An Introduction to Thai Food

An Introduction to Thai Food

While most people think of Thai food as being fairly uniform, it’s actually anything but. Due to a number of factors like weather and culture, different regions of Thailand actually have distinct types of food!

There are four main regions, and we’re going to talk about them all here to help you better understand the culinary diversity of Thailand.

Northern Thailand

The food in this region is the product of a wonderfully diverse melting pot of a number of different cultures and ethnicities. For example, there are the Lao, Burmese, and Shan peoples in this portion of the country, along with native tribes such as the Hmong and Karen.

The climate of this region is fairly cool, and food has always been abundant throughout history. The food is generally defined as being the least spicy of all the regions and using a large number of dried spices. This may come as a surprise, as Thai food is generally considered to use fresh spices more predominantly.

The rice in this region is typically served sticky, which is a wonderful way to serve the side dish – filling and easy to make.

Finally, the region’s overall flavor profile is defined by the general bitterness of the food. This bitterness is a lovely taste, if an acquired one, and comes from a number of leaves, shoots, and spices. Fresh turmeric also appears alongside these spices, meaning that traditional northern dishes are warming and bitter, rather than sharp and spicy.

Key Dish: Khao Soi

Khao soi is a deliciously creamy coconut curry noodle soup – it is inspired by Burmese food, and typically is available with chicken, beef, pork, or vegetables.

This flavor-packed meal is a true testament to potent cooking – the coconut curry base is complemented with both boiled and deep-fried noodles, as well as pickled mustard greens, shallots, lime, and ground chilies fried in oil. All these ingredients come together to form a wonderful dish that has a lot of punch and strength behind the creaminess that you get first.

Northeastern Thailand

Northeastern Thailand has, until relatively recently, been a fairly isolated section of the country. There are a number of mountains separating it from the rest of Thailand, which means that a lot of food from this region takes inspiration from neighboring Laos and Cambodia.

Poverty has been a large part of the lives of the people in this region for many years, which means that the food is often made to be extremely potent in small quantities. For example, a meal may consist of a large serving of sticky rice with a relatively small serving of pungently fishy and spicy curry. This powerfully flavored curry flavors the rice, leading to a larger meal ideal for filling bellies.

The fundamental seasoning of the region is utterly unique: plaa raa, which is a thick, rich, unfiltered paste of fermented fish. This paste has a very strong taste, which means that only a small amount must be used to season a large portion of food. This is the same philosophy with which dried red chilies are used in this cuisine: a little goes a long way. The food is very spicy and very fishy, making it sure to be an acquired taste.

Key Dish: Laab

Laab is a type of minced meat salad that is adored around the work. Typically, the plate comprises ground or finely diced pork which has been tossed with mint leaves, scallions, lime juice, dried red chili, and ground toasted rice. All together, the dish is really colorful and extremely flavorful – it is adored the world over!

Some variations of laab include chicken, liver, and fish – though vegetarians might prefer a version made with minced tofu or mushrooms. Some particularly adventurous cooks make a version with raw meat and a little blood, but those aren’t for the faint of heart.

The flavor, overall, is very salty and smoky due to the fish sauce and chili peppers. This means that the herby delights are accentuated by being near to a wonderfully intense base. The mint really helps to tie together the bold flavors and the bright, leading to an altogether wonderful dish.

Central Thailand

The main thing that defines the cuisine of central Thailand is the fertility of the soil relative to the other regions. There is a wonderful amount of fruit like tamarind and coconut available, plus it’s near to the Gulf of Thailand, meaning that fresh seafood takes a front seat. Fish, shrimp, crabs, and mollusks are a fundamental part of the cuisine here, leading to a wonderful breadth of taste.

This region is also one that includes the country’s capital, Bangkok. This means that the region boasts a lot of incoming money and tourists, leading to people adding their own tastes and favorite spices to the mix. Over time, this has created a beautifully diverse cuisine.

While the food here is spicy due to the use of fresh chilies, it is nowhere near as intense as Southern or Northeastern food. The medium levels of spice are complemented by sweetness from white and palm sugars, as well as incredible tardiness from regional vinegar and fruits. The fruits which make up a lot of the cuisine in this region are lime and tamarind, both of which are adored for their sharpness and powerful flavor.

Due to its proximity to the Gulf of Thailand, this region’s seafood makes up a prominent amount of its culture. For example, saltiness from shrimp paste and fish sauce is a defining taste of the region. On top of this, beautifully fresh fish makes up the majority of the protein eaten in this area.

Coconuts are something that many people think of when picturing Thai food, and while the South has the monopoly, coconut cream can be found in central Thailand. It is used to add overall richness to a dish, which helps to balance out the spice and acidity of some other critical ingredients.

Key Dish: Tom Kha Gai

You’re probably familiar with Tom Yum soup – it’s a commonly loved dish in a number of places that have a number of great Thai restaurants. Tom Kha Gai is a tamer sibling of Tom Yum soup, and it combines fiery, hot chilies, crushed shallots, galangal, lemongrass, chicken, and mushrooms. This all combines to form a delightfully rich and exciting broth that’s very easy to get into, and extremely easy to fall in love with.

These potent flavors are counterpointed by the creaminess of the coconut milk in which the ingredients sit. This addition really helps to tame the overall spiciness of the dish, and the addition of sharp lime juice and palm sugar help to bring the whole dish to a tasty equilibrium.

Southern Thailand

This is the cuisine that most non-Thai people picture when they imagine Thai food that they have previously eaten – both exceptionally spicy and quite creamy thanks to the virtue of coconuts.

The region has a large Muslim population and a lot of coastline. Together with the tropical temperature and deeply fertile soil, you get cuisine that eats barely any red meat whatsoever, instead favoring fish where possible. When people of Southern Thailand do eat red meat, it is typically goat and mutton.

The cuisine (outside of protein) is defined by coconut and fruits, which bring both creaminess and heat to the food. The heat is typically bought to the table by dried bird chilies, which are also known as Thai chilies. Plenty of warming spices accompany these hot chilies, such as fresh turmeric, cumin, and cloves. This means that superbly cooked Thai food strikes the perfect balance between warm and hot – allowing people a taste sensation that is utterly unique!

The salty, funky quality of the food is defined by dried shrimp, shrimp paste, and fermented fish sauce – these come together to create a deeply powerful base for food, which is elevated by the sharpness of sour fruit like pineapple and tamarind. The best chefs from Southern Thailand know just how to strike the perfect balance between those two extremes.

Finally, the creaminess of a lot of Thai curries originates from this area of the country – coconuts grow impeccably well, which means that nearly every recipe from this region makes use of coconut milk and coconut cream.

Key Dish: Gaeng Som Pla

This amazing dish is an utter taste sensation, meaning that when the flavor is compared to traditional Western food, it’s more of a breath of fresh air, like a culinary wake-up call!

The taste of the soup can best be described as orange juice which has been set on fire. That makes it sound a little strange, but we assure you that we’re saying that with the utmost kindness!

In Thai, the name means ‘sour curry’, though the soup itself is more than just sour. It has a fish base that is combined with Thai curry paste and turmeric – this results in a soup with a vibrant yellow color that goes with the sharp flavor wonderfully.

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