign. If a restaurant or any other food providing place also serves vegetarian options, they are recognized with this sign.
When planning to dine outside and not at home, be careful of the sauces of dishes. Most of them might include fish sauce, oyster sauce, and shrimp paste. So it is better to ask to be on the safe side. Some popular and preferred vegetarian dishes are spring rolls, fried rice (coconut, pineapple or basil based), grilled vegetables like eggplant, vegan pad Thai, tofu noodle soup, and yellow curry.
If you are eating gluten-free, it is not hard to find foods as vegetarians. Many alternatives are available such as chicken pad Thai, coconut brown rice, chicken satay, shrimp lettuce wraps, and many more. Except for the main dishes, snacks and desserts have many varieties for gluten-free people.
Balancing them all
Since Thai cuisine combines all flavours of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy, it offers the perfect combination and that is what makes this cuisine unique and different from others. Although it needs some skills and practice. So if you are cooking for the first time and not satisfied, be sure that you will do better on the next.
Must-have Thai dishes
Other than pad Thai, there are several dishes that should be tried;
1. Massaman curry: This meat-based curry dish can be made with chicken, beef, duck or tofu. It is cooked with coconut milk, palm sugar, and fish sauce along with other ingredients like onions, potatoes, nuts, bay leaves, cinnamon, and chillies. Also, rice may be offered as a side dish.
2. Tom yum goong: Typical hot and sour soup. It is cooked with prawn but can be replaced with beef, chicken or pork. Some herbs and spices are added to its broth to enrich the taste. Fish sauce, red chilli peppers, lime juice, lemon grass, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves are the staple and rest of the ingredients for this particular soup.
3. Pad see ew: The key ingredient of this dish is stir-fried rice noodles. It is cooked in dark soy sauce. It is only cooked with some broccoli, eggs, and garlic. Variations can be found that are cooked with chicken, shrimp or pork.